bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
On the Destruction and Rebuilding of the Old Bridge in Mostar
by Radovan Ivancevic

‘The Old Bridge in Mostar' is the name of an exhibition opened in Zagreb on 14 October 2003 dedicated to the famous bridge (destroyed a decade ago by the Croatian army) and its reconstruction, which is due to be completed in 2004.  The exhibition, organized by the Centre for Peace and Multi-ethnic Cooperation from Mostar,  includes photographs of the Old Bridge, works by the Mostar artist  Ciril ‘Ciro' Raic , documents from the bridge's earlier life and about the current efforts to restore it as a symbol of co-existence.  The exhibition was opened by the president of Croatia Stipe Mesic  and the ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Croatia Zlatko Dizdarevic 


On the Destruction and Rebuilding of the Old Bridge in Mostar


Radovan Ivancevic


On the day - 19 November 1994 - when the Old Bridge was destroyed intentionally and deliberately by fire from a Croatian tank, the Croatian TV commanded by Tu man and his HDZ reported this barbaric act with the cryptic phrase: ‘the bridge has collapsed'.   Soon afterwards I was invited by Dubravko Merlic, editor of the popular Croatian TV programme ‘Picture against Picture', to comment on the event.  During the interview I concentrated on two themes.  The first was that we can divide the history of mankind into a history of human creativity and construction and a history of destruction and obliteration.  My second point was that the best way of punishing those who destroy is to show that crime will not pay: i.e. that they will never be able to destroy as much as we shall stubbornly restore, thereby annulling their deed.  This was to be true also of Mostar.  I drew a parallel too between the destruction of the Bridge and the shelling from a JNA ship of the cupola of  Šibenik's cathedral.  Someone, playing around, wished to see if he could score a direct hit.  He chose as his target this  priceless product of Croatian and European Renaissance architecture, with which the builder Nicholas, who had trained in Florence, crowned a unique cultural monument: the only such construction formed by placing together stones without adding any binding material, applying a method previously used only for wood, as in the construction of boats and ships.  If this antediluvial character had hit just a little more to the left or to the right, if he had hit one of the cupola's ribs, the whole structure would have fallen apart like stacked dominoes. 
This was an enterprise in which the JNA and the Croatian gunners behaved exactly alike, members of the same destructive community, driven by the same destructive inspiration.  The two actions were similar in nature also because the Mostar bridge too is a masterpiece of sixteenth-century European architecture. 

I next wrote a letter of protest in the name of the Croatian society of historians of art and had it published with that body's full approval.   It appears as chronologically the first item in the collection of texts accompanying the exhibition ‘The Old Bridge in Mostar' that recently opened at the Mimara Museum in Zagreb.

Perpetrators go free
Tu man was the supreme commander of the Croatian armed forces, so that the destruction of the Old Bridge was done either on his orders or with his permission.   If this is not true, then the general who did it should have been ordered to appear before a military tribunal.  Nothing of the kind happened, however.  The engineer Josip Šilic, who should be decorated for civic courage, formally charged the perpetrators, naming the five soldiers in the tank in the hope that they would point to the one who had given the order.  The courts, however, failed to proceed, and the five disappeared from public view.  Our stance was well received in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the world, however, and after a while I was appointed to the UNESCO commission charged with the reconstruction of the Bridge - showing that not all Croats were destroyers. 

What is ironic, perhaps, is that while the designer of the Bridge was indeed the great Ottoman architect Hajrudin (1566), it was actually built by stonemasons from Korcula, so that in a way it is also a Croatian cultural monument.  The documents examined in the course of the research associated with the reconstruction show that a group of stonemasons from Imotski was also involved, but that they ‘worked poorly and constantly quarrelled among themselves'.  

The restoration project is a joint enterprise of UNESCO and the World Bank, which look after finances and donations.  The commission has involved  L. Pressourtye from Paris, E. Erder from Istanbul, M. Gojkovic  from Belgrade, myself, M. Kiel from Amsterdam, Z. Langhof and F. Mulabegovic  from Sarajevo, Colin Kayser from UNESCO in Bosnia-Herzegovina - a man in love with Bosnia and married to a Bosnian -  and two representatives of the world UNESCO: M. Bouchenki and A. Beschauch.  The work of the commission would not have been possible, however, without contributions from many others who cannot all be named here.  The working party responsible for the implementation, organization and coordination was headed by the tireless co-mayor of Mostar Safet Orucevic.  There were times, however, when it seemed that the whole project would come to nothing. 

