Bosnia: The Ottoman Legacy
Not many know about Bosnia’s Ottoman legacy. Only 10 years after Sultan Mehmet al Fatih entered Constantinople and established the rule of Islam, he entered Bosnia Herzegovina and established Ottoman rule. The country is today a treasure trove of Ottoman Islamic heritage. Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, was once one of the most prosperous cities in the Ottoman Empire, with a flourishing economy in the 15th century following the introduction of Ottoman rule. The rising social and economic standards that came with the Ottomans attracted not only Muslims from other regions, but also Christians and Jews, who settled and lived together harmoniously. Sarajevo became known as ‘The Jerusalem of Europe’ for this reason, and to this day, is the only major city in Europe to house a mosque, synagogue, Catholic church and Orthodox church together in the same neighbourhood.
For centuries people from the three Abrahamic religions lived together side by side, until the ethnic conflict which erupted in the 1990s. Unfortunately, Bosnia is now primarily remembered not for its rich heritage, but for the brutal ‘90s war and genocide which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Most of the heritage sites on this list suffered from deliberate shelling by Serb or Croat forces during the war, as part of a strategy to erase Bosnian Muslims’ heritage, and therefore their identity. Structures such as Stari Most which had stood for over 400 years and survived both world wars, were damaged and sometimes completely destroyed.
Today however, it’s possible to visit Bosnia safely and explore the wealth of Ottoman heritage sites scattered across the country, much of which has been restored and repaired.
Here are some that are a must visit when planning a trip to Bosnia.
The Emperor’s Mosque
Built by the Ottoman Empire’s first governor of Bosnia, Isa-beg Isakovic, the Emperor’s mosque was initially built in honour of Sultan Mehmet al Fatih’s successful conquest of Bosnia in 1463. Isa-Beg Isakovic was a nobleman who founded the city of Sarajevo and gave it its name. The original mosque was actually destroyed by a fire, and when it was rebuilt in the 16th Century it was dedicated this time to another Sultan; Sultan Sulayman al Qanuni – also known as Suleyman the Magnificent. The name of the architect is not known but is believed to have been an apprentice to Mimar Sinan himself, one of the most famous architects not just throughout Ottoman history, but across Islamic history. Born to Christian parents, Sinan converted to Islam and dedicated his life to serving the Ottoman royal house and was the genius behind many of the beautiful Ottoman mosques found throughout Istanbul.
The Baščaršija is the heart of Sarajevo’s Old Town, and home to some of the best shopping and traditional dining establishments in the city. Built under the orders of Isa-beg Isakovic in 1462, the Bascarsija became the heart of the community in the city, a place for tradesmen, scholars, students and artisans to prosper. Much of the bazaar remains today, and an afternoon spent walking its cobblestone alleys is like walking through an oriental film set. In fact, the Baščaršija would not look out of place on the film set of Netflix series Dirilis: Ertugrul. Here you’ll find beautiful unique gifts to take back home, such as embroidered fabrics, handmade artwork, copper coffee sets and bullet pens, to name but a few.
Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque
Believed to be the first mosque in the world to receive electric lights, the Gazi Husrev-Beg Camija is located in the heart of the Baščaršija. Built in the 16th century, it’s possible that the architect of this beautiful Ottoman mosque was Mimar Sinan himself as he was in the region at the time, although this is debated. This is the largest and most important historical mosque in all of Bosnia Herzegovina, and not just for its beautiful design. Gazi Husrev-Beg, for whom this mosque is named, was an Ottoman governor who is credited for many important buildings in Sarajevo. The mosque itself is part of the waqf he left behind– a charitable trust fund. Next to the mosque are the madrasa buildings, which since their creation have continuously provided a high-quality primary and secondary education for over 400 years.
In October 2019 this was named a national monument of Bosnia Herzegovina. This han (‘khan’ or inn) is one of the most unique legacies in Bosnia of the Ottoman empire, few of which remain. Also part of Gazi Husrev-Beg’s waqf, Morica Han was once an operating caravanserai which could host up to 70 horses and 300 people. It’s still in use today, but not to host weary travellers looking for a place to stay. Instead you can enjoy a traditional Bosnian coffee with the sweet and sticky poached apple dessert known as tufahija inside the Han’s cosy café, or browse through the beautifully patterned traditional clothing on sale opposite.
