Mostar, old bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar Bridge

Reconstructed in 2004, the Old Bridge in Mostar is now the most famous tourist attraction in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On the other hand, the bridge is a symbol of reconciliation of the three ethnic groups in Bosnia – Bosniacs, Serbs and Croats who clashed in the Bosnian War (1992-1995). The story of the Old Bridge, discussed below, is directly woven into the story of the brutal Bosnian massacre and the hard road to restoring peace to the land.

In 1993, the war in the Balkans came to its dramatic conclusion. Bosnian Croats (Catholics) and Bosnian Muslims, who had fought together against Orthodox Serbs and Montenegrins a year earlier, came into conflict with each other. The heart and center of this confrontation was the ancient city of Mostar.

In November of that year, Croatian fighters destroyed the famous Old Bridge. The world community was shocked. The destruction of Bosnia’s cultural heritage seemed to be a step towards the total destruction of the fragile balance between Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox, which continued during the armed confrontation, as thousands were killed and tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes.

Two years later, in 1995, the war was over. Mostar became a ghost town. Ninety percent of the city had been destroyed or significantly damaged. One-third of the buildings in the historic center of the city were completely destroyed. Mostar emerged from the Bosnian War as the most damaged city.

The desire for post-war reconciliation and normalization of life in Bosnia was significant, both within the country and from the international community. In 1995, UNESCO, especially emphasizing the long multicultural history of Mostar, approved a plan to restore the pearl of the city – the Old Bridge. The organization notes that the reconstruction of the bridge will be a symbolic act of post-war reconciliation in Bosnia.

The Old Bridge was rebuilt in the period 2001-2004. Particular attention was paid to the restoration of the bridge to its original appearance. At the same time, there was a lot of activity to restore Mostar, especially its historical part, and to normalize life in the city.

Today, the historic center of Mostar with the Old Bridge has become a real tourist gem. The streets around the bridge are dotted with numerous stores and souvenir shops. Two powerful towers located on each side of the bridge – Hercegusa (east) and Halebinovka (west) – once served as prisons and ammunition depots. Today, souvenir shops are located in them. In addition, the bridge serves as a traditional entertainment for tourists and locals – jumping from the bridge into the cold water of the Neretva River, which requires considerable training and hardening. The height of the jump varies between 24 and 30 meters. Also popular among tourists rafting on the Neretva, famous for its swift current, on the territory of Croatia.

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Herzegovina, where Mostar is located, is a fertile region. Traces of human habitation in this area date back to prehistoric times. The green hills along the blue-green surface of the Neretva River will leave a lasting impression on tourists who decide to travel through these places by bus.

But if you look closely at Mostar, unfortunately, you can see the scars of war left over from the 1990s. On the slopes of the mountains and on the banks of the river you can often find the burned skeletons of houses, and walls riddled with bullet holes. Modern buildings are often juxtaposed with ruins, and a brand new McDonald’s building stands next to a house disfigured by shell holes. It seems as if the ruins were left there on purpose, as a reminder of the horrors of war and human cruelty.

Unfortunately, the Old Bridge has remained only a symbol of unity and reconciliation. Mutual trust between former enemies has yet to emerge. The city is divided by the Neretva into two parts – the Croatian-Catholic west and the Bosnian-Muslim east. Many people call Mostar a “schizophrenic city”: the city has two postal services, two bus stations, separate media, and until recently there were two separate fire departments.

The war left deep psychological wounds. Bosnians and Croats are trying to rebuild the city separately, each religious and ethnic group seeing the reasons for the war only on one side. Croats see it as defending their physical existence surrounded by Bosnians, for whom the war was a struggle for their cultural, religious and national identity. The Serbs who lived in Mostar before the war never returned to the city.

