There is no other place like Sarajevo. And I don’t mean the breathtaking location of the place or the troubled recent history of the civil war and the siege. The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is probably the most multicultural city in Europe, where Catholic and Orthodox church stand next to each other and great mosque neighbor with the synagogue, down the street from the first two. When looking at Sarajevo from one of the surrounding hills the tall minarets cross the sky but the more observant eye will spot church towers as well. Wandering around the old part of the city is like jumping between two words, from Central Europe to Middle East and the other way around. It is not Bosphorus in Istanbul where two cultures collide, it is Sarajevo!
History of multicultural Sarajevo
South Slavs have been present in the Balkan Peninsula since 7th century and shortly after they were Christianized. Part of them (now Slovenia, Croatia) were under the German influence therefore they became Catholics, another part (now Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia) were pushed by the Byzantine Empire to became Orthodox Christians. The current territory of Bosnia was right in the middle of this division. The area where Sarajevo is now was previously inhabited by the Slavs but the city was officially founded in 1461 by the Ottoman Empire and was under its rule for over four centuries. During that time many people converted into Islam religion and some of the most beautiful mosques, including Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque built in 16th century. That explains what many visitors to Bosnia don’t understand – how come there are so many Islam believers in a Slavic country.
Multicultural Sarajevo – the reason of the siege
Even if there has always been some minor issues the inhabitants of Sarajevo could live peacefully next to each other, despite the big differences. The city has been a great example of tolerance that people were proud of and this resulted in the cosmopolitan atmosphere on the streets of Sarajevo. Not many knew and didn’t really care to know what origins they friends are. People enjoyed each others company and started families together despite their different backgrounds. No one really talked about the religion because there was no reason for that. Before the tragic war in the middle of 1990s 28% of inhabitants were Orthodox Serbs, 49% Bosnian Muslims and 16% Catholic Croats and 30% of marriages in Sarajevo were mixed. Unfortunately the rich multicultural background was a perfect excuse for the siege that lasted almost 4 years and costed lives of over 11.500 people. But even then many inhabitants of Sarajevo, not matter of which origins, stayed united and fought not against religion or politics but to defend their beloved city and its values.
Old Town of Sarajevo – where cultures meet
But at least the Old Town of Sarajevo, closed in the triangle of streets Obala Kulina bana, Mula Mustafe Baseskije and Marsala Tita, is where the great multicultural background can be best experienced. In such a small area there’s at least half a dozen places of worship of four religions: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Church. They are within a walking distance from each other and the sound of church bells mix with the call for a prayer by muezzin. No wonder Sarajevo is often called “European Jerusalem”. Now, when I think about it I remember I felt exactly the same way in Jerusalem as I did in Sarajevo. The mix of religions and cultures in both cities was overwhelming, confusing and fascinating at the same time and made me feel I’m in a special place. I can’t recall any other destination where four major religions are so present and make such an unique mix.
Crossing from one world to another
I remember my first visit to Sarajevo, back in 2012. I was walking down Ferhadija, the main pedestrian street in the Old Town. I was surrounded by the best examples of architecture so typical to Austria – Hungary period and very similar to what Brno, Graz or Zagreb look like. And suddenly at some point I’ve realized the scenery around me is completely different, I didn’t even notice when I crossed from one world to another. The name of the street has changed, to Saraci, and so was my surrounding. I found myself in the middle of Ottoman architecture with small coffeehouses, craftsman’s shops and the smell of grilled meat. It was pretty incredible! During my last stay in the capital of Bosnia I consciously tried to find the border between these two worlds. And there it was, sign on the ground clearly saying where East meets West! It was amazing – you stand in one point, look at the view in from of you and see magnificent Austria-Hungary architecture but when you turn around you see Orient style at its best example! Now jumping from one world to another is among my favorite things to do in Sarajevo!
Not only in the Old Town…
Old Town is the center of the multicultural Sarajevo but it can be seen also in other parts of the city. The Old Jewish Cemetery, closed in 1966 and used during the siege as a Serb position to cannonade the city, is second biggest in Europe, after the cemetery in Prague. The Catholic Saint Joseph’s Church stands proudly at the beginning of the infamous Snipers Alley. The Olympic 1984 grounds after the tragic 1990s serve as a cemetery for three religions.
Multicultural Sarajevo – the best tourist attraction of the city?
There are still inhabitants of different backgrounds and they can get along well with each other. But it is not an easy time for multicultural Sarajevo. The local authorities try really hard to bring back the cosmopolitan charm, even if just for tourists, and they’re doing pretty well. The streets and cafes are full and when I was wandering around I could really feel the city is diverse. And that is probably its biggest asset and attraction, the reason why so many people, including me, are so fascinated with Sarajevo. I know I will be back there rather sooner than later, to enjoy the multicultural vibe, the one that cannot be experienced anywhere else and the one that make Sarajevo so very unique.
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If you think of visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina or just want to read more about the country don’t miss my other posts about this place:
- Sarajevo – the most tragic city in Europe
- Post-war scars in Mostar
- Alternative Sarajevo guide
- and more!
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