The European Jerusalem: Sarajevo, where Muslim heritage flourished in Central Europe

During Ottoman rule, Sarajevo was heralded as the “European Jerusalem”, as its invaluable contributions to civil engineering, industry, trade and architecture attracted people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. Aesthetic beauty alongside scientific ingenuity made, and indeed makes, Sarajevo a hub for civilisation.

+ Click to read the full article
- Click to close

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Ottoman Rule in Sarajevo
3. Gazi Husrev-Begova Complex
4. Society, Economy, Trade, Arts, and Architecture in Sarajevo
5. Sarajevo in Post Ottoman Rule
6. References

1. Introduction

Known for its diverse ethnic and religious makeup, Bosnia and Herzegovina offers a captivating history, scenic landscapes, adventure and a rich culinary tradition. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rich history of contributions in science, technology, economy, arts, architecture and civilisation, which benefits both Europe and the Muslim world until present.

This article features the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo. Translated as “the plains around the palace” or “palace plains” from the Turkish Sarayova (saray ovası), one may say that Sarajevo most definitely gives the feeling of grandeur and exquisite beauty. The skyline offers impressive outlines of nature meeting the contemporary world with the Dinarides/Dinaric Alps lofting over different periods of history. This is illustrated in a montage of religious along with secular architecture including church, cathedral and mosque spires as well as Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav built establishments.

Figure 1: Sarajevo skyline. (Source).

2. Ottoman Rule in Sarajevo

It has been said that the water flows from the Miljacka River, which Sarajevans are proud of, makes visitors wish to never leave due to its sweet taste. This water system that was installed by Isa-Beg Isaković was later much improved upon by Gazi Husrev-Beg, who governed Bosnia from 1521 to 1541.[1] Some of the first wooden-pipe waterworks are reported to have been built to supply both private and public dwellings.[2] This water system was a 7 km long and spread system, later on used as the basis for the modern water supply system.[3] He is said to be one of Sarajevo’s, along with greater Bosnia and Herzegovina’s, most celebrated donors and leaders, due to his “extraordinary energy” and “philanthropy.”[4]

Figure 2: The Balkans region according to Piri Reis in 1513. (Source).

Although, Gazi Husrev-Beg is said to be one of the most influential leaders of Sarajevo, it was under Isa-Beg Isaković in 1457-9 CE[5] that the city was founded as an entity of the Ottoman Empire. Isaković sealed the city by founding numerous symbolic entities including the “Careva Džamija” (also known as the Emperor’s Mosque; the Tsar’s Mosque; The Imperial Mosque), a tekke (a school and lodge of a dervish order), a musafirhana (free inn for travellers), a hamam (Turkish bath), a bridge across the river Miljacka, a system of piped water, and the Saray (Palace), or governor’s court, which gave the town its new name.[2] 

Whilst the first Ottoman settlement of the Careva Džamija was built around the mosque, the Sultan’s representative, hamam and bridge were later disassembled during the Austro-Hungarian reign. They were later rebuilt a few metres upstream, where they remain today.

The original Careva Džamija included a hipped roof[6] that was made of wood and was significantly smaller than today’s existing building. The present mosque includes a dome above the prayer area and three small domes on the cloister by the order of Sultan Sulejman Velićanstveni (Suleiman the Magnificent) in 1566.[4] The introduction of the dome, as opposed to the hipped roof, was typical of Ottoman architecture, as is reported in this Muslim Heritage article on Ottoman Architecture and Urban design.

The cloister which surrounds the mosque’s courtyard was later walled up in 1847 and 1912, along with the expansion of the Ulema Medžlis building.[4] Side rooms were later added and connected via the addition of a door in the central prayer area in the 19th century. Painted decorations and the interior of the mosque were conserved and restored between 1980 and 1983 (source).

Figure 3: Careva Džamija or "The Emperor's Mosque."

3. Gazi Husrev-Begova Complex

Figure 4: Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque, School, Library complex.

