Islamic Sites in Bosnia: 10 Years After the War
From Islamica Magazine
By Asim Zubcevic
A Bosnian Muslim scholar examines the challenges facing the restoration of the country’s historic sites
Many of the finest Islamic monuments in Bosnia were systematically destroyed by Serb Nationalists. Asim Zubcevic, a Bosnian Muslim scholar, examines the challenges facing the restoration of the country’s historic sites and the influence of petro-dollars in changing the spiritual landscape of Bosnia
“All over the country, mosques and minarets have been demolished, including some of the finest examples of 16th-century Ottoman architecture in the western Balkans. These buildings were not caught in the cross-fire of military engagements—in towns such as Bijeljina and Banja Luka, the demolitions had nothing to do with fighting at all—but were blown up with explosives in the night, and bulldozed the following day. The people who planned and ordered these actions like to say that history is on their side. What they show by their deeds is that they are waging a war against the history of their country.”
Thus wrote a British historian in 1994. When one year later the war against Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), the country could survey its losses: over 250,000 dead, more than two million refugees, tens of thousands of raped women and girls, and over 3,000 architectural monuments destroyed or damaged.
MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: SCHOLARS PREPARE THE GROUND
It is an indisputable fact that Bosnia’s cultural heritage was destroyed in a systematic and methodical fashion: religious monuments, libraries and other landmarks identified with various communities. The destruction of Bosnian Muslim heritage in particular was not a by-product of the war, but a deliberate policy that went hand in hand with an attempt to exterminate them. It does not come as a surprise then that the largest destruction occurred in areas outside military activity.
Historical precedence for dynamiting mosques and razing Muslim graveyards in the Balkans may be traced back to the 19th century when the nascent Balkan states went about obliterating their Muslim communities and their cultural heritage, as expressed in one of the most highly regarded pieces of Serbian poetry:
And all their houses we did see ablaze;
Of all their mosques both great and small
We left but one accursed heap
For passing folk to cast their glance of scorn.
More recently those who launched the genocidal assault on Bosnia drew inspiration from Serbian intellectuals including Serbian orientalists whose contribution to portraying Muslims and their heritage as alien, inferior, and threatening can only be described as significant. In their articles and books in the 1980s, they deliberately distorted Islam, dehumanized and delegitimized Muslims as a community, providing “scholarly” justification and intellectual respectability to ethnic cleansing.
This term refers to the removal of an undesirable population; it generally went hand in hand with destroying physical traces of that population’s presence. Thus a leading “expert” on Islam wrote that “trying to conquer the world … they use their birth-rate, the construction of mosques and pressure against non-Muslims.”
Croat nationalists were not far behind. As a Croat militiaman explained: “It is not enough to cleanse Mostar of the Muslims; their relics must also be destroyed.”
Examples are many, but let us confine ourselves to some of the more prominent cases of destruction.
ATIK MOSQUE, BIJELJINA
Built between 1520 and 1566 during the Ottoman reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, the Atik Mosque in the northeastern town of Bijeljina was utterly destroyed along with the nearby turbe on 13 March 1993. In the course of its re-building, remains of a previous structure were found. Amid claims that these belonged to a church, the work halted before an independent commission published a report disproving the claim. It was fully restored and opened on 3 August 2002.
ALADZA MOSQUE, FOCA
Aladza was built in classical Ottoman style in 1550/51 by a close aid to the celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Remarkable for its harmonious proportions and preserved internal decoration, Aladza was one of the most beautiful mosques in the Balkans and an important symbol of overall Bosnian Muslim heritage. Its reconstruction is yet to begin.
FERHADIJA MOSQUE, BANJA LUKA
If Srebrenica was a crime that became a horrific symbol of an attempt at the physical destruction of Bosnian Muslims, the destruction of Ferhadija in 1993 has come to symbolize the destruction of their material heritage, particularly their mosques. In fact, the day of its destruction, 7 May, has entered the calendar of the Islamic Community of Bosnia- Herzegovina as the Day of Mosques in remembrance of over 1,100 Bosnian mosques destroyed in the war of 1992-1995.
Within two months of its destruction the remaining 15 mosques in Banja Luka were blown up too. If anyone needed proof that the Bosnian Serbian nationalist authorities were behind the crime, it came a few months later in the form of an exhibition of photographs about the history of Banja Luka: it had not a single photograph of the city’s mosques.
Their destruction was not just aimed at destroying Bosnian Muslim architecture, but also at changing the city’s identity, which—in the eyes of many of its citizens regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation—these mosques, and especially Ferhadija, were very much a part of. Perhaps due to the powerful symbolism of Ferhadija, the international community has taken strong interest in its rebuilding.
After years of foot-dragging and numerous delays, the Bosnian Serb authorities finally agreed to allow the laying of the foundation stone on 7 May 2001. As Muslim visitors and representatives of political and diplomatic life in Bosnia were arriving at the site of the destroyed mosque, a huge and menacing mob gathered around chanting nationalist songs and insults and throwing stones, sparing not even foreign dignitaries. An elderly Muslim man was injured and later died in a hospital. The rioters managed to burn coaches in which the visitors had arrived.
