I recently discovered why Sarajevo is one of the most interesting cities in Europe.
The name Sarajevo is a slavicized word based on saray, the Turkish word for palace (In the slavic language, the “J” is pronounced like a “Y”). Founded in 1461 by the Ottoman Empire, it quickly grew to be the most important Ottoman city after Istanbul. In 1878 Sarajevo was occupied by Austro-Hungary and massive building and infrastructure improvements ensued to result in the unique mix of East and West that is evident today.
The Sebilj is a pseudo-Ottoman-style wooden fountain in the centre of Baščaršija square.
There are replicas of the Sebilj in Belgrade, Serbia and in St. Louis, Missouri. These were gifted by the city of Sarajevo in 1989 and the Bosnian community respectively. Just an interesting side note!
Taslihan was built in 1543 as the Ghazi Husrev-Bey’s caravan inn. It had a fountain, mosque, yard, shops and storage rooms. It was severely damaged in several fires that struck Sarajevo and now only ruins are visible next the Hotel Europe.
You don’t have to be a history nerd like me to appreciate how big this event was; I’m referring to the assassination of Crowned Prince Franz Ferdinand, future ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire happened right here in 1917. Sort of a big deal considering the events that occurred after this led to World War I and I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of that!
In more recent history were the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s. This was the most bloody conflict Europe has seen since WW2. It was complicated, but I will keep it simple. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was caught in the crossfire between Serb and Croat forces, who were basically trying to split the country between them. This culminated in the Siege of Sarajevo. Lasting from 1992 to 1996, the Siege was the longest of a capital city in modern warfare, resulting in 11,000 people killed and 50,000 wounded. The physical and emotional scars from the Siege of Sarajevo will be here for many years. Most people alive in Sarajevo today lost somebody in their family during this time.
This is a “Sarajevo Rose”, where mortar shells created a floral pattern in the concrete. Throughout the city these marks are filled with red resin to memorialize where the mortar explosions caused deaths.
The war has caused them many years of a suffering economy with over 40% unemployment.
Sarajevo was rebuilt and is very safe. The old quarter is beautifully restored and very clean. There are dozens of small restaurants and coffee shops alongside churches and mosques. There are streets with boutiques like any other big city in Europe.
This is “Multicultural Man Builds the World”, a sculpture by Italian artist Francesco Perilli, which sits in Trg Oslobođenje, or Liberation Square
You really have an “East meets West” vibe here and nowhere is this more apparent that Ulica Ferhadija, otherwise known as the street where the meeting of cultures occurs. One side looks like Vienna, full of Baroque style architecture; The other looks like Istanbul. How cool is that?
Wandering through the small winding streets of the old quarter and shopping is a pleasure.
A Han was a roadside inn during Ottoman times. Morica Han and is the only surviving han since 1551. At one time it could accommodate 300 travelers and 70 horses. Now there is a Turkish carpet shop and cafe for coffee here.
The House of Spite or Inat Kuca, was perhaps my favorite story about Sarajevo. The man who lived here had refused to move when the Austro-Hungarian rulers wanted to build the new city hall. Even after they offered to build a brand new bigger house on the opposite side of the river, he refused. Finally, after much negotiation, he agreed on the condition that his house be moved, stone by stone, to the opposite side of the river and look exactly the same. He even refused to have the balcony moved to face the river in his insistence to keep it exactly the same. This is referred to as an example of Bosnian stubbornness. Now the house is a restaurant serving traditional Bosnia food and is a nice place to eat. The terrace of the restaurant ironically faces city hall.
The City Hall that was the cause of all this “Spitefulness” ended up being a gorgeous building that is a wonderful blend of Baroque and Moorish styles. Eventually it became the national library.
The newly renovated national library was purposefully bombed during the Siege, destroying thousands of irreplaceable works of literature.
One of the coolest things about Sarajevo is that in the same few blocks, there is a Catholic Cathedral, a Mosque an Orthodox Church and a Synagogue. Don’t see that everyday! This is why Sarajevo is called the “European Jerusalem”.
I wasn’t able to photograph the synagogue because it is behind large stone walls but it is the 3rd largest in Europe!
Sarajevo has had more than it’s share of pain and conflict, but the beauty of the city and the wonderful spirit of the people definitely overshadow the sad past.
Hotel Saraj on the hill and further up, the Yellow Fort from which there is a great vantage point to view the city
I strongly encourage you to visit Sarajevo, and Bosnia in general. The people are warm and welcoming, the food is delicious and inexpensive, and the history and culture here is fascinating, all set in gorgeous surroundings. Definitely one of the most under-rated places I’ve visited and I’m sure the secret will be out soon!
Read More: Why Bosnia is Europe’s Best Kept Secret