Amongst the many civil and educational institutions the Ottomans founded during their reign in Sarajevo, one of the most significant is that of the Gazi Husrev-Beg complex in Baščaršija (old bazaar). This interlocking of institutions of the town with those of Islam and its great civilisation would not have been possible without Gazi Husrev-Beg’s waqf (religious endowment).[7] This was typical of Ottoman municipality leadership and in spite of stereotypes, the waqf institution could be argued to be one of the greatest legacies the world has inherited. In a poetic irony, the Ottomans themselves once stated on the institution of waqf:

"If you would like to get to know us after our era, please refer to our endowments (as these are our best works that present us).”[8]

Figure 5: Outer walls of the Bezistan (covered market places) which was destroyed in the siege of Sarajevo, but has since reopened and is once again a trade centre lined with tiny boutiques, cafes and souvenir shops. (Source).

Although the waqf was used to build high standard public institutions, Gazi Husrev-Beg focused primarily on building sustainable marketplaces. One could conclude that Gazi Husrev-Beg acknowledged that economy and trade would be one of the strongest foundations and income generating principles of Sarajevo. So much so that he was accredited of “building projects all inside the Sarajevan Baščaršija (old bazaar), […] refusing to lend money to merchants or donors building anywhere else…”[9] Thus seeming to transform the face and status of Sarajevo. 

Figure 6: The Bezistan is renowned for its haberdashery and craftsmanship. (Source).
Figure 7: Inside the contemporary Bezistan. (Source).

In addition to building a world renowned marketplace, Gazi Husrev-Beg is also accredited with building a complex which still bears his name. The Begova džamija, otherwise known as the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque, is argued to be one of the most significant Islamic structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its varied bases, multi dome system, and courageous construction sets it apart from all sub-dome mosques built in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The prayer area of the Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque is covered by a dome with a 13 metre span and 26 metre height, whilst the side of the extensions are covered by small domes. These expansions are called tetims and have separate entrances that were used to provide shelter for the travelling dervish orders. The alter (mihrab) is covered by a semi-dome.

The mosque was built by Adžem Esir Ali, who was the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire at that time. In the construction of this mosque he applied the early Istanbul style that gives a prominent mark to the whole achievement. Stone plastic and stalactite ornaments are an integral part of the universal values of the mosque. The Arabesque, which arose from the original model, was destroyed after the attack of the Eugene of Savoy (1697). It was restored in 1762, but burnt down in 1879. It has since been restored once again in 1886.

Figure 8: Domes of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque.

Figure 9: Fountain at the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque.

Figure 10: Interior of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque.

Other features of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque complex include the fountain (šadrvan), Muslim primary school (mekteb), the room for ritual washing (abdestham), domed burial sites (turbeti) and Gazi Husrev-Beg and Murad-Beg Tardić’s harem, abode for the prayer caller (muvekithana) with a 45 metres high minaret and clock tower (Sahat kula). The Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque dominates the marketplace and forms its central and largest complex. Its existence through the ages has affected the construction activities of the surrounding area, streets and neighbourhoods (mahala).[10]

During Ottoman rule, twenty-one clock towers were built in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the tallest one, at 30 metres, was built in Sarajevo next to the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque. The tower was first mentioned in the early 17th century in the annals of Evliya Çelebi, a Turkish travel writer.

The current clock mechanism found within Sarajevo’s tower was brought from London by Sarajevan merchants, Hašimaga Glođo and Mehaga Kapetanović. A famous watchmaker and former muvekit (timekeeper) from Sarajevo, Abdulah Kasumagić, gilded the hands and numbers on all four of the Gillette & Bland Croydon clock faces.

Figure 11: Front view, Sarajevo clock tower. (Source).
Figure 12: Close up of the Ottoman clock dial which still displays Arabic numerals so as to guide people for their daily prayers. (Source).

As the times of sunset and sunrise change on a daily basis, muvekits (timekeepers) maintained the clock’s accuracy for more than four centuries. In order to gain this post, an impeccable knowledge of mathematics, astrology and astronomy were needed so that an accurate measure of time was obtained. In the courtyard of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque there was a kind of observatory, a muvekithana, which is where the exact time could be calculated with the guidance of cautious techniques and finely tuned instruments.

What could be said to make Sarajevo’s clock tower so distinctive is that it is probably the only public clock in the world that keeps lunar time (“à la Turk”), so as to indicate prayer times. Tourists visiting Sarajevo often appear confused when they observe 12 noon as sunset!

