A Few Steps From Europe To The Orient – Collision Course:  Sarajevo Between East & West

The dividing line between east and west in Europe is entirely subjective and over the centuries has been subject to change. In the first half of the 19th century the Austrian Foreign Minister, Prince Clemens Von Metternich stated that Asia begins at the Landstrasse, the road that led south and east out of Vienna to Hungary. In other words, Hungary was part of the Orient. During the Cold War, the dividing line was partitioned by an iron curtain that separated capitalism from communism, multi-party democracy from the dictatorship of one party rule. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall that boundary has moved further east, to the border running between EU and non-EU members. Some prefer to mark eastern from western Europe by religion. Cross the border from Hungary into Ukraine, Poland into Belarus and church steeples suddenly transform into onion domes. Catholicism and Protestantism give way to Eastern Orthodoxy, rules based religion to mysterious mysticism, Rome becomes Byzantium.

Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos

Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos
(Credit: Wikipedia)

A Precarious Coexistence- Empire & Ethnicity Collide
So where does East meet West in Europe? All of the above might be the best answer. In my experience though, there is no place where East meets West in such startling fashion as the heart of Sarajevo. Here the transition and transformation can be experienced on a human scale. One can walk from Europe into the Orient in a matter of minutes. This has much to do with the currents of geo-politics and geography. Yet in Sarajevo it is also noticeable at a real street level. Europe suddenly becomes interwoven with Asia. In the transition between the new and old town in Sarajevo I felt the beating heart of the Balkans, a deeply rooted multiculturalism with almost an unfathomable ethnic diversity. Here was to be found the deep roots of Ottoman influence in Europe, Austro-Hungarians dipping their toes into the near east, Serbs overreaching their way west, Croats with a marginally effective presence, the Sephardic Jews still making their presence felt even in absence and Bosniaks predominate, despite a precarious existence. Here was the place where empire and ethnicity collided, causing the creation of a sublime atmosphere only to be found in Sarajevo.

It took me only half an hour walking around the heart of Sarajevo to sense the depth of diversity that has been the city’s hallmark for centuries. A short walk took me past Catholic and Orthodox Cathedrals, the city’s oldest synagogue and its most glorious mosque. In my experience there is nowhere else in Europe where the architecture of differing belief systems stands in such close proximity to one other. These houses of worship not only represent religions, but are also symbolic of the different ethnic groups that have made the city their home. Sarajevo should be known as much for this plurality of peoples and faiths, as it is for the horrors of 20th century warfare that have irreparably altered its reputation. The heart of Sarajevo is a tale of tolerance sculpted in stone and professed in distinct dialects. Along a handful of streets, eastern and western ideals of Europe, religion and culture are arranged astride one another.

Inside the old Sarajevo Synagogue which is now the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina

Inside the old Sarajevo Synagogue which is now the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina

A Darker Testament – Religious Epiphanies In Sarajevo
This fascinating walk can best be done by starting at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos along Branilaca Sarajeva. This Cathedral was the first church in Sarajevo to rival the Muslim monopoly on monumental sacral structures. At the time of its construction in the mid-19th century, Sarajevo was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly enough, the imperial Sultan Abdulaziz symbolically contributed funding for its construction. The Cathedral’s main benefactors were wealthy Serbian merchants in the city. Laid out on a cross-shaped plan, the three-section basilica contains five domes, with the central dome much larger than the others. Though the Sultan supported its construction, the Cathedral caused great consternation among the Muslim population of the city since its tower was higher than any minaret found in Sarajevo at the time. The cathedral’s dedication was delayed for over a year due to protests and the threat of violence from conservative Muslims. The furor subsided after the minaret at Gazi Husrrev-beg Mosque was raised by a few feet to surpass it.

From the Cathedral Church of the Nativity walk about 50 feet down Zelenih Beretki and take Strossmayerova to the north. This runs right into the neo-Gothic styled Sacred Heart Cathedral of Sarajevo. It is the largest cathedral in Bosnia-Herzegovina and plays an important role as the main center of worship for Catholics (mainly ethnic Croatians) in the city. The cathedral also acts as a symbol of Sarajevo, with its Romanesque towers appearing on the city’s coat of arms. Its size made it an inviting target during the Siege of Sarajevo. Despite sustaining major damage, the cathedral has now been repaired.

Turning to the east down Ferhadije, follow the street for a couple of minutes until it turns to the north and goes to the Museum of the Jews of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The museum is housed in the oldest synagogue in Sarajevo. It was built in 1581, fifteen years after the first Jews arrived in the city. These were Sephardic Jews who had fled persecution in Spain. The rustic multi-story building testifies to the enduring Jewish presence. Inside there is a much darker testament, the Book of the Dead, which lists over 14,000 Jewish citizens of Sarajevo wiped out by the Holocaust.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque in Sarajevo (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

An Eastern State Of Mind – The Orient In Europe
Backtrack down Ferhadija and turn left. The street name suddenly changes to Saraci up until the point at which it bisects Mula Mustafe Baseskije. After turning right, in a couple of hundred feet the soaring minaret and multi-domed Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque comes into view.  To see the mosque illuminated at night is a fantastic experience. It is also a reminder that this was the first mosque in the world to be illuminated with electricity. The mosque is an excellent example of classical Ottoman architecture. Located at the heart of Sarajevo’s Bascarsija (Old Town), within minutes of seeing the mosque, I forgot that I was in Europe or even the Balkans. It was as though I had walked into the near East, treading on Ottoman ground. The Oriental exoticism on display became all consuming. Here, the West only existed as a distant memory, just as the East minutes before had been all but unimaginable. The transition from one culture to the next was seamless. That magical architecture of spirituality spread across a few streets in the heart of Sarajevo had taken hold of me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s