Looking In The Mirror – Stari Bar: A Reflection of Ourselves (A Balkan Affair #18)

Bar was quite modern, the result of its post-1979 earthquake reconstruction. The streets were swept clean, the high-rise apartment buildings looked much more presentable than others I had seen in the Balkans and the crosses above the Orthodox Churches sparkled in the sunlight. There was not much old to be found in modern Bar which stretched outward from the waterfront. By this point in my Eastern European travels I did not find this newness to be very surprising. It has been my experience on more occasions than I can now recount, that the idea of “old” Europe is as much a myth as it is a reality. Much of Bar was younger than me. It felt like a seaside city with no idea of the past. Besides King Nikola’s late 19th century summer palace, which I never saw due to a confrontation with a pack of wild dogs ferociously guarding a street corner, modern Bar offered very little of interest to me. On the other hand, Stari Bar (Old Bar) was well worth the time I took to visit it.

An Old Lifeline - The Stari Bar Aqueduct

An Old Lifeline – The Stari Bar Aqueduct

An Invisible Border – Turkey In Europe
Stari Bar is only five kilometers from Bar’s city center, but architecturally, culturally and historically it belongs to another era. The site’s location atop Londza Hill is symbolic of a time when topography offered as much protection as weaponry. The hilltop locale is all but impregnable on three sides. The terrain beyond it is increasingly harsh as it gives way to mountains. The bus ride from Bar wound slowly upward through the city streets past olive trees and through quiet neighborhoods. Here was the unknown Europe, the fringes with benefits. Before long, I sighted my first minaret in Montenegro, a reminder that the country still has a sizable Muslim population. The Ottoman past came much closer after the bus reached its final stop at the beginning of Stari Bar.

I disembarked on the edge of a different time and place, a million kilometers culturally from where I had begun my journey 15 minutes earlier. I crossed an invisible border, the place where east meets west. I had been here before in Sarajevo and Mostar, now Stari Bar was the stand in for what had once been known as Turkey in Europe. The clash of cultures had died over a century ago, the guns long since silenced and assimilation was no longer a dirty word, only a process. I began to walk along a single street that led up a very steep incline. On either side, Turkish music played, a few men sat at cafes sipping coffee, shops sold an incredible array of souvenirs and restaurants offered the best of Balkan food. Stari Bar was bipolar, part of it was a living community, the other part was one of the great medieval historical sites in the Balkans.

A Medieval Church - Along the streets of Stari Bar

A Medieval Church – Along the streets of Stari Bar

Aged & Ageless – The Myth of Invincibility
A map at the entrance to Stari Bar showed what the walled town looked like in its prime. There were multi-storied stone houses, elegant bastions, soaring towers of varying sizes all packed together in an incredibly dense environment and threaded through with serpentine streets. The whole was surrounded by towering walls, an impressive complex that would have rivaled anything Dubrovnik or Kotor may have offered sans the seashore. Several South Slavic entities ruled over Stari Bar during the Middle Ages. It later fell under Venetian rule for over a century until the Ottomans conquered it in 1571 and held onto Stari Bar until the latter half of the 19th century. Churches were turned into mosques and one palace was even converted into a Turkish bath during this time. The Ottomans held Stari Bar longer than any before them, but they and the walled city finally met their match when a Montenegrin force in 1878 placed it under siege and literally exploded the myth of its invincibility. Nearly two months of heavy bombardment, then a massive incendiary explosion that disabled the city’s aqueduct and consequently its water supply resulted in Ottoman surrender.

Stari Bar has never been the same since the siege. From that point in history right up through today it has largely been a ruin. One worth well more than the two Euros I paid to visit the site. On this mid- winter’s day, a cloudless, infinitely blue sky of piercing brightness and impenetrable depth provided cover for an entire world. The sun caused the stone walkways and ruined walls to glow. The grass among them turned to tufts of burning gold. The layout of the site hardly mattered as I picked my way around the ruins. Semi restored structures such as palaces and churches looked like they could stand forever, though the detritus scattered around them showed otherwise. Their slate gray and dirty white facades looked weathered, but stout. These buildings and adjacent ruins were as much a part of the landscape as the hill upon which they stood. Stari Bar was both aged and ageless.

Signs of Progress - Ruins in Stari Bar

Signs of Progress – Ruins in Stari Bar

The Future Age – A Thinly Veiled Curiosity
I made my way to the walls where I looked out through one of the arched portals towards the mountains. They looked stark and formidable. Stari Bar was molded in the same image as the landscape in which it stood. Beyond the walls I could see the aqueduct constructed so many centuries ago. A vital line that supplied it with water and by extension life. Once this link was broken, so was Stari Bar. I continued wandering past walls partly covered in ivy, nature’s tapestry now covering the works of man. Light and shadow were sharply defined. It was mid-afternoon, but time had little meaning in Stari Bar.

All the previous ages that had contributed to the development of Stari Bar had collapsed and so would this one. A reconstructed Ottoman clock tower rose above the ruins. It did not work and why would it, time had long since lost its meaning here. I didn’t have to know a thing about the history of Stari Bar to know this is how it always ends. In a future age, people will walk through our own ruins and stare at them with thinly veiled curiosity the way I did at those in Stari Bar. What they may or may not realize is that these ruins are a mirror that reflects the future. And in that mirror the image looking back at us is always our own.

Click here for: Tunnel Vision – The Bar to Belgrade Railways: Yugoslavia’s Greatest Achievement (A Balkan Affair #19)