Residents of the city have become accustomed to the large number of tourists. For most of them it takes just a few hours to get to Mostar, starting from the historic center and ending at the Old Bridge. Numerous buses pass through the city daily. And, of course, for tourists Mostar is primarily a vivid attraction of Bosnia, not a symbol of its division. The international community today, as well as immediately after the war, emphasizes that the Old Bridge is a symbol of unification of once warring nations, a symbol of cooperation and peaceful coexistence of different cultural, ethnic and religious communities.

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But the reality is that Muslims and Croats live separately within one small town. Unfortunately, human fears and psychological wounds take much longer to heal than a bridge is rebuilt.

The Old Bridge

Old bridge. Photo: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Old Bridge was once called the New Bridge, and it lasted for the first hundred years. Officially at that time it was called the Süleyman Bridge, because it was built by order of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. As time went by, the adjective “new” did not suit the centuries-old structure very well, so they started calling it “Big Bridge”, and when other bridges appeared over the Neretva River, the name “Old Bridge” appeared.

For Mostar, the Old Bridge is the meaning, the symbol and the core of city life. The city began here, with these two points on the banks of the Neretva, between which it was necessary to draw a straight line.

The best views

From the south, the best view of the bridge is from the mouth of the Radoboli River. There is also a good view from the Luch Bridge. From the northeast, a great view is from the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the pleasure of taking good pictures – you can get to the observation deck only with a ticket to the mosque (6 KM, about 3 euros). No worse than the terrace of the Teatar (theater) restaurant on the right bank of the river, it is accessible from Tabkhana. Here you can enjoy the views with a cup of coffee.

Old bridge in Mostar. Photo: Jelena Arsenijević, CC BY-SA 3.0 Bridge and coffee. Photo: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0

Background

First the towers appeared – a century earlier than the Old Bridge, in the middle of the 15th century. Between them was stretched that very line – a rope for the ferry crossing. A ferry on the willful Neretva is a risky undertaking, the bridge was badly needed.

But a stone bridge was still far away. The first bridge between the towers was a suspension bridge, made of wooden boards and iron chains. It swayed so that travelers fainted with fear. But the travelers – what for, a casual attraction on a long road, but the residents of Mostar had a hard time. The city was developing evenly on both sides of the river, business demanded presence there and there, several times a day – the cruelest stress, no health enough.

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Old bridge in Mostar. Photo: Jelena Arsenijević, CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition, the bridge was deteriorating, and using it was becoming not only scary, but also really dangerous. The Mostar people sent a petition for a new bridge to Sultan Suleiman.

At that time Mostar had long been one of the cities of the Ottoman Empire. And the empire without good roads and, consequently, bridges can not function successfully. With the arrival of the Turks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, several dozen bridges were built in a short period. Two of them were included in the list of world cultural heritage, and several others are monuments of national importance.

The slope is serious, the surface is slippery, and you can't do without the steps. Photo: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0

Waterworks

Mostar stands on the full-flowing Neretva River, but its banks are high and rocky, try to get water for household needs, not to mention gardens and orchards. In the right-bank part of Mostar, the clear river Radobolya flows, which solved the problems of water supply in this part of the city. In the 16th century, water from the Radoboli began to be supplied to the left bank as well. The water pipe went over the bridge, and the famous traveler Evlija Celebija was surprised by what he saw and wrote down: “This is the bridge over and under which water flows”.

Construction

But we digress. Sultan Suleiman granted the request of the Mostarites and sent to Mostar a young architect, Khayruddin, a pupil of the famous Sinan. Hadji Mehmed Beg Karadjoz was appointed as the local organizer of the works (he was also responsible for the construction of the most majestic of Mostar’s mosques).

The works began in 1557, and were completed in 1566. It took Hayruddin nine years to solve the extremely nontrivial engineering problem.

Old bridge in Mostar. Photo: Jelena Arsenijević, CC BY-SA 3.0

The classical technology of bridge construction of that time – several strong piers, on which no less strong vaults were supported. But it was impossible to install the bridge abutments into the deep, swift and prone to destructive floods of the Neretva River. The bridge rested on the rocky banks. But in this case, the distance between the supports was almost thirty meters, and no one had ever built arches of this size before Khairuddin.

