How was the Old Bridge built?
by Olga Zirojevic
The recent fitting of the last stone into the lower arch over the Neretva completed the penultimate phase of the reconstruction of the Old Bridge, which together with the wider restored complex in old Mostar should be formally opened in June 2004. The Old Bridge itself, it is planned, will be finished by the New Year. It is being restored in keeping with the original technique and with the same materials which in the 16th century were used by its first builder mimar (architect) Hajrudin. The complex process of restoration of this masterpiece of Ottoman architecture has been undertaken by the Turkish firm ER-BU, but supervision of the work has been entrusted to the Dubrovnik firm Omega, since Croatia is one of the countries involved in the project. The work has cost, we have learnt, $13,5 million - two million less than originally envisaged.
How was the Old Bridge built?
Sultan Suleiman’s bridge, as it was originally known, was the second bridge built over the Neretva. The first, it seems, was built in pre-Ottoman times and restored by Mehmed II; but it is also possible that he had the old bridge destroyed and a new one built in its place. According to sources, the original bridge was made of wood and suspended on chains: it ‘shook so much that people greatly feared crossing it.’ At the request and initiative of the people of Mostar - since the old bridge could no longer satisfy the growing needs of the kasaba - and after getting expert views on the state of the existing bridge and an estimate of the likely cost of building a new one, Suleiman finally approved the erection of a new bridge and the required funds, identified the source for these, and - in a ferman issued in the summer of 1565 - announced his decision and gave the necessary orders to the local authorities.
The ferman ordered that the defective bridge of Mehmed [the Conqueror] be replaced by a new and massive stone one. The shape and the dimensions of the new bridge were also announced: ‘a bridge must be erected between the two towers, with one arch of forty aršin [arm’s lengths], while the old one must be demolished and [its materials] used for the new bridge.’
The sultan entrusted the organization of the enterprise to zaim Mehmed, the supervisor of the Herzegovina mukat (tax-collection unit). He appears in the documents as the main person responsible for the purchase of the material, the spending of the money allocated for the building, the prompt completion of the task, and generally for the realization of the whole project. Others mentioned alongside him were the kadis (justices/administrators) of Mostar, Nevesinje and [Herzeg] Novi and other local administrators, as well as the nobility of the city of Dubrovnik. They were all obliged to keep the central government informed by letter about the discharge of their tasks and eventual problems.
The architect of the bridge, neimar [architect] Hajrudin, a pupil of the famous mimar [architect and builder] Sinan’s school, is not mentioned in official Ottoman documents which deal with the building of the bridge. But there are other, indirect Turkish sources of information.
The start of the building of the bridge was preceded by a great many preparations. The central government insisted that these be completed by the end of the winter of 1566, so that the building could start in early spring and be finished in the summer. The initial work was completed more or less on time. The preparations involved collecting funds for the purchase of building material, wages, the acquisition of timber, stone, lead and iron, as well as for the necessary labour force and tools.
According to the initial estimate the building was to cost 300,000 akci (or 5,000 Venetian ducats). This money was to be collected through various taxes and contributions from the population of the sandzaks (administrative units) of Herzegovina and Klis, or more accurately from specific categories of the population of the two sandzaks. The costs, however, rose so that the initial sum of 300,000 akci had to be raised to 450,000.
Some of the money collected from the emins (trustees) of the Herzegovina and Klis sandzaks was to be handed over to the building supervisor zaim Mehmet and the kadi of Mostar in return for valid receipts. That the collection of money did not, however, proceed easily can be seen from the following document: ‘The places where we live are rocky and short of water and there is little arable land. Our area suffers from permanent drought. It is very hot during the summer months. We lack water and so cannot stay in the same place. This is impossible, so like Gypsies we move from place to place. Though our life is hard, we have been imposed a tax of as much as 117 akci. Since we regularly pay this each year, we have up to now been freed from the divan [small rural or periodically settled place] contributions (avariz-u divaniye). Up to now we have not been paying this. If, however, it were decided that we should pay this, we would not be able to do so. This is true for all of us.’
This is what the Vlach knezi and katun heads declared, asking that their situation be explained to the government. The Porte was informed of this, and an imperial ferman issued as a result, according to which the avariz should be paid ‘by all who have been paying it up to now ... They will pay the avariz also for the stated bridge ... Those who up to now have not paid the avariz will not have to pay.’ The ferman added, however, as a conclusion to its general position: ‘The avariz demanded of the above-mentioned is for the cost of building a bridge in their area, which will serve them in facilitating their travel and business.’ A part of the money came from the taxes paid by the sultan’s own property (has).
While the money was being collected, work proceeded on the acquisition of building material and on securing skilled and unskilled labour. The preserved documents do not give a full picture, but one can see from the order of the central government that labour came from the wider area of Herzegovina and from Dubrovnik. Soldiers from the Blagaj and Mostar fortresses also took part. In his ferman of March 1566, the sultan ordered Dubrovnik too to send a certain number of builders to Mostar, as requested by the supervisor zaim Mehmed.. The builders from Dubrovnik as well as those from Popovo Polje (who enjoyed the reputation of being first-class stonemasons and builders), were supposed to be paid by the supervisor and the Mostar kadi.
Intensive work on the building of the bridge began in early spring and the whole undertaking was to be finished within two or three months. This date was largely kept, it seems, for the bridge was completed in the summer of 1566, as shown by the inscription.
Water over the bridge
A benefactor appeared during the course of the work, who wished water to be brought across the bridge from the part of the town which had a surfeit of it to the part which had none, once the work had been done. The supervisor Mehmed informed the Porte and an imperial ferman granted this too, provided that the work be properly done, so that the water could not damage the bridge; and if damage nevertheless occurred, the benefactor (whose name is not recorded) was to pay for its removal. The same ferman ordered that the towers flanking the bridge - which were in a poor state, and to which certain alterations had to be made because of the erection of the new bridge - should also be repaired. The budget for the work on the towers was 30,000 akci. The supervisor was told that he should do this ‘with the smallest possible amount from the funds allocated’, and that he should ‘avoid unnecessary spending and waste’.
The supervisor Mehmed was obliged to submit the account for the building of the bridge and the repair of the towers to the Porte once the work had been completed. The account had to contain itemized costs, which was made possible by employing a special scribe in Mostar who entered every expenditure into the defter (document) kept throughout.
The recommendation to thrift has been observed also by the new builders of the Old Bridge - a bridge which, like the rainbow, will soon be restored to its old place as part of the cultural heritage of all humanity.
This article has been translated from Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), September 2003