Banja Luka's Ferhadija mosque rises again

Author: Andras Riedlmayer
Uploaded: Monday, 03 March, 2008

Description of the project of rebuilding Banja Luka's famous Ferhadija mosque, work on which finally began in June 2007

In June 2007, I went to Banja Luka with my old friend Prof. Muhamed Hamidovic, former dean of the Faculty of Architecture in Sarajevo, who in the summer of 2002 had accompanied me on my 4000-km field trip through Bosnia, documenting cultural destruction for the UN war crimes tribunal. Prof. Hamidovic is chief architect overseeing the reconstruction of Banja Luka's historic Ferhadija mosque, blown up in May 1993 but now being rebuilt, with the full agreement of -- and with some financial support (even if modest and not entirely voluntary) from -- the Republika Srpska government.

The project to reconstruct the destroyed sixteenth-century mosque is committed to using original techniques and materials, insofar as possible. Those materials include thousands of recovered stones from the Ferhadija. Astonishingly, more than 60 percent of the original building materials have now been located. It has taken years of patient investigation, some judiciously distributed bribes to people who knew where the stones had been taken, and no small degree of luck. Despite the thoroughness of those who destroyed the ancient mosque and removed and hid the broken stonework under tonnes of rubbish at secret dump sites, after more than a decade in the darkness the Ferhadija's remains are being brought to light, and the recovered stones are being used to undo the work of the destroyers. To make up for those stones that are still missing, or are so badly damaged that they cannot be safely reused, Prof. Hamidovic and his colleagues have also located the original quarries, using information from Ottoman archival documents and matching up the newly-quarried stones with the recovered materials, using chemical-geological analysis.

I spent an entire day in Banja Luka watching the reconstruction in progress and found it an amazing and deeply moving experience. On the outskirts of Banja Luka, in the suburb of Vrbanja, where the backyards of newly rebuilt Bosniak houses merge into farmland, I saw a large, fenced-in field, endowment (vakuf) land of the Islamic community, adjoining a new Serb Orthodox church. The field is now entirely covered with tall piles of thousands of recovered mosque-stones, some of them already neatly sorted, some still awaiting measurement and identification.

Each recovered stone is carefully scanned into a computer programme, using photogrammetry (a process that uses multiple digital cameras, mounted at precisely-measured angles). The stones, each weighing up to 200 kg, are carefully lifted one by one onto a sturdy platform set up inside a shed at the Vrbanja site. These scans -- and then the stones themselves -- are sorted, measured and then matched, to the extent possible, with a computerised plan of the mosque.

That computerised model of the original Ferhadija mosque is based on an earlier (pre-digital-era) photogrammetric survey, prepared decades ago, following the devastating 1969 earthquake that leveled much of Banja Luka but left the ancient mosque still standing. It took human malice, high explosives and heavy machinery to finally level the Ferhadija in 1993.

The computer screen glows in the gloom of the shed, dislaying a virtual 3-D model of the Ferhadija, with a numbered place for every single stone and layers that show every course of stones, from its foundations to the top of the minaret. An outline image of the solid stone sitting on the platform appears on the screen; the operator presses a key, and the image rotates -- little numbers display its dimensions. Further data about the stone is entered: its chemical composition, condition, etc. The computer programme then matches the information with the place (or places) where that stone could fit into the virtual building. It's like watching a gigantic 3-D jigsaw puzzle being put back together, first on computer... and then in real time.

As with any jigsaw puzzle, one has to begin by finding the corners and the edge pieces; next, one looks for the stones that have any distinctive features, such as carvings. I was shown many identifiable stones, such as round pieces of marble columns, column capitals, stone window frames, carved lintels and angled stones from the corners of the building, or the base of the minaret; other pieces are identified more generically (by the kind of stone used and by the distinctive dimensions) as elements likely to have come from a particular wall of the building, without necessarily being matched to a unique location within that wall.