Our first success was to agree on the basic assumption that the Bridge does not exist in isolation, but forms a whole with the two powerful towers linked by  the bridge, and that the area of conservation and reconstruction should embrace a wide area on both sides of the river.  The rich archives of photographs and sketches collected over years by the Mostar conservationist Zijo Demirovic  made a crucial contribution to Mostar - an excellent study of the state of buildings in the old historic core of the city prepared by Carlo Blasi from Florence.  We next insisted on an archaeological investigation of the towers, with which at first most of the foreign members of the commission disagreed, on the grounds that it would greatly increase the cost while not being directly related to rebuilding the bridge.   Finally, we insisted on the use of old building techniques and traditional building materials.  There was, for example, an attempt to impose the experience of allegedly ‘more developed' countries and have us use as the isolation coat for the Bridge the famous Italian terra puzzolana.  However, we managed to prove that in the area of the Dubrovnik Republic since the sixteenth century we have used the characteristic red bauxite earth which has proved its excellent qualities over more than four centuries.   The whole thing was satisfactorily resolved once we  managed to exclude from the enterprise an overbearing Frenchman who had set up his office in Mostar and insisted on being the boss, after which the construction was entrusted to  Zeljko Pekovic  from Dubrovnik and his firm.

In addition to pinpointing the static foundations, the archaeological research produced some amazing discoveries.  After removing the 19th and 20th century additions, a multi-functional pattern was revealed.  Thus the large Halebi tower (built in 1444 and strengthened in the 16th century) used to contain a small prayer room and a harem, the resting quarters for travellers. Supporting pillars of an earlier wooden bridge (built in 1452), which was located downstream from the stone bridge built in 1566, were also discovered, as well as wooden channels of an aqueduct.  Research in the archives brought to light other interesting information.  Our Ottoman expert from Amsterdam thus discovered in the Turkish archives, for example, that the tower contained also special rooms for unmarried men, so that, it was noted, young men could be prevented from ‘molesting the women and girls of Mostar'. 

Ottoman archives
Few know that the Ottoman archives are among the richest and best preserved in the world, since while the Ottomans waged wars their own territory was spared destruction.  Their bureaucracy was better and more reliable than the subsequent Austrian one.  Every event, however small, was recorded in three copies: one deposited with the local government, another with the provincial one, while the third was sent to the central archives in Istanbul.  As a result there are today several million documents and the only problem is how to find the right one, despite the fact that they are arranged chronologically.  However, months of team work managed to retrieve some reliable data on the building and repair of the Bridge, on how Hajrudin built also a tower in Makarska, etc. 

Regarding the Bridge itself, we also learnt something new.  Engineer Gojkovic  from Belgrade,  an expert on bridges from the Ottoman period, who has published two books on the subject and overseen the reconstruction of several Ottoman-period bridges, produced a metric analysis of the design and discovered that the structure of the bridge was based on two squares.  L. B. Alberti, the great Renaissance theoretician of architecture, considered such foundations to be of  ideal harmonic proportions.  In this way too the Bridge fits into the great building tradition of Renaissance Europe.  Unfortunately our colleague Gojkovic  died before he could see the completion of the work of  restoration. 

Our original idea was to rebuild the Bridge using as many as we could of the original stones which fell into the Neretva.  Seismic research showed, however, that the impact of the fall had created numerous tiny chinks in them which would widen in time and thus endanger the statics of the Bridge.  For this reason, three years before the start of the restoration work, large boulders were carved from the same quarry from which the original stone had come.  These were left suspended to absorb moisture, as has traditionally always been done.  The stone is the fine yellowish limestone, the so-called tenelija.  Pictures of its microscopic structure reveal complexity, hardness but also elasticity. 

The history of this whole enterprise has been very tempestuous and complex, worth several volumes of several hundred pages each, which in my view deserve to be published at some point in the future.

This article has been translated from Nedjeljni Vjesnik (Zagreb), 19 October 2003.   In February 2004 the ‘Old Bridge in Mostar' exhibition opened in Belgrade.


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