Mostar art
Stećci motifs on our works.

Culture flourished, particularly in the areas of manuscript illumination and metalwork, as well as Bosnia’s most legendary symbol, the monumental decorated tombstones called stećci.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – Historical Introduction

The Balkan peninsula comprises three geographically distinct regions. It is surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea and has a mountainous central continental region that slopes downwards in the north towards the Sava plains. While the north is subject to the influence of central Europe and the South reflects the impact of the Mediterranean, therefore, the continental region, which historically has always been the most difficult to conquer and consequently impervious to outside influences, is considered the most authentically Balkan. The natural borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a mainly mountainous country dominated by the massifs of the Dinaric Alps, are the rivers Sava and Una to the north, the Drina to the east, the Dinaric Alps to the west and the Karst Plateau of Montenegro to the south. The country also has numerous rivers, first and foremost the Neretva,famous for its emerald green colour, that flows into the Adriatic Sea. In antiquity the peninsula was inhabited by the Illyrian people, of Indo-European origin. After the fall of the Roman Empire, which had conquered most of the Balkan region beginning in 9 AD, but whose cultural influence had never really penetrated into the interior of the peninsula, successive waves of invasions took place. The invaders included the Avars, the Goths and lastly the Slavs, who settled here during the 6th and 7th centuries AD, and who could be considered the ethnic group that characterizes the region. Croat tribes established themselves to the north of the Serbs, coming under the control of the Carolingian Empire and the Roman Catholic church during the course of the 9th century, while the Serbs had closer relations with the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Orthodox church. Thus, two regions came to be defined that, despite their common Slav origins, were to develop different cultural and religious forms that still prevail today.

Geographically, Bosnia and Herzegovina is situated between these two large groups, and its population can be defined as ethnically and linguistically Slav, but the many conversions and mixed marriages that have taken place over time have given rise to an ethnically consistent but culturally and religiously diverse population. In the Early Middle Ages, Bosnia was linked closely with Croatia, while Herzegovina was dominated by the Kingdom of Serbia. In 1180 Bosnia became an independent kingdom under Ban Kulin and expanded further over the next two centuries. Its two most powerful rulers were Ban Stephen Kotromanić (1322-53) and King Stephen Tvrtko (1353-91), under whose rule Bosnia became the most powerful state in the Western Balkans. During this era Bosnia enjoyed relative prosperity thanks to its rich mines, above all its silver mines. It was in this period that miners from Saxony arrived, as well as merchants from Dubrovnik and other towns on the Dalmatian coast, and a number of market towns, such as Tuzla, Jaice, Visoko and Mostar, developed. Culture flourished, particularly in the areas of manuscript illumination and metalwork, as well as Bosnia’s most legendary symbol, the monumental decorated tombstones called stećci . One aspect of Bosnian medieval history still much-debated concerns the nature of the indigenous Bosnian church and how much it was influenced by the Bulgarian Bogomil sect with its dualist or Manichaean beliefs. It is well-known that for centuries the Vatican accused Bosnia of heresy. Nowadays historians tend to diminish the role of Bogomilism believing rather that the isolation of the Bosnian church at that time – even the Bishop’s seat had been moved north to Slavonia in the middle of the 13th century – had probably led to the development of unorthodox liturgy and religious practices that existed alongside some forms of heresy. The Bosnian church was undeniably persecuted, first by the Franciscans called in by King Stephen II Kotromanić when he was converted to the Catholic Church in the mid-14th century and subsequently by the last Bosnian king, Stephen Tomaš, who repressed the movement once and for all a few years before the Turkish conquest. Some historians believe that Islam was viewed as a reliable religious and social system for which the population had felt a need at the time and it was this factor that encouraged many Christians to convert. Nevertheless,

Muslims remained a minority in Bosnia for long after the Ottoman conquest; there was no immediate mass conversion and indeed conversion was not particularly encouraged by the Turkish authorities, who levied higher taxes on non-Muslims. It was, indeed, during Ottoman rule that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rich cultural mix developed further with the arrival in the Balkans of Jews who had been originally expelled from Spain in 1492. Most of Bosnia was conquered by the Turkish sultan Mehmet II in 1463, with Herzegovina succumbing in 1481. Jajce, in the north-west of Bosnia, finally fell in 1527, from which time the country remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878, and was known as ‘European Turkey’. Turkish rule continued for 400 years. Bosnia was the Ottoman’s border with Western Europe and by the seventeenth century Sarajevo was the second-largest city in the Turkish Empire. Towns and cities developed a tolerant mix of Muslim Bosniak, Catholic Croat, Orthodox Serb, and Sephardic Jewish cultures. Many architectural masterpieces were constructed – mosques, bridges, schools, inns, caravanserais, clock towers, and baths. Today Ottoman culture is an integral part of Bosnian cultural heritage in its architecture, art and literature. Ottoman influence, however, was visible above all in the towns that flourished during this period, while it was felt far less in hill villages and in the mountains, far from the centres of power. Even today, the arts and crafts that developed in towns for the benefit of patrons seeking luxury goods, differ from the popular art of the villages as a result of this oriental component.