Considering that the clock tower has long lost its original significance, many Sarajevans are unable to explain why the clock tower displays the “incorrect time.” However, those who are better informed can take you to Sarajevo’s muvekit, Mensur Zlatar, who works at a nearby jewellery shop. He has been climbing the tower’s 76 steps once a week since 1967 in order to fine-tune the clockwork and align it with the astronomical shifts between day and night.

In the courtyard of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque there is a screen (where the muvekithana used to be) that displays prayer times according to Central European Time. Since it has a satellite connection with the Greenwich Observatory in London, it is certainly the most accurate clock in Sarajevo, and was placed in honour of the muvekits, who ensured the correct time was in place for centuries.[11]

As is demonstrated by the investment and construction of the market place and various public service institutions mentioned earlier, Gazi Husrev-Beg had a keen interest in education and the arts. As a result, he founded the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library in 1537. Though built at a later date, The Oriental Institute, which dates back to 1950,[12] was destroyed by Serbian forces in 1992; resulting in an entire collection of 5,263 manuscripts in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Bosnian (Bosnian in Arabic script), together with even greater numbers of Ottoman documents and registers being destroyed. This led some to conclude that this was a cultural genocide.[13]

Figure 13: Kuršumlija Medresa, where books/manuscripts used to be held. (Source).

Fortunately, the other main collection in the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library was moved and stored in several locations within Sarajevo. Mustafa Jahić, Director of the Gazi Husrev-Beg Library, alongside other Sarajevan locals risked their lives by carrying the books and manuscripts in banana boxes during the Siege of Sarajevo.[14] Mr Jahić and his colleagues made some attempts to restore the items in the form of microfilm copies, albeit, making the previous loss of destroyed books/manuscripts in The Oriental Institute irreparable.

Similar attacks and destruction were inflicted on a number of other Muslim libraries and archives in Mostar and elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, resulting in further significant losses of manuscript holdings.[13]

Other famous cultural landmarks such as the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar, which Mimar Sinan’s student, Mimar Hayruddin, built in the 16th Century have also unfortunately been the target of cultural destruction. Both the Stari Most and Gazi Husrev-Beg Library have since been rebuilt and appear to be popular tourist attractions.

Figure 14 & 15: The newly built Gazi Husrev-Begova Library located on Gazi Husrev-Begova street. (Source).

The new Gazi Husrev-Beg representative library was founded in 2003 and completed in 2013, with the help and support of the State of Qatar.[13] The new building is now located near the Gazi Husrev-Beg complex, in the heart of the Old Town (Baščaršija).

4. Society, Economy, Trade, Arts, and Architecture in Sarajevo

Despite the historical and political developments post Ottoman rule, many historians have credited Ottoman led Sarajevo as “The Golden Age” of Bosnia.6 Civil and educational establishments expanded, the population dramatically increased and due to good trade, the economy was booming, hence Sarajevans appeared to live opulently.

In addition to the outstanding Gazi Husrev-Beg complex, another architectural feature the Ottomans accomplished in Sarajevo was the construction of numerous bridges. The construction of these bridges should be viewed in the context of the general urbanisation of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th and 16th century. With trade development, new paths were created and with them the bridges, usually a part of vizier or sultanate legacy. Some of these bridges were the biggest projects of their time, such as the monumental Mehmed Pasha Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad.

Figure 16: The “Kozja ćuprija” (Goat’s Bridge), built in the 16th century in legacy of the grand vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolović. This single-arch bridge is 42 m in length and is an example of exceptional aesthetics. It is defined by two large round side holes to facilitate the construction and to serve as decoration. (Source).

Figure 17: The “Šeher-Ćehaja” Bridge, most likely named after one of Sarajevo’s governors, Ćehaja. It is a standard bridge with multiple arches. Its beauty is reflected in the poles with distinguished pedestals. The buttresses and the accentuated sculptural serves as a protection from the floods. The bridge is 40 metres in length at present, though was originally longer. (Source).