I saw several more truckloads of stones being brought in from where they'd been recovered. The stones that had been dug out from Banja Luka's main municipal rubbish tip, darkened and dank from 14 years spent beneath tonnes of rotting refuse, were being carefully cleaned one-by-one by the workmen and by student-volunteers from the Faculty of Architecture in Sarajevo, using a special solution applied with high-pressure water hoses.

But a large number of mosque stones did not need any cleaning; following tips from anonymous sources, these had been located and recovered by amateur skin divers from a depth of six metres beneath the waters of Banja Luka's municipal reservoir, where they'd been dumped in the summer of 1993 (when all 16 of the city's mosques were destroyed); these stones, some of them the size of an office desk, are being raised from the lake bottom with power winches and emerge clean and bright into the sunlight.

In one large pile of miscellaneous recovered stones, I saw a broken stone on which I could read part of a carved Arabic inscription -- a piece of a mihrab (prayer-niche in a mosque, indicating the direction of Mecca). I was told that that stone did not come from great mosque of Ferhad Pasha Sokolovic, but from one of the 16 other, smaller Ottoman-era mosques in Banja Luka. All of the stones in that particular pile had been identified as coming from other destroyed mosques, not from the Ferhadija. Sorting out which stone came from which razed mosque, I was told, is made possible by distinctive dimensions and by chemical-geological analyses of the recovered stones, carried out by a laboratory in Tuzla.

Only a few weeks after the low-key ceremony at the end of May 2007 that marked the official beginning of the rebuilding project, at the fenced-in site of the mosque in the centre of Banja Luka, the Ferhadija's walls were already taking shape. Beneath the levelled, weed-covered plot of ground, which was all that remained of the destroyed mosque, archaeologists had uncovered the remains of the original stone foundations. Supporting the foundations they found the original, huge 16th-century wooden pilings still in place, firmly implanted in the ground at a depth of nine metres. Now the walls of the Ferhadija are rising once again, stone by stone.

In the early mornings, the Bosniak workmen who live at the site -- traditional stone-masons from Fojnica (some of whom have also worked on the project to rebuild the Old Bridge in Mostar) -- have discreetly begun to perform the Muslim prayers inside the building's walls, marked by the first courses of stones. After a hiatus of 14 years, during which the site was a desolate empty lot, the 500-year-old monument once again lives as a mosque.

One of the members of the building committee of the Banja Luka Islamic community that is overseeing the reconstruction told me over lunch, still shaking his head as if he found it hard to believe: just a few years ago, in 2002, one had to keep it a secret that one was a Muslim in Banja Luka. Otherwise one could get beaten up while walking on the street. But now, he says, it's become ‘normal’. Nothing really dramatic has happened in Banja Luka those years. But somehow things have changed, he said.

I kept thinking as I watched the reconstruction in progress that someone ought to do a documentary film on this -- it should not pass unrecorded.



Hamidovic, Muhamed, ed. <i>A Study: Principles and Methodological

Procedure for the Rehabilitation of Ferhad-Pasha Mosque in Banja Luka.</i>

Sarajevo: School of Architecture in Sarajevo / Arhitektonski Fakultet u

Sarajevu, 2002.


Ferhad pasha mosque (Ferhadija) in Banja Luka, the Ferhad pasa turbe,

the Safi-kaduna turbe, the turbe of Ferhad pasa's bajraktars, the fountain,

the mosque graveyard and surrounding walls, and the portico, the site and

remains of the architectural ensemble. Status: National Monument.

Bosnia and Herzegovina - Commission on National Monuments, 2003.


How the Ferhadija was destroyed:


Westerman, Frank. De brug over de Tara (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Atlas,

1994), pp. 7-13. [transl. by A. Riedlmayer]


Gusic, Bedrudin. Okupacija Banjaluke (The Occupation of Banja Luka),

Oslobodjenje, 16-23 Mar. 1995, pp. 16, 17 [transl. by A. Riedlmayer]



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