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.

The War Still Being Fought – Preservation Of Dissension: The National Museum Of Bosnia & Herzegovina (Travels In Eastern Europe #23)

There were places I visited in Sarajevo because I wanted to and there were places I visited because I felt like I had to. The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the latter. I have spent a large part of my career working in museums, including now. The idea of visiting something that reminds me of work while I am on vacation in Eastern Europe feels me with dread. I always recoil at such a thought for the same reasons. There will be an overwhelming number of things to see and read, then after an hour my legs and back will begin to ache, this will be followed by a test of intellectual endurance, as I grow weary of words and pictures and artifacts. The visit will come to an abrupt end, mainly because my eyes are glassy and mind numb from trying to take it all in. Museum fatigue is what I feel at the beginning of a visit these days, rather than at the end.

This feeling weighted me down as I walked towards the entrance of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a late spring morning in Sarajevo. On the grounds leading to the entrance were medieval tombstones, an ominously intriguing reminder that the history of Sarajevo was much older than its famously fraught 20th century. Yet the 20th century was never far away, as the gloriously Italian Renaissance revival style museum building, erected at the tail end of the Austro-Hungarian era, so conspicuously showed. When I entered the museum though, it was the very recent past that confronted me. Here was a place that had aged, not because of time, but due to war. Its most prominent characteristic was neglect.

Medieval tombstones around National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Medieval tombstones around National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Credit: BiHVolim)

Agreeing To Disagree – Bosnia’s Past As Its Present
I soon discovered that The Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have any world class exhibits. It does hold some priceless cultural artifacts, but there was little funding to care for them. As a matter of fact, lack of money was the main reason the place had fallen into a state of disrepair. The federal government was not forthcoming with operational funding. The main reason was that each ethnic groups representative entities, whether Bosnian Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (Muslims) wanted their own cultural institutions. Each of them was opposed to a multi-cultural interpretation of Bosnia’s past. This was a harsh commentary on the often contentious ethnic relations at the federal level of government. The upshot was that by the time I visited the museum it was deteriorating badly.

From what I experienced the museum would be deemed by most visitors an abject failure. Paradoxically, that was exactly why, for me, it succeeded. The fact that it was cold, many of the rooms dimly lit and the exhibits falling apart spoke volumes about what the country had suffered since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Not long after my visit, the museum would close for three years. I would later discover that the staff was not paid for over a year before the closure, yet somehow the museum stayed open. They proved that dedication, pride in the museum’s mission and a sense of duty could overcome a lack of funding, but only for so long. To compound matters, there was dissension about what should be presented.

Life during wartime in Sarajevo

Life during wartime in Sarajevo

Besieged Sarajevo – Surviving The War, Losing The Peace
The most arresting of the exhibits was one that dealt with the Siege of Sarajevo. This seemed only right, since it was the war and even more so its aftermath that had brought the museum to a point of extreme degradation. There were some artifacts from the siege, but it was a series of photos that spoke volumes. A woman in dark sunglasses rode a bicycle past a bullet pocked Volkswagen Bug, a small child with two black eyes and a bandage covering most of his head held a flower in his hand, the remains of a skeletal petrol pump at an utterly ruined gas station. One photo framed the essence of destruction picture perfectly. The photo was taken through a twisted, contorted metal vehicle door. Where the window glass should have been was the concrete skeleton of a ruined building. Another showed a wing of the National Museum during the war as little more than a series of shattered windows. Surreal and sublime, these images were snapshots of the Siege of Sarajevo.

The exhibit was done with little money, but a surfeit of emotion. The siege was a deeply personal trauma for everyone involved. Later I would learn just how personal for the museum staff. The museum’s director, Dr. Rizo Sijari, was killed during the siege by a grenade blast while covering holes in the building caused by artillery fire with protective sheeting. He was the most notable, but certainly not the only staff member who gave his life quite literally in the service of preserving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national heritage. Centuries of cultural history were now threatened by narrow political interests and intractable ethnic tensions. The irony was that the museum had survived two World Wars and one of the longest sieges in military history, remaining open for most of that time, but it was on the verge of not surviving an uneasy peace.

I can't stop thinking of my friend...

I can’t stop thinking of my friend…

The Incalculable Loss – A Museum Of Memories
The exhibit ended with the “Book of Impressions – Exhibition – Besieged Sarajevo”. This allowed visitors to record their impressions of the exhibit. Some of these were deeply personal, such as the one that stated “I can’t stop thinking of my friend that left Sarajevo when she was a kid and could never get her city back.” Sarajevo still stood, but the city would never be the same, neither would the people. The personal traumas they experienced had scarred them for life. All the reconstruction and reconciliation could never bring the city or its citizens back to the peace they knew before the war. Their losses were incalculable. This exhibit communicated to me a little bit of what they had experienced. Unfortunately it was on the verge of being lost as well. A year after my visit the museum would close. “Besieged Sarajevo” was another casualty in a war that was still being fought.

