A few weeks ago , my husband came across a Facebook post that was advertising a 7-day tour to Bosnia Herzegovina specifically for Muslims. Although we live in Eastern Europe, the Balkans has been on our bucket list for long, particularly Bosnia due to its rich Islamic heritage and Muslim population. So, we packed our bags and bought our $31 tickets south from Budapest, Hungary to Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo.
You Feel at Home
As a white European Muslimah, I really enjoyed not being in the spotlight, probably for the first time in my life.
I can so much relate to it! In the Middle East, I feel a stranger: my white skin and blue eyes stand out and I often get hounded because “Europeans must have lots of money in their pockets.” In other European countries, I’m a stranger with my Muslim outfit. I’m believed to be an immigrant.
In Bosnia, however, I felt at home immediately because Bosnians have white skin and blue eyes too! The majority are Muslims—among whom many adhere to the Islamic dress code. Bosnian women usually wear colorful clothes, typically a long tunic with a wide linen panel or abaya—but you won’t feel like a weirdo even if you wear darker clothes or the niqab, as there are many Arab tourists.
Bosnian people are very hospitable and welcoming. They affably gave me street directions, invited me for Burek and Ćevapi, their local dishes, or gifted me some pieces of their traditional bread. People greeted me with salam—even if they were not Muslims.
Europe’s Jerusalem: A Role Model of Peaceful Co-Existence
Yes, I know what peaceful co-existence I’m talking about, when hardly two decades has passed since the Yugoslav wars and the siege of Sarajevo. Although apparently Bosnia has fairly well recovered, walking among Sarajevo’s bullet-ridden buildings constantly reminds one of the bloodshed that took place in this multi-ethnic country.
The story in a nutshell: the republics of the former communist Yugoslavia declared independence in the early 1990s. The Serbian government evoked Serbian nationalist rhetoric to preserve the unity of Serbs in one state. Bosnia’s people of different faiths—Muslims, Jews, Orthodox (Serbs) and Catholic Christians (Croats) —turned against each other. In particular, the Bosnian Serbs were incensed. They ended up massacring more than 8,000 men within a few days in Srebrenica and the Serb army put Sarajevo under siege.
But today, there are no fights. Bosnians have had enough of war. Although Bosnian Serbs constantly make efforts to declare their independence within the country, causing much damage to their relationship with other Bosnians, you can’t sense any conflict between Muslims, Catholic Christians, and Jews.
In fact, the Bosnian Jewish community believes that “Sarajevo is the safest place in Europe for Jews.” They are Sephardi Jews who arrived to the country fleeing from Spain when Christian conquerors recaptured the territory from Muslim rule in the 15th century.
Sarajevo is truly a melting point of various religions and cultures.
From an architectural perspective, the styles of the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Communists dominate throughout Sarajevo. The tiny city is literally made of two separate pieces put together. One the eastern side, in Baščaršija, you walk on narrow cobblestoned roads among appetizing kebab buffets and houses decorated with oriental motifs. You buy your souvenirs from the bazar’s craftsmen and sip your Turkish-like Bosnian coffee, dipping your lump sugar into it just like locals do , at a short wooden table surrounded by colorful carpets hanging all over the place. In the background, Turkish rhythms are being played.
Gazi-bey’s mosque is considered the center of downtown.
Unlike in Middle-Eastern mosques where women’s prayer places are often completely separated from the men’s, here women pray right next to the men at a place separated at a line running front to back from the minbar. I soon realized that this was a typical phenomenon across Bosnia, following the example of the Prophet’s mosque at his time: women shared the same prayer space with men, in some way praying next to or behind the men, or on an opened gallery.
The western side of the city represents the Austrio-Hungarian heritage. Walking from the eastern side on the Ferhadija Street, you will soon notice a white line and the following writing on the asphalt: “Sarajevo[‘s] meeting of cultures.” Crossing the line is like Harry Potter apparating from Diagon Alley to London’s muggle-streets; you find that oriental motifs are replaced by western facades; cobblestoned streets by asphalt roads, kebab buffets by a la carte restaurants, Turkish coffee by Vienna espresso, bazaars by shopping malls, and Turkish melodies by American pop. And if you pop into one of the dingy, Russian-made trams for 1.6 Bosnian Convertible Marks (= US$ 1), then after a few steps you will find yourself in the 80’s Communist era: 20-floor panel arrays as far as the eye is concerned, Tito coffee house and abandoned tanks among the Socialist Realism buildings.
