If you’re looking to visit a European city which has hosted a pivotal moment in the continent’s history may I suggest the under-rated Sarajevo. It was in the Bosnian capital that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his pregnant wife Sophie took place on 28th June 1914. The incident triggered a continent-wide conflict.
But Sarajevo history is more extensive than that incident may indicate. Sarajevo is Europe’s crossroad, a city where east meets west and where empires have come and gone, leaving layers of culture and architecture behind presided over by a congenial and welcoming local population.
Sarajevo history dates back to Neolithic times but the extension of the Ottoman Empire into the Balkans marks the beginning of the modern city’s history. Indeed, the word Sarajevo has Turkish origins.
The east and south side of the city houses fine examples of Ottoman architecture including the Baščaršija area which was the main market place in Ottoman times. Mosques can be found all over the city accompanied by public fountains installed by the Ottomans for pre-prayer ablutions and bakeries for post-prayer breaking of fasts – an excellent example of joined-up thinking.
The next empire to roll into Sarajevo was the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose relatively short stay (1878-1918) had a pronounced influence on the architecture and industry. Sarajevo was the site of Europe’s first tram system although locals believe the city was chosen as the guinea pig to trial the potentially hazardous transport.
Examples of Austro-Hungarian architecture can be found all over the western side of the city most notably the National Gallery and National Theatre. The Town Hall, which houses the National Library, is the Austro-Hungarian ode to Moorish culture and can be found near Baščaršija.
Sarajevo is indelibly linked with the start of World War I although a more detailed examination of early 20th Century Europe would suggest that it was merely the catalyst rather than the cause as European monarchs were itching to wage war against each other.
Post-WWI Sarajevo found itself in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia which became occupied by Nazis during World War II.
The next period in Sarajevo history was the Tito era which is remembered by many as an era of security despite being a dictatorship. Surprisingly but understandably many yearn for that era to return as genocide followed during the 1990s Balkan wars with political division in Bosnia and Herzegovina remaining to this day.
Galerija 11/07/95, dedicated to the memory of those killed in the Srebenica massacre, is an excellent and disturbing exposition of genocide using photographs, interviews and interactive maps to both illustrate the suffering of victims and cruelty of the perpetrators. This is rightly ranked as the number one attraction in Sarajevo on Tripadvisor.
Another reminder of this insane period is Markale Market where two separate mortar attacks in February 1994 and August 1995 killed over 100 shoppers. I can recall the actual news footage of the February attack with images of bodies being loaded into the boot of a navy VW Jetta burned into my memory. Red resin has been poured into the crater left by the mortar shell here and around the city. These are called the Sarajevo Roses.
The centre of Sarajevo is relatively compact so a bountiful amount of history can be encompassed in an afternoon’s walking tour. I highly recommend Neno at Sarajevo Walking Tours as a guide as his affable personality and superb presentation skills ensured that all in the group were both well-informed of the city’s extensive past and suitably enthused at the end of the tour. Sarajevo’s multi-ethnic past and present is evident from the numerous places of worship located within a few streets of each other and Neno elaborates on this as well.
History and debate never seems to stop in Sarajevo and in the wider Bosnia and Herzegovina context. I was in the city for the centenary commemoration of the Archduke’s assassination. A subdued re-enactment of the event took place under tight security whilst in the Republic of Srpska a statue celebrating the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was controversially unveiled.
A story carried by a UK news agency suggesting that Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t doing enough to commemorate the start of WWI was not well received locally. As part of the commemoration the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra played a concert in the National Library drawing tears of joy and pride during the performance of the Bosnian National Anthem.
I managed to charm the Sarajevan overseer of the seating reserved for embassy officials and found myself amongst the French Embassy staff who were as disrespectful to me (there were plenty of spare seats) as they were to the German National Anthem (they sat down in the middle of it). Will Europe ever be at peace I asked myself at the end of the day?