Sarajevo’s lunar clock tower
Located next to Gazi Husrev-Beg mosque, this is the world’s last public lunar clock tower. What makes this clock so distinctive is that it appears to tell the incorrect time, when in fact it tells (highly accurately) the time for each salaat. Timekeepers known as ‘muvekit’ have, for over 400 years, climbed up and down this clock tower on a daily basis, to maintain the accuracy of the time shown on the clock. The qualifications required for this job are steep, with a deep knowledge of maths, astronomy and astrology required in order to preserve the clock’s accuracy.
Stari Most Bridge
This is one of the most beautiful bridges in the world, both for its unique design and scenic location over the rushing jade waters of the Neretva river. This bridge was commissioned by Sultan Sulayman in the 16th Century, and is particularly special because it has no foundations supporting it from collapsing into the water. It is said that on the day the bridge was to be unveiled to the Sultan, the bridge’s architect, Mimar Hayruddin, began preparing his funeral shroud. He was convinced that once the scaffolding came off the bridge it would collapse, leaving him in bad favour with the sultan. Despite Hayruddin’s fears, the bridge did not collapse. In fact it stood proudly and powerfully over the Neretva river for 427 years, until it was shot down by Croat forces during the Bosnian war on 9 November 1993.
Reconstruction of the bridge began in 1997 and followed the same building techniques that were used over four centuries earlier, so as to preserve the integrity of the original Stari Most.
Koski Mehmet Pasha Camija
For a really unique experience, climb up the minaret of Koski Mehmet Pasha mosque to enjoy a 360-degree view over the Old Town. Built in 1619, the mosque has a distinctly Ottoman feel with a beautiful coloured mihrab carved into the far wall. This mosque is located on the banks of the Neretva River, and if you walk through the gated courtyard to its right, you’ll be able to enjoy one of the most beautiful views of Stari Most.
This medieval fortified village is a 17th century time capsule that was once a key lookout post. Under the Ottoman Empire, this settlement grew with the building of a mosque, madrasa, hamam, charitable kitchen and han. Walking up the old stone steps that lead up to the mosque of Šišman Ibrahim-Paša, you’ll see one of the most beautiful classical Ottoman-style mosques in Bosnia Herzegovina. As you continue to walk higher up the hill, you’ll notice the wild pomegranate and fig trees that overhang the pathway. Visiting this UNESCO-listed heritage site is a unique experience, which rewards those who reach the top of the fortress with panoramic views over the Neretva river and Herzegovina.
Blagaj Tekija (pronounced ‘Blag-aye Tekiya’) is a restored 600-year-old Ottoman Dervish House that is nestled against a rock-face above the source of the river Buna. It’s easy to see why this location was selected as a sanctuary in which the pious could reflect, contemplate and worship. The rushing jade-coloured water, numerous bird species and green surroundings make it a place of peace and harmony. Inside the tekija are several rooms which are open to the public to explore and give an authentic insight into traditional Ottoman living quarters.
Once upon a time, Sarajevo was home to numerous public drinking water fountains, a legacy of the Ottoman empire. Today however, there is only one sebilj left, and it stands proudly in the old bazaar, the Baščaršija. The Sebilj is Sarajevo’s icon and speaks to a heritage that provided services beneficial to the general public, such as clean and freely available drinking water. The locals say that if you are a visitor and drink from the fountain, it will be surely written in your destiny to return. Whether that’s actually the case, the crisp clear water is well worth a taste!
This list only covers some of the more well-known Ottoman heritage sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but there are thousands in across the country.
This article is part of Halal Travel Guide’s project to #OwnYourNarrative.
Launched in December 2017 with our two-part Andalucia series, our aim is to bring to light the positive contributions to society Islam has made for over a millennium and a half.
Visit all of these sites when you travel with us to Bosnia. We work with locals to provide an authentic Balkan experience and connect Muslims all over the world with each other. Find out more about our range of experiences and activities.