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Admiration

There used to be a plaque in the bridge which said: “This bridge is like a rainbow vault; is there anything like it on this world, my God!”

The old bridge and the tower of Halebia, view from the south. Photo: Jelena Arsenijević, CC BY-SA 3.0

Construction

All the technical details of the construction of the bridge are still unknown. For example, how were the scaffolding for it installed? How did these scaffoldings withstand the many years of construction?

But the main structural points are already known to researchers. The vault was first laid out of 111 rows of stone blocks. Blocks were connected by iron wedges. Then ribs were made on the vault – in the center and on the sides. After that, external walls were erected, they were filled with crushed stone up to the necessary height, and paved on top.

Old bridge in Mostar. Photo: Jelena Arsenijević, CC BY-SA 3.0

The parapet of the bridge is quite low, in those days safety was not very strict, and the architect took advantage of that to get the silhouette as thin as possible. At first, the people of the bridge did not even dare to set foot on it, as it seemed so thin and fragile. Urban legends say that Khayruddin spent three days and three nights under the bridge to prove its reliability.

View of Tara from the Old Bridge. Photo: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Iron Fence

There is no historical information about when and by whom the iron fence was put on the bridge. There is a legend about it. It was considered very daring for the youngest boys in Mostar to walk along the parapet of the Old Bridge from one side to the other. One careless step and the daredevil falls into the water. If he could swim, he might make it out of the Neretva rifts. But not everyone was so lucky. One young apprentice was taking his master’s lunch from a tavern on the other side of the river. He climbed the fence, took a few steps, hung his lunch pot over the bridge… He didn’t make it. And he was his mother’s only son. The inconsolable mother sold all that was in her house and ordered to the blacksmiths of Mostar an iron fence of the bridge, but such that there was not even an idea to walk on the parapet. That’s why the bars wrap around the parapet on both sides.

From the upper point of the bridge to the lower ones there is a 3 meters difference in elevation – a very significant slope. I don’t know how one could walk on the bridge in the old times, but during the reconstruction there were added transversal ribs along the bridge, and without them it would not be a bridge, but an attraction for tourists of all ages. Very slippery.

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We would like very much to tell not only about the construction of the bridge, but also about its future life – after all, it was in the center of Mostar for more than four centuries, it must have seen a lot. However, contrary to our expectations, information about any special events on the bridge and around it has not been preserved, so ordinary everyday city life, of course, with its dramas, but not of such a scale as to be recorded by historians.

Old bridge and seals. Photo: Elena Arsenievich, CC BY-SA 3.0

Destruction and reconstruction.

The real drama, rather, the tragedy in the life of the bridge was played out in the last decade of the 20th century. In the military conflict of the nineties, the bridge was repeatedly shelled until the vault collapsed into the water. This happened on November 9, 1993.

As early as 1997, two years after the end of the war, thought began to be given to rebuilding the bridge. The wreckage was removed from the Neretva and laid out on a plateau on the shore. Initially, there was an idea to use the original material for the bridge, but the blocks turned out to be significantly damaged and insufficient, so the idea was abandoned.

For months, specialists measured each block to make its exact copy. The stone for the bridge was quarried, if possible, from the same quarries as in the 16th century. Where possible, ancient techniques and manual processing of stone were used.

In the spring of 2004 the bridge was completed and inaugurated on June 23 of the same year. In 2005, UNESCO protected the bridge and the surrounding architectural complex.

Old bridge in winter mist. Photo: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0

Synopsis

Year of construction: 1557-1566 Architect: Khayruddin. Length: 28.6 m. Width: 3,95 m. Diameter of the arch: 28,7 m. Height above the water (water level in summer): 20,3 м. Material: limestone, tenelia. Destroyed: 1993 Restored: 2004

How to find?

Stari most Bosnian and Croatian. Stari most

Text writer: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo: Jelena Arsenijevic, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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