Due to the weakening of the Bosnian government, the bridges in the 18th century were mainly built by private sponsors. Though these bridges seemed to be less ambitious projects than those bridges that preceded, the quality of the construction and style appeared to remain of a similar stature. The Ottoman bridges in Bosnia are believed to have a distinguished appearance and bridges that were constructed later seemed to have only a few formal differences from them. The basic Ottoman style seems to have intertwined some local characteristics which are also present in the construction of mosques. However, it could be contested that one of the most fascinating features is their sculptural form. This includes, the sculpt and massive pillars, buttresses, pointed arches, circular and polygonal structural openings, cornices, pedestals for inscriptions, etc. The bridges, as engineering projects, may well be argued to be true works of art.16

Unfortunately, it seems as though early medieval bridges had not been preserved. What is more, it is hard to source any relevant information concerning them. However, similar to gravestones dating from that period, there may well have been a continuity of handicraft stone processing that, with the arrival of the Ottomans, were given a new dimension. As mentioned earlier, the Ottoman bridges contain local characteristics. This was evident in the selection of the stone and the rustic processing, which gave the bridges an exceptional value. The project plans may have been coming from Istanbul, but the complete construction was assigned to local artists, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. During the Middle Ages, historical records indicate that Bosnia had developed stone processing, as can be seen on tombstones. This was an interesting transition, as former blacksmiths of the tombstones became masters or 'tasdžije' who worked mostly on the final stone processing. These stone ornaments within the organised gild or 'esnaf' were recorded for the first time in Sarajevo, during 1555. Their specialities included creating chronograms or sculpting stone epigraphy and muqarnas, a three-dimensional geometrical decoration.[16]

Figure 18: Muqarnas from the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque, Sarajevo. (Source).

Of all the other cities in Bosnia, the biggest concentration of the bridges in the city area was in Sarajevo, the capital city divided by the river Miljacka where most of the bridges were built on. The bridges were built in the peripheral part of the city on rivers Željeznica and Bosna. While the exact number of bridges built proceeding and during Ottoman rule in Sarajevo is unknown, it is reported that at least seven stone bridges existed, of which four are preserved. Two bridges are considered to be intentionally demolished during the Austro-Hungarian administration, such as the Emperor Bridge and the Rustem Pasha Bridge which dated back to the 16th century. Another destructive factor seems to be the frequent flooding of the river Miljacka, which led to repairs and sometimes a complete reconstruction. In 1791 all bridges in Sarajevo, except the Šeher-Ćehaja Bridge in Baščaršija, were destroyed or suffered serious damage.

Sarajevo has four preserved Ottoman stone bridges which are still in use today; the 'Kozja ćuprija' (Goat’s Bridge) from the second half of the 16th century, the 'Šeher-Ćehaja' bridge from 1585/58, the 'Latinska ćuprija' (Latin Bridge) from 1798 and the 'Rimski Most (Roman Bridge) from the first half of the 16th century.

Figure 19: The 'Latinska ćuprija' or Latin bridge is said to have received its name after the 'Latin mahala' district where merchants from Dubrovnik and other parts of Europe resided. The original bridge was built in the 16th century, but was destroyed in the flood and fully reconstructed in 1798. Sarajevan merchant, Abdullah Briga, left a charity endowment in his will, granting enough means that were used to fund the reconstruction. It stands at 40 metres in length and the bridge only has four arches visible, from the original five. (Source).

Figure 20: The Roman Bridge is contested to be one of the most unique bridges from the existing four bridges. Although, the name can be misleading, as the bridge was built in the first half of the 16th century, it is still to be established who exactly built this bridge. Some claim the patron was Rustem Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, whilst others argue that it could also have been Semiz Ali Pasha or Gazi Ali Pasha. However, the name is likely to have derived from the ancient Roman road, or what is more likely, by the remnants of stone collected from Roman ruins used in the construction of this bridge. The bridge is 52 metres in length and is an example of extraordinary synergy between architecture and natural environment. (Source).

Turkish historian Ekrem Hakki Ayverdi, in collaboration with Bosnian historians, recorded, in his research, that the Ottomans built more than 6600 public facilities in Bosnia. There were also hundreds of housing and residential architecture that were not mentioned in his research.[15] This may explain why Bosnian polymaths travelled to and from Sarajevo such as Muslim mathematician and scientist, Nasuh bin Karagöz bin Abdullah el-Bosnavî (commonly known as Matrakçı Nasuh, also known as Nasuh el-Silâhî), alongside visits from well-known Ottoman voyager, Evliya Çelebi.

