The Seductive Citadel

Bang Bang! My talkative driver suddenly sounded out, gesturing his finger gun at an unremarkable bridge in the dark across the road on the right hand side of our Mercedes Benz taxi. We were getting to my hotel in the Austro-Hungarian city of Sarajevo at night time, just a minute or so before approaching the narrowing streets of its sixteenth century oriental Ottoman quarter called Baščaršija.

For most of the people in the West, Sarajevo is something of a civilisational outlier – a product of 400 years of conquest of their Christian continent by an alien culture and religion. A hybrid city that is essentially but inadequately European. I saw third world highways and vaguely Middle Eastern shopfronts in their ambience and signage blend smoothly with stately Habsburg edifices. Saudi-built shopping mall and buildings in glass and concrete with giant LED screens juxtaposed with drab and bomb damaged Yugoslav communist era apartments. Catholic cathedrals and Orthodox churches that had stood for centuries next to and opposite neon-lit mosques with tall sharp minarets.

My mind quickly recalibrated to this change in mood, environment and scenery. I had just flown in from Ukraine with barely an hour of breath-catching transit through Istanbul’s large and confusing airport.

I was charged 20 Euro for the 10 km trip from the airport. Fleeced but happy that I arrived, I was literally a stone’s throw away from Sebilj -the wooden cylindrically-shaped Ottoman fountain that is the postcard symbol of Sarajevo. My lodging, Hotel Villa Orient was a two-storey mansion defined by soft yellow tavern lights with a pizza restaurant next door and a quiet traditional kafana beside the entrance. It was a view that reminded me of a homely chalet of a ski resort. Sarajevo lies around 2,000 feet above sea level – defended and surrounded by the mountains of West Balkans known by an appropriate and evocative name – the Dinaric Alps.

It was cold but not unpleasant, with lumps of snow lingering on roofs and pavements like leftover unkneaded flour on a kitchen table. I stood with my luggage for a while at the roadside for a last cigarette, wondering if the nice kind girl, Lejla who had helped me just now on the phone was still on duty at the reception; and whether it was destiny or decision that had brought me here.

The Illyrians were here first, then came the Romans, Goths and Slavs. Bosnia was taken by the Turks in 1463. Saray Bosna (the Palace of Bosnia) – an Islamic citadel surrounded by Slavic Christianity and culture became their center of administration and learning. 
Women in headscarves outside the Emperor’s mosque or Careva džamija, built in 1459 and named for Sultan Mehmed, four years after his Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople

Although the war has altered this once famously multiethnic city and made it almost entirely bosniak and muslim, Sarajevo is staunchly secular and inclusive.

Ćevapi, Sarajevo’s version of the kebab. Sausage-like, grilled and served with sliced raw onions and kajmak or clotted cream in a chewy bun.

Young family feeding flapping flocks of pigeons at the Sebilj – the iconic Ottoman public fountain at the entrance to Baščaršija

The street on a Friday in front of Ali Pasha Mosque built in honour of the Ottoman governor after he died in 1560 utilising funds from his legacy endownment

The Latin Bridge – the ‘bang bang’ on 28 June 1914 that said ‘bye bye’ to Europe forever.

An out-of-season flower stall on the pedestrian only street in the old quarter

Waitress at the cafe nearing closing hours

The preserved bricks next to newer structures showcasing the city’s antiquity

Houses above Stari Grad, Sarajevo’s historic district.

Markale – the scene of two mortar attacks on a busy market during the war. The first on 5 February 1994 killed 68 people and injured 144. The second time on 28 August 1995, 43 people died and 75 others were wounded.

View of the 16th century Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque

A whiff of Istanbul

Objectively, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, and nothing in Sarajevo can be compared to Paris, but my heart never trembles in Paris like it does here in Sarajevo, when I wait in line at the post office.” – Goran Bregovic

Sarajevo’s Catholic church

Crowded dinner dates at Ćevabdžinica Željo – a Sarajevan favourite named after its national soccer team that grills the city’s most mouth-watering ćevapčići.

Young people in Sarajevo face a precarious future in a country paralysed by religion and race as envisaged by the American-sponsored Dayton Peace Accords of 21 November 1995 that abruptly ended the Bosnian War.

European time warp – a city that flaunts its modern Islamic credentials to the world is ironically also the one that has successfully kept the fine traditions of the Old Continent breathing and alive. 

When Austria-Hungary ruled Bosnia from 1878 until World War One, Sarajevo was turned  from a classical Ottoman town into a quintessentially fin de siècle European city. This mood and era of Sarajevo can still be keenly imagined when sipping beer or coffee in the dark, wooden and tobacco filled intimate interiors of Caffe Von Habsburg –  my favourite spot after sundown.

Redevelopment of ”Hastahana” now an open area for skateboard, sculptures and children soccer is part of the plan for the rejuvenation of Sarajevo. Citizens voting in May 2022 gave first prize to the Live-Out proposal by Van Tan Quyen Le and Thi Anh Nguyet Tran, two young landscape architects from Sydney.

Vijećnica, the Sarajevo City Hall designed in Moorish style by Czech-born Karel Pařík in 1891 when Austria-Hungary ruled Bosnia.