At its most basic, a bridge connects one side to the other and allows people to more easily make their way to and fro. A bridge can be an expression of beauty and design that identifies a thing with a place. When you see the Brooklyn Bridge you think of New