Islamic sites in Bosnia - ten years on

Author: Asim Zubcevic
Uploaded: Tuesday, 21 March, 2006

Many of the finest Islamic monuments in Bosnia were systematically destroyed by Serb Nationalists. Asim Zubcevic, a Bosnian Muslim scholar, examines the challenges facing the restoration of the country’s historic sites and the influence of petro-dollars in changing the spiritual landscape of Bosnia, in an article reprinted from Islamica Magazine

"All over the country, mosques and minarets have been demolished, including some of the finest examples of 16th-century Ottoman architecture in the western Balkans. These buildings were not caught in the cross-fire of military engagements—in towns such as Bijeljina and Banja Luka, the demolitions had nothing to do with fighting at all—but were blown up with explosives in the night, and bulldozed the following day. The people who planned and ordered these actions like to say that history is on their side. What they show by their deeds is that they are waging a war against the history of their country."1 Thus wrote a British historian in 1994. When one year later the war against Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), the country could survey its losses: over 250,000 dead, more than two million refugees, tens of thousands of raped women and girls, and over 3,000 architectural monuments destroyed or damaged.2

Mightier than the sword: scholars prepare the ground

It is an indisputable fact that Bosnia’s cultural heritage was destroyed in a systematic and methodical fashion: religious monuments, libraries and other landmarks identified with various communities. The destruction of Bosnian Muslim heritage in particular was not a by-product of the war, but a deliberate policy that went hand in hand with an attempt to exterminate them. It does not come as a surprise then that the largest destruction occurred in areas outside military activity.3

Historical precedence for dynamiting mosques and razing Muslim graveyards in the Balkans may be traced back to the 19th century when the nascent Balkan states went about obliterating their Muslim communities and their cultural heritage, as expressed in one of the most highly regarded pieces of Serbian poetry:

‘And all their houses we did see ablaze;

Of all their mosques both great and small

We left but one accursed heap

For passing folk to cast their glance of scorn.’4

More recently those who launched the genocidal assault on Bosnia drew inspiration from Serbian intellectuals including Serbian orientalists whose contribution to portraying Muslims and their heritage as alien, inferior, and threatening can only be described as significant. In their articles and books in the 1980s, they deliberately distorted Islam, dehumanized and delegitimized Muslims as a community, providing "scholarly" justification and intellectual respectability to ethnic cleansing.5 This term refers to the removal of an undesirable population; it generally went hand in hand with destroying physical traces of that population’s presence. Thus a leading "expert" on Islam wrote that "trying to conquer the world … they use their birth-rate, the construction of mosques and pressure against non-Muslims."6

Croat nationalists were not far behind. As a Croat militiaman explained: "It is not enough to cleanse Mostar of the Muslims; their relics must also be destroyed."7

Examples are many, but let us confine ourselves to some of the more prominent cases of destruction.

Atik Mosque, Bijeljina

Built between 1520 and 1566 during the Ottoman reign of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, the Atik Mosque in the northeastern town of Bijeljina was utterly destroyed along with the nearby turbe on 13 March 1993. In the course of its re-building, remains of a previous structure were found. Amid claims that these belonged to a church, the work halted before an independent commission published a report disproving the claim. It was fully restored and opened on 3 August 2002.

Aladza Mosque, Foca

Aladza was built in classical Ottoman style in 1550/51 by a close aid to the celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. Remarkable for its harmonious proportions and preserved internal decoration, Aladza was one of the most beautiful mosques in the Balkans and an important symbol of overall Bosnian Muslim heritage. Its reconstruction is yet to begin.

Ferhadija Mosque, Banja Luka

If Srebrenica was a crime that became a horrific symbol of an attempt at the physical destruction of Bosnian Muslims, the destruction of Ferhadija in 1993 has come to symbolize the destruction of their material heritage, particularly their mosques. In fact, the day of its destruction, 7 May, has entered the calendar of the Islamic Community of Bosnia- Herzegovina as the Day of Mosques in remembrance of over 1,100 Bosnian mosques destroyed in the war of 1992-1995.

Within two months of its destruction the remaining 15 mosques in Banja Luka were blown up too. If anyone needed proof that the Bosnian Serbian nationalist authorities were behind the crime, it came a few months later in the form of an exhibition of photographs about the history of Banja Luka: it had not a single photograph of the city’s mosques.8 Their destruction was not just aimed at destroying Bosnian Muslim architecture, but also at changing the city’s identity, which—in the eyes of many of its citizens regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation—these mosques, and especially Ferhadija, were very much a part of. Perhaps due to the powerful symbolism of Ferhadija, the international community has taken strong interest in its rebuilding.9

After years of foot-dragging and numerous delays, the Bosnian Serb authorities finally agreed to allow the laying of the foundation stone on 7 May 2001. As Muslim visitors and representatives of political and diplomatic life in Bosnia were arriving at the site of the destroyed mosque, a huge and menacing mob gathered around chanting nationalist songs and insults and throwing stones, sparing not even foreign dignitaries. An elderly Muslim man was injured and later died in a hospital. The rioters managed to burn coaches in which the visitors had arrived.10

It took another four years before reconstruction could finally begin on 4 October 2005. The first stage involves recovering the mosque remains from the city’s waste dumps. Around 1,000 remains of Ferhadija and other Banja Luka mosques have been uncovered so far and they will be used for the purposes of their restoration. Each fragment is washed and marked in order to be used for rebuilding the mosque exactly to its original layout.11

Muslim heritage of Stolac

One of the most poignant cases of war-time destruction and post-war recovery is to be found in the town of Stolac. It is a place with the longest urban settlement in Bosnia, spanning over 3,000 years. In spring 1993 Muslim men were rounded up and sent into camps, while women and children were expelled. Again the ensuing looting and destruction was carried out systematically and at a time when there was no fighting. As a result all four mosques in Stolac and another seven in the surrounding villages were blown up including one of the oldest Bosnian mosques that lay at the heart of town, the Carsija Mosque from 1519.

Stolac is unique among Bosnian towns in that much of its pre-war Muslim population has returned against the violent opposition from local Croat nationa

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