Sarajevo’s echlectic architecture represents basically everything you need to know about the country’s history.
The territory of today’s Bosnia has always hosted a mixture of different tribes, religions, and ethnicities. People were constantly exposed to different worldviews. Therefore, after the Ottoman Empire “invading” the area in 1463 and ruling for the next 400 years, Bosnians learned about Islam and as a result, entire families began to convert. Despite what history classes might teach, the Ottomans never forced anyone to change one’s religion; Bosnians were free to convert to Islam or preserve their identity as Jews or Christians or others. This is one explanation as to how Bosnia has become a Muslim-majority country in Christian Europe.
Sarajevo’s name comes from the Turkish term saray ovası meaning “palace plains.” It was built by Isa-beg Ishaković on five steep hills of the Dinaric Alps. (So prepare yourself to walk upward a lot). Walking along the Miljacka river that passes through the capital, to my surprise I noticed the many bridges that cross the river despite its small size. The reason is very simple and admirable: applying the teachings of Islam, Isa-beg encouraged the wealthy to support the city’s inhabitants. Therefore, bridges were built as waqf – bringing ongoing reward for the city as well as for the funders.
In the 17th centuty, The Austro-Hungarian Empire kicked the Ottomans out of the country and swept away the idea of a multi-faith nation by spreading nationalism. This led to the event on the Latin bridge that eventully led to the break out of the First World War. Then the communists arrived after the Second World War with their atheistic propaganda, attempting to exterminate religion all together from the heart of the Bosnians. As a result, people became less religious and more nationalistic, which led to the 90’s Yugoslav War.
If you want to learn more about the 90’s War and hear personal stories about how Bosnians built a tunnel that served as the only replenishment line under the Sarajevo siege, you must visit the Tunnel of Hope museum which is just a few kilometers away from the city center. We had a chance to meet Harun Hodzic, imam of the wooden mosque in the deep forest of the Igman mountain. His mosque served as a place of worship as well as hospital for Bosnian soldiers. He spoke about fighting as a teenager and being operated on without anesthetic.
In Sarajevo, all museums are within walking distance. However, if you love not only learning about the past but seeing the beauty of Allah’s creation, you must look around outside Sarajevo where history co-mingles with an astonishing display of nature.
In Bosnia, wherever you go, you will always be surrounded by four things: mountains, forests, rivers and waterfalls. Travellers often compare Bosnia’s green forests to Asia’s deep jungles – excluding monkeys and tigers, of course. So, if you like hiking, Bosnia has thousands of peaks for you to climb up to. You won’t need to carry much water with you: you will find crystal clear streams and wells everywhere to fill your canteens.
If you want to see real beauty, eat some delicious local fish and drink water directly from the river that flows under your feet, visit the city of Blagaj. Blagaj is in the southern part of Bosnia, so don’t forget your sunglasses and sunblock; it’s pretty hot there! But you can refresh yourself by rowing among the stones and enjoying the Buna river spring. Your heart feels so much peace seeing this paradisaical landscape. Thus, it’s not surprising that some Sufis have found Blagaj an ideal place to retreat. The Blagaj dervish house (Tekke) was built in 1520. Today, it belongs to the Nakshabandi Sufi order, but welcomes visitors as well.
Blagaj is actually on the way to a must-visit historical place and UNESCO heritage, Stari Most (Old Bridge). The 16-century Ottoman bridge stands in the city of Mostar, three hours away from Sarajevo. Although Mostar is the unofficial capital city of Herzegovina, the region is inhabited mostly by Bosnian Croats, travelling to this southern city is a real time-travel to the Ottoman Empire era. Its bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and is considered a masterpiece of Balkan Islamic architecture. Stari Most was destroyed during the war but was rebuilt in 2004.
For nature lovers, other places I recommend to visit are: the Bijambere protected landscape, the city of Pocitelj and Travnik, and Jajce’s water mills and the Plivsko lake.
So, there’s a lot to see in Bosnia, particularly for Muslims. The country enchants every visitor with its people’s hospitality, rich history and breathtaking nature. Therefore, next time you are around Europe, plan your trip to visit Eastern-Europe and its pearl, Bosnia and Herzegovina.