From 2012 to 2015 the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina was closed

From 2012 to 2015 the National Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina was closed (Credit: Watalicom)

Visiting Sarajevo – Shattered Impressions: Thirty Years & Thousands Of Miles Away (Travels In Eastern Europe #21)

Just as Bucharest has become associated with the monstrous architectural excesses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, my next destination, Sarajevo will always be associated with two tragic events that the city can never quite escape, the Assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand which sparked World War I and the 1,425 day siege of the city by Serbian forces during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s. The name Sarajevo evokes memories of these two events. One was the precursor to modern warfare, the other indicative of its ultimate extreme. These events will always have their place in history and give the city an unjustified reputation for infamy, as if it was fated to be the place where these events would occur. In other words, there must be something about Sarajevo. I must admit that I was not immune to such thinking. It was part of what drew me to plan my first trip to Eastern Europe and the Balkans around visiting the city.

I had originally planned to take a train through Bulgaria and Serbia to Bosnia, but after deciding to visit Bucharest it was easier for me to fly into Sarajevo. This was not the optimum way to ease into the Balkans. There would be no gradual change of scenery or prolonged crossing of borders, the transition would be abrupt. It was almost as if I was being parachuted into the city. Before parting ways with my travel companion, Tim, he had mentioned visiting the city. He called it “fascinating” and said it was well worth a multi-day visit. As the plane prepared for landing on the outskirts of the city, at an airport that had been central to the nearly four year siege, I wondered what to expect. I doubted it would be anything like my first encounter with the city, thirty years before and thousands of miles away.

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo

Opening Ceremony for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo (Credit: BiHVolim)

The Winter Games – Sarajevo Shines In The Spotlight
It was the winter of 1984, Cold War tensions ran high and the Soviet Union was viewed as a monolithic Evil Empire. At least that is what we thought or were taught in the United States. The Olympic Games were more than a sporting competition. They were also a contest in the struggle for ideological supremacy. Posing the question of which system was better at developing athletes. A state controlled, centrally planned system or one inspired by the free market? The first communist nation to hold a Winter Olympics would be Yugoslavia with Sarajevo as the host city. Yugoslavia was an outlier, not part of either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, a communist nation with elements of the free market. The Yugoslavs hoped the Winter Olympics would boost their reputation with Sarajevo acting as the showpiece. The Yugoslav government spent $135 million in preparing for the games, an unheard of sum for a mid-sized country.

As a teenager in North Carolina and fanatical sports fan I eagerly followed those Winter Olympics. My most enduring memory is of snow, lots of snow, huge fluffy flakes falling on Sarajevo for days on end. Each day I tuned in, there would be legendary ABC Sports host, Jim McKay, standing amid a snowstorm, telling an American audience that Sarajevo was experiencing blizzard conditions. The downhill skiing event was canceled no less than three times due to heavy snow and high winds. I wondered if the event would ever be run. When it finally was, American Bill Johnson would be the surprise winner. I remember everything on the race course covered under a thick blanket of snow. For me, Sarajevo became the place of eternal snow, where it was forever winter. It was a powerful image that I struggled to shake less than a decade later, when the city came under siege.

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo

A burning government building during the Siege of Sarajevo (Credit: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Siege Mentality –  A Ruined Image
The siege of Sarajevo brought images of a war torn city where people ran for their lives every time they crossed the street. There was no snow, only burning buildings gutted by artillery fire. Bullets, shrapnel and fear were pervasive. The siege seemed to be never ending, to the point that it became almost an afterthought. Bosnia became a synonym for ethnic conflict and Sarajevo a byword for death and destruction. Was this really the place that had hosted that winter wonderland of an Olympics? A dream city had somehow become a nightmare one. The siege and the Yugoslav Wars finally came to a muddled end, but Sarajevo would never be the same, at least not in the popular imagination. The war left thousands of scars, as many mental as physical.  As peace took hold Sarajevo faded into the background, part of yesterday’s news, obscured by international terrorism and the Euro Crisis. I thought little of it, as did the rest of the world.

Any mention of the 1984 Winter Olympics focused on the dilapidated state of the once magnificent facilities. War, neglect and lack of money had turned them into ruins at a very early age. Sarajevo came back into the news with the imminent arrival of the centennial of the Great War. It started to pop up in news headlines prior to the anniversary. It had been a dream of mine to visit the actual site of the Archduke’s assassination ever since I learned about it in high school Western Civilization class. My teacher, Mr. Johnson, spent an entire class drawing a diagram of the Sarajevo street layout, then explaining the causes of confusion that ended in Gavrilo Princip firing the deadly shots from point blank range that murdered the Archduke and his wife. Mr. Johnson had an incredible curiosity and spoke with such passionate fervor that it made me want to visit Sarajevo. To stand in the exact same place where to my mind, twentieth century history had begun. That was my goal in traveling to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo - from above

Sarajevo – from above (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Shock of the Normal – Opposites Attract
As my flight to Sarajevo touched down at the airport I looked out the window. I saw a place that looked completely normal. The wounds of war had been paved or painted over, the airport totally refurbished. It was inviting and well organized, passport control was a lark. My first impression of Sarajevo was of a warm, welcoming place, the complete opposite of its recent past.

Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.