Sarajevo has its own category because it is the very least I can do to express how indebted to the city, its people, its character I really am. Without this city I could not have said what I wanted to say with the research I was doing when I first arrived in July 2010. In scholarly terms, I was interested in the specific problem of certainty as it related to telling the story of a city's history. I turned to a place where those who tell the story of Sarajevo are certain that its history is anything but.
The broadest, most overarching story you'll hear about the city is how from its early settlement in 1461 by the Ottoman Empire, as it climbed North from what is now Istanbul, Sarajevo, has been contested territory. The city, its infrastructure and cultural institutions are rooted in Islamic tradition but have diverged along separate paths throughout the various phases of its history. Mosques, fountains and the marketplace, or Baščaršija are where the story begins. And it is still unfolding as the area now called Stari Grad, or the Old Town, continues to prosper and change as a backdrop to public life.
When the Habsburg Empire invaded the city in the 19th century, their strategy was to defeat the Ottomans but not destroy what they had built. Rather, the Empire built the new city adjacent-to rather than atop the Ottoman structures. There is, literal threshold to cross from the old to the new construction. Standing back, eyes forward the first instance of juxtaposition -a trait of contested territory, becomes materially apparent. The woodframe construction and rough-cut granite pavers of the marketplace turn into a precise grid and the facades and elevated entries of the buildings become noticeably more formal. The buildings overall are more stately and institutional. The Ottoman empire's influence gives way to the regularity of West European urban design and development.
This path continues through the built city, but alongside the streets a river runs parallel to the main tramline and several bridges segway to the other, more residential but equally diverse side of the city. The Miljacka has been a part of the story of Sarajevo's history, providing a natural resource and an element that adds magic to the sunset viewed from a west-facing perspective upriver. And, it is the site of a marked turning point in the history of the Western -and indeed beyond, world. The Latin Bridge, once called the Gavrilo Princip Bridge just parallel to the point of transition from the old city to the Austro-Hungarian quarter, was the site where its once namesake shot and killed the Archduke Ferdinand -heir to the Habsburg throne. The World Wars would mean little for the capitol city of Bosnia's development, but they would come mean a great deal after the establishment of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which ushered in another wave of tidal change for the city in the 20th century.
Yosip Broz, Tito -came to official power as a Partisan at he beginning of World War II, arguably earlier but most markedly from 1936-1941. He unified 6 republics and set into motion an enthusiastic, but again uncertain course of development for the entire region including the following countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. Sarajevo remained politically and culturally a middle-ground. The city was known from the 1940's through the 1990's for its liveablility place for Yugoslavs of all ethnic backgrounds. The Ottomans established mosques for Muslims, the Habsburgs -churches and Tito's party politics were relatively relaxed about religious practice. The city industrialized and developed rapidly under Tito -rural citizens moved to the city for work and for the equalized living conditions in the many new high-rises constructed along the river -of course adjacent to the Habsburg area. Again, this makes comparison via juxtaposition a multi-layered but delineating process. But why is this interesting?
Cities often define themselves based on their consisting of an identifiable -that is defined and named, set of cultural practices and material outcomes. Significant projects that represent the cultural life of the city stand out as iconic symbols that radiate a carefully crafted story of history, of place and often, a particular shade of prosperity. Occasionally, a city declines and then rises from low-points per some moment of intervention, a saving grace that restores hope, highlights history and looks forward. Think, Bilbao pre- and then post-1997. Sarajevo has never been that kind of city. Throughout all periods of growth, decline, and restoration it has maintained a sense of deeper hope and strength than a museum project and public promotion can impart. It is as if the entire city is an open, fertile plain and wherever seeds are sown, they grow unto themselves but with a respect to the extant buildings and neighborhoods that is so genuine and automatic that it results fabric of type and form so diversified that the trait of difference drives the dominant narrative.
And then, both its uncertainty and its openness left it vulnerable to the destructive force of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. All that had grown over the course of five centuries -mosques, churches, markets...libraries, museums, archive, came under the immediate threat of annhilation. This, is what defined the city -a four-year siege which altered the city materially and nearly robbed its people not only of life but of hope -except then it didn't. When I looked into the story of the Siege of Sarajevo on a personal level, at a human scale, past that of targeted buildings, propaganda and politics a different story -one that bore more resemblance to the popular narrative of easy-going faith in people and neighbors, began to emerge. Disbelief as well as fear and desperation in the face of tragic loss of life marked four whole years as ethnic conflict ravaged buildings, streets; tore apart families and changed futures. But beneath that the perseverance of a people, some of whom were drafted as ad-hoc soldiers and servicemen, some of whom ran to the river for water despite the threat of death to prepare for children what little food they had, maintained a life, a hope and a joy that I admire on a personal level and see as an extension of the life that preceded one of the most brutal instances of European warfare in Modern history, and indeed saved the city from absolute annhilation.
Finally, while development continues, hardly reverent but rather indifferent to the past -the city of Sarajevo gains another element to its composition. True with the spirit of our globalized time, money pours in from places beyond certain borders to construct towers that reflect the sun with their mirrored glass facades. Geared for the new global system the windows, encased in a grid of powerful cladding, light the interior but at the time shade and protect it from the eyes of the rest of the city, living outside and around those new buildings said to symbolize hope and empowerment but only provide for the city what they reflect: the image of the city itself and it combines in light with that of the infinite sky.