Migration was a feature of the Balkan peninsula for many reasons: wretched economic conditions, abuse by bands of plunderers, military invasions and, especially in the 19th century, the repeated shifting of the border between Austria and Turkey. The western border of the Turkish Empire corresponded more or less to that of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, and was never left undefended or unpopulated. More than once, when famine and plague decimated the population, the Turks encouraged the Walachs, or Vlachs, a semi-nomad shepherd people originally from Albania and southern Serbia, of Serbian Orthodox religion and whose physical strength was an advantage for defending the border, to move here. But Christians living near the border, both Catholics and Orthodox often fled to Austrian territories, partly for religious reasons and partly to avoid the ‘devshirme’, a system requiring them to place their male offspring at the disposal of the Ottoman Empire. At regular intervals the sturdiest and most gifted boys would be taken from Christian families and removed to Istanbul, where they were converted to Islam and given an education. It is estimated that between 1463 and 1650 around 200,000 boys were moved forcibly from the Balkans to Turkey. Many of them made administrative careers, some of them becoming vizirs, while others joined the janissaries, the elite corps of the Turkish army. The practice brought practical benefits for the Balkan population, as it led to closer relations between the capital and the European regions of the empire, so much so that the Slavonic language became in Istanbul the third language after Turkish and Arabic. The years of the decline of the Ottoman Empire, from the second half of the 17th century onwards, were marked by harsh exploitation of the peasants and an extremely conservative administrative system.

This usually did not allow Muslims to trade with Christians, and certainly did not absorb the new industrial and technological developments occurring in the West. Following the Berlin Congress of 1878, when the country was placed under Austro-Hungarian administration and later annexed in 1908), Bosnia and Herzegovina underwent radical modernization. Roads and railways were constructed, and Sarajevo was given a tram system. A Western European way of life and new styles of architecture took hold as public buildings, parks, and schools were built. Modern farming techniques were introduced and the mining industry was developed. Professional schools of applied arts were also set up, with the task of teaching and spreading the Austrian style. Thus, the occupied territories were educated to European and international tastes, while at the same time works of local popular art were dispatched to Vienna in an attempt to promote a national style comprising the peculiarities of the various different local arts. This technological and industrial development was not, however, followed by a corresponding social development. Old privileges, particularly in relations between landowners and peasants remained, and not all communities were treated equally. Above all, the policy of Serbian containment had repercussions on relations with the Orthodox community Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a period of fierce nationalism, Austrian domination ignited social tensions that finally culminated in the assassination by Bosnian Serb nationalists on 28th June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife Sophia, triggering off World War One.

In 1918 Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of the newly-created Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, renamed in 1929 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During the Second World War Yugoslavia was occupied by the Germans and the Italians. During this short period Bosnia’s Jewish community was almost completely eliminated. In these years the country was also the theatre of a civil war between the Serbian Chetniks and the Communist Partisans, as well as of the persecution of the Serb population in particular, along with Muslims, Roma and Jews. Approximately one million Yugoslavs died during the course of World War Two. During the period of Turkish domination there was relatively little persecution of non-Muslim communities, although the Christian and in particular the Catholic churches were frequently oppressed, but all in all, Ottoman policies did not cause bitterness in relations between different groups. Impressions brought back by journalists and travellers in the early 20th century were consistent in reporting general mutual tolerance and respect among the different communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Outbursts of violence during the Second World War were more the fruit of 19th century nationalist feelings rather than of ancient attrition.

In 1945 Bosnia and Herzegovina became one of the republics of the new Communist federal state of Yugoslavia under Josip Broz ‘Tito’, with Sarajevo as its capital. In the post-war years national and religious differences were suppressed in the name of a new social system, only to flare up in 1991 when, driven by a growing Serb nationalism, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence and the Yugoslav government responded by sending tanks into both countries.

In 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence and a long and painful war ensued, which left the population with an emotional wound that has shattered the social fabric. Nevertheless, the essential cultural proportions of the country’s pre- war population remain unchanged and Bosnia-Herzegovina remains the home of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, Croats, Jews and Roma. Following the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the war Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two entities, Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Sarajevo as the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tensions have not died down, but the desire to reconstruct and live in peace is strong. In Sarajevo, one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, muezzins chant their prayers while church bells toll, and the beautiful Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals, along with the mosques, are open to all. In summary, one could say that the feature that most typifies the culture and history of Bosnia and Herzegovina is precisely the peaceful co-existence of different communities, of the intertwining of different styles and traditions. In spite of the horrors of the 20th century, it is this heritage, both ethical and cultural, that Bosnia and Herzegovina must now show to the world.


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