It took another four years before reconstruction could finally begin on 4 October 2005. The first stage involves recovering the mosque remains from the city’s waste dumps. Around 1,000 remains of Ferhadija and other Banja Luka mosques have been uncovered so far and they will be used for the purposes of their restoration. Each fragment is washed and marked in order to be used for rebuilding the mosque exactly to its original layout.
MUSLIM HERITAGE OF STOLAC
One of the most poignant cases of war-time destruction and post-war recovery is to be found in the town of Stolac. It is a place with the longest urban settlement in Bosnia, spanning over 3,000 years. In spring 1993 Muslim men were rounded up and sent into camps, while women and children were expelled. Again the ensuing looting and destruction was carried out systematically and at a time when there was no fighting. As a result all four mosques in Stolac and another seven in the surrounding villages were blown up including one of the oldest Bosnian mosques that lay at the heart of town, the Carsija Mosque from 1519.
Stolac is unique among Bosnian towns in that much of its pre-war Muslim population has returned against the violent opposition from local Croat nationalists. In order to intimidate the returnees, the nationalists erected crosses on the hills surrounding the city, a policy replicated in other towns with strong Ottoman heritage such as Mostar and Pocitelj. The senior local clergy, including a bishop, tried to prevent the rebuilding of the Carsija Mosque, by claiming that it had stood on the remains of a destroyed church. This prompted a U.S. scholar to write an open letter to Pope John Paul II asking for his help in restraining the nationalist clergy.
On 22 August 2003—on the 10th anniversary of its destruction— Carsija Mosque was fully restored to its previous design, using original building materials and building in the fragments of the destroyed original. On 22 August 2005 the second or Uzinovicka Mosque was restored and re-opened as well. The third or Podgradska Mosque is currently undergoing restoration, while work on the fourth one, Cuprijska Mosque, remarkable for being one of the only two double- story mosques in Bosnia—is expected to commence in summer 2006.
If Stolac represents a hope of how to go about rebuilding Muslim heritage, there are also examples of mosque-building or rebuilding without regard for traditional Bosnian architecture. Between the end of the war in November 1995 and September 2004, a total of 565 new mosques were built; 265 of them replaced mosques destroyed in the war. The funding for these mosques often comes from Middle Eastern humanitarian organizations. Not surprisingly they reflect the prevalent architectural styles of the donors’ countries. Often huge in size, their monumental proportions only serve to underline their foreignness. Sometimes these new mosques are built in locations which were never used in traditional mosque buildings such as hill tops, making them domineering rather than inviting. Some of them have more than one minaret serving no function or symbolism. Usually their internal decoration is non-existent, the glaring clinical whiteness leaving the visitor cold. Their message is one of confusion, disorientation, and a misplaced pride.
What is particularly worrying is that in some cases this kind of architecture has received backing by the very people who ought to be protecting it. In the case of one such official, his ideas for mosque design are described to involve “knockoffs of Saudi-modern shopping malls architecture with odd touches inspired by the décor of the Love Boat, including portholes!”
New mosques cannot be seen as contributing to the healing of the traumatized Bosnian Muslim community or to the rebuilding of their identity. Agnes Heller wrote: “Whenever cultural memory is lost, a group of people disappears.”
According to Bosnian architect Amra Hadzimuhamedovic, these new mosques contribute to the loss of cultural memory. They change the cultural landscape and create the sense of disconnectedness with the place. Perhaps most importantly, new mosques lack the symbolism and beauty of traditional architectural forms and ultimately fail to invoke a sense of the sacred. Potentially they even undermine Bosnian Muslim identity by de-Bosnianizing the sense of belonging to the country and its past reflected in the traditional architecture.
The traditional mosque architecture in Bosnia speaks to a Bosnian with the reassuring familiarity of more than five centuries of enriching Islamic influence in the culture of its people—and not only its Muslims. Traditional Bosnian mosque architecture is far from being monotone: from the large domed mosques exuding majesty and quiet confidence of the Ottoman era to some of the eastern Herzegovinian mosques remarkable for their stone roof-tiles and quadrangle minarets, so in tune with the rugged, rocky geography of the region. Particularly picturesque are small mosques graced with wooden minarets and found in villages and some towns. In their simplicity they radiate the warmth and tranquility of the lush Bosnian landscape.
THE WORK OF THE COMMISSION TO PRESERVE NATIONAL MONUMENTS
It is not possible to speak of the reconstruction of Bosnia’s cultural heritage without mentioning the Commission to Preserve National Monuments. The Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), which ended the war against Bosnia, envisaged a very weak central government. Many viewed this as a fig leaf for the de facto division of the country, giving the nationalist forces more or less what they wanted. In the absence of strong institutions of central government, the DPA’s Annex 8 must have been viewed as a joke: it envisaged establishing a Commission to Preserve National Monuments in Bosnia. Its mandate is defined as receiving and deciding petitions for designating properties with cultural, historical, religious, or ethnic importance as national monuments. The Commission’s decisions are deemed final and enforceable in accordance with domestic law. Thus the local authorities are bound by its decisions, even though the Commission itself lacks power to enforce such decisions. Nonetheless it has still been able to perform a remarkable service in enabling the restoration and preservation of Bosnian cultural heritage. In the end, the Annex 8 has proven to be—apart from the Annex 7 that guarantees the right of refugees to return to their prewar homes—a most significant provision of the DPA.