“Give this guy a little money and he’ll jump from the bridge,” suggested Dalia.
“Oh, okay. … Wait! Huh? You’re joking” we collectively replied.
Dalia, a native of the town, had led our small group of university stundets from Europe and the US to the center of the old stone bridge that had spanned Neretva for more than 400 years.
In 1557, Suleman the Magnificent commissioned a stone bridge to replace an unstable hanging wood bridge in this frontier town not far from the border of the Austro-Hungarian lands. Nine years later under the supervision of Architect Mimar Hayruddin (apprentice of grand architect of the sultan Mimar Sinan), a new stone bridge united the two halves of the town. From its earliest days it provided a vital link between the interior settlements in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the rest of the Ottoman Empire, helping Mostar rise in prominence.
The bridge’s 30-meter long arc is widely considered one of the greatest architectural feats of its time. It is a masterful example of Ottoman architecture, combining grace and ingenuity. The bridge was supported by metal pins built into precisely cut rocks and, according to legend, mortar made from eggs. The load baring strength of the structure, however, comes from the pressure of the two halves of the arch leaning against each other.
The bridge is flanked on each bank by large limestone towers. Some sources say that the guardians, known as Moststari, who occupied those towers lent their name to the town. Other sources, however, note that "most" meaning “bridge” and "stari "meaning “old” in the local language are just as likely the basis for the town’s name. Regardless, the bridge was old, elegant and sturdy. The silhouette of its arch framed by the towers had become a breathtaking source of pride, not only of Mostar, but of the Balkan region.
Centuries Old Rite of Passage
As a rite of passage, the young men of Mostar have jumped from the middle of the bridge into the cold shallow water 27 meters below. More often than not, they would also jump for a little spending money gleefully provided by tourists.
In addition to the height of the bridge, the shallowness of the water and the rapidly moving cold current contributes to the danger that jumpers face. Curious and reassured by our host that the young man, to whom we were about to give money, would be fine, our little group finally obliged. We handed over our pocket change. The young man then handed the money to a trusted friend, climbed up on the railing, looked back once and leapt. A few seconds later he was swimming easily to the river bank.
Legends are told of foolish or brave souls jumping from the bridge soon after it construction was complete. The first written account comes from the “Book of Travel” written by Ottoman adventurer Mehmed Zilli in the 17th century. An official competition that continues annually was founded in 1968.
This tradition and many of the other ways of life in this part of the world was interrupted by the 1990s calamitous bar room brawl that destroyed tens of thousands of lives and reshaped the Balkan political map.
In 1990, during my first visit to Mostar, the Balkan wars were on the horizon. As a young college student on my first trip to Europe, I was too distracted by the newness and richness of my experience to notice the partisan tension in the air. Even when we were invited to political meetings in Sarajevo a few days after our trip to Mostar, I was too absorbed by the way the Yugoslavs served coffee in individual sized tin pots to really pay attention to charged political double speak. The unfamiliar candy that was offered to us, the faded picture of Tito hanging on the wood paneled wall and even the cigarette filled ashtrays caught my attention much more than the matters of statehood and ethnicity that were playing out in front of our group.
Had the nations in Southeastern Europe found more common ground or a peaceful way to solve their differences, the impression on those Spring days may not have left such an indelible mark on my conscious. Perhaps watching that boy jump from the old bridge in Mostar and swim away would have only been counted as one of the many small interesting experiences that I have enjoyed in my decades of travel and living abroad.
History doesn’t work that way. Within a year of returning home from that trip, Europe was on edge. Without Tito’s holding a lid of brotherhood and unity, ethnic tensions, stoked by fear and a grab for power, boiled over. By the war’s end, over 100,000 people had been killed and many more displaced. I would learn later that Dalia’s older brother had been killed in fighting near Mostar. Her family were forced to flee. The small apartment building that she grew up in, a concrete and stone structure that she had pointed out to us, fell victim to artillery.
On November 9th, 1993 the splendid Old Stone Bridge of Mostar also became a casualty of war*. Its elegance crumbled into the Neretva river below, a victim of hate, mistrust and greed. What had stood for nearly half a millennium, an icon of cultural unity became a symbol of a country disconnected.
When I heard the news about the bridge my mind flashed back to that young man who smiled at our group before confidently jumping from that old bridge. Visions of the green water flowing swiftly below rushed into my head. More memories flooded back. I remembered watching townspeople bring goods from one side of the town to sell in the market across the bridge. I recalled inquiring about the funny little pointy leather shoes in the marketplace. Even the leathery hand of the old woman from whom I bought a postcard, a moment that had barely registered at the time, reentered my mind. These scenes that emerged from my subconscious now hold an important, lasting sense of place. They are some of the experiences that makes travel more meaningful to me.
I still have the postcard that I bought that day. As I move from town to town, it finds a place of prominence on a shelf in my office or at my home. It is a reminder for me of a time of when, at least in my impressionable mind, harmony in the world existed and when a lifetime of adventure was opened to a young kid from the Midwest.
The postcard was with me when I moved to Bosnia in 2001. During my years there I visited Mostar several times. I crossed from one side of town to the other on a hastily built temporary hanging bridge. Each time noting the progress of the reconstruction of the bridge and the reemergence of the town.
A coalition of organizations, including the World Bank, the UNESCO, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and the World Monuments Fund and others, paid the $15.5 million cost for reconstructing the bridge. Succeeding in their objective to rebuild the bridge as similarly as possible to the original, using local material and Ottoman construction techniques, a bridge stands again in Mostar. For many of us if represents hope for unity in a world prone to division.
I wasn’t able to attend the grand reopening of the Old Stone Bridge on July 23rd, 2004. My wife had given birth to our daughter a few weeks prior. They were my joy and priority. Before I moved from Bosnia later that year, however, I walked across the newly rebuilt bridge. Despite careful attention to detail, the new bridge felt, well, new. To be sure, the elegance of the structure and the stunning views returned. Still, the sense of place that felt in 1990 had changed.
Dont misinterpret me. The new old bridge in Mostar has reemerged as a worthwhile destination. Travelers continue to be mesmerized by the grace of the bridge and its town. For many, especially those who visit for the first time, the town and its bridge will evoke a sense of place that is foreign and a time long past.
Young men still take money to show off their bravery. Go if you have a chance. Walk the bridge. Read the stories. Touch the bullet and shrapnel marked walls that still exist on many of the buildings. Talk to the residents. Here their tales. Maybe even buy a postcard.
*Bosnian Croat commander Slobodan Praljak ordered the destruction of the bride. In 1993 he was quoted as saying “It’s just an old bridge.” Found guilty of war crimes in 2013 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yougolsavia, he is serving a 20 year sentence.