Bosnia's heart of stone shows life Casualty: Bosnia and Herzegovina's most famous landmark, the 16th-century Old Bridge in Mostar, was one of the civil war's major victims. Now the beautiful stone span is being rebuilt.

Sun Journal

January 07, 1998|By Peter Slavin | Peter Slavin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The Old Bridge was narrow and less than 100 feet long; it could be crossed on foot in seconds. But when carefully plotted Croatian artillery shells sent it crashing into the Neretva River four years ago, the shock waves traveled far and wide.

Stari Mos (Old Bridge in Serbo-Croatian) had stood for more than 400 years and was the most famous landmark in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Erected on the Neretva River on the outermost reaches of the Ottoman Empire, it marked the place where the Islamic East met and mingled with the Christian West. "A crescent moon in stone," a Muslim poet once called it.

Linking Croats, Serbs, Muslims and others, the bridge came to symbolize the mix of peoples in the old Yugoslavia who lived side by side before war and ethnic hatred shattered their country.

Its leveling during the fierce fighting in Mostar between Croats and Muslims stunned people here and abroad.

When the Croatian army began shelling the bridge in 1993, the Muslims draped old tires over its side and erected scaffolds over its walkway in a vain effort to deflect shells. It was the last of Mostar's permanent bridges still standing; fighting had already destroyed the other six.

When the Old Bridge fell, said Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim chairman of Bosnia's three-man presidency, "It seemed that civilization was defeated."

Now the work of rebuilding the Old Bridge has begun. Only the foundations remain, jutting out from both banks of the river.

In the fall, army divers in wet suits swam to the bottom of the swift-running Neretva, located chunks of the bridge -- some weighing as much as 90 tons -- and secured a cable to them. Then other soldiers, turning winches by hand on a large floating dock, raised the fragments 25 feet to the surface. The pieces will be joined to reconstruct the bridge.

The troops were a Hungarian engineer contingent serving with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's forces here.

Before the recovery effort began, Zijad Demirovic, a Mostar architect who is directing the rebuilding, spent 10 days underwater with a camera filming the location of each fragment and its condition.

"God likes passionate people," says Demirovic, a big, brawny Muslim with an iron grip who survived a Croatian concentration camp during the war.

More than 300 pieces of the bridge have been set out on a huge wooden platform on the river bank. They will remain there for six months to dry completely so they will not crack when they are handled.

Then the jigsaw puzzle of reassembling the fragments will begin. Gaps will be filled in with new stones. Demirovic hopes that a restored bridge will be completed in three years.

Demirovic is determined to rebuild the old bridge exactly as it was. The foundations were laid in 1557 by order of the Ottoman Empire's greatest sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, after a wooden toll bridge on the site fell into disrepair and the people of Mostar asked that a stone span replace it. The designer, Hajrudin, was a disciple of the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Sinan. Construction took seven years.

Stonemasons from the Adriatic city of Dubrovnik journeyed nearly 100 miles to build the bridge between two massive fortified towers at the narrowest point of the Neretva River canyon. The bridge was made of an exceptionally light yet strong limestone from a local quarry.

Hajrudin ingeniously joined the blocks of stone with iron pins, leaving space for movement. According to Demirovic, the bridge stretched under the weight of traffic, and those crossing the cobblestones with carts could feel the bridge "give." The stone was also resistant to the wear of people and animals crossing. The bridge, says Demirovic, was designed to last 1,000 years.

Some accounts say Hajrudin was threatened with death if the bridge ever collapsed. It never did, surviving a flood that practically covered it in 1713 as well as numerous wars and uprisings.

Over the years there were many attempts to seize the bridge and take over the city. But "bridge protectors" manned the adjoining towers and warded off attack. The only time the walkway was closed was during a feud between local families in 1815.

Mostar eventually took its name from those who worked on the bridge, which became the fulcrum of the city. The commercial district grew up around the bridge, and some 20 "mahalas," neighborhoods built around a mosque, developed in its vicinity.

For more than 300 years, young men plunged from the bridge into the chill emerald-green waters of the Neretva more than 80 feet below. Asked recently if diving from the bridge was illegal, a Mostarian replied, "Why would the diving be illegal when it's only sport for the brave?"

Some years ago, a platform was built parallel to the bridge, and Mostar held annual national and international diving competitions, which have continued since the bridge's destruction.

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