Çelebi, in his ten-volume work, Seyahatnâme (Book of Travels), drew attention to different subject matters regarding Sarajevo: history, urban planning, climate, resources, law, civil and religious institutions. Aside from the wealth and scenery, Çelebi concluded that:

 “This city [Sarajevo] is the most prosperous, the most ornate and the most developed city among the other cities [in the Ottoman Empire] that have the word of sarây (Palace)”.[16]

Figure 21: A google doodle honouring Evliya Çelebi’s 400th Birth Anniversary. (Source).

In addition to eminent personalities who prospered in Sarajevo, such as those mentioned above, international trade and services were also booming. Production services in Sarajevo were said to be of the highest calibre in Ottoman Bosnia. Hence, engendering demands for cannons, gunpowder, sulphur and saltpetre amongst other minerals and metals to come to Bosnia for further manufacturing, as outlined in the following article on artillery and trade in the Ottoman Empire, lead some to conclude that this may have been one of the earliest indications of the industrial movement which took place in the Balkans as opposed to mainland Europe (source).

With the rise of economic and social standards, different religious and ethnic communities migrated to Sarajevo, particularly those of the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities in the early 16th century..[2] & [3]. Due to these different communities living in harmony and cohesion during that era, commentators commonly referred to Sarajevo as “The European Jerusalem”.

Figure 22: With the rise of economic and social standards in the early 16th Century, different religious and ethnic communities such as the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities migrated to Sarajevo en masse. (Source).

5. Sarajevo in Post Ottoman Rule

After the Ottomans lost control in Sarajevo and greater Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo and greater Bosnia and Herzegovina unfortunately became subject to a series of aggression. Yet, after the latest aftermath of the most recent siege, Balkan researchers, such as Sali Shahsivari, have shared encouraging statements. In the following exert taken from his speech on Heritage Research for Cultural Inter-Appreciation in the Balkans, Sali Shahsivari highlights the rich symbiosis Balkan countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina have enjoined in history and may enjoin in the future:

Figure 23: Sali Shahsivari presenting his lecture in the "1001 Inventions" conference. © FSTC 2010.

 “[…] Nowadays, the Balkans is more diverse than ever. Different cultures, ethnicities, religions and denominations are divided in many countries and societies, turning it into the most heterogeneous place in Europe. This richness in diversity, as much as it can be beneficial, can also be dangerous, if it is not used properly. Therefore, the best use of this cultural richness is by promoting common values and encouraging the young generations on heritage research, because the bad experience in the past has proven that in times of hatred, the first thing to be sacrificed was the common heritage, as was the case with the old town of Dubrovnik and the National Library in Sarajevo.

The Balkans has been always a place and a bridge where different cultures created a mosaic of a diverse heritage, among which are many unstudied manuscripts, a heritage still waiting to be uncovered.”[17]

Figure 24: The Sebilj Fountain, Baščaršija, Old Town, Sarajevo.

Sarajevo still remains a rich fountain of historical, cultural, scientific and technological light; we wish the people of Sarajevo and greater Bosnia and Herzegovina all the best with retaining and building upon their extraordinary history.

6. References

[1] Muhammed Al-Ahari, A Heritage of East and West: The Writings of Imam Ćamil Avdić. Chicago: Islamic Cultural Center Newsletter, 2006, pp. 116 – 117

[2] Tim Clancy, The Bradt Travel Guide: Bosnia & Herzegovina, 2nd ed., Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press Inc., 2007, p. 104.

[4] See Malcolm Noel’s book Bosnia: A Short History, New York University Press, 1996.

[5] Marko Attila Hoare, The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, London: Saqi Books, 2007, p. 45.

[7] Malcolm Noel, Bosnia: A Short History, London: Macmillan, 1994, p. 68.

[8] Ferit Devellioglu, Ottoman-Turkish Encyclopaedic Dictionary with Old and New Letters, Ankara, 1993.

[14] See the following BBC4 documentary “The Love of Books: A Sarajevo Story” for more information.

[16] The Second International Symposium on Sustainable Development, Evliya Çelebi in Bosnia.

Rate this article: 
Average: 4.7 (3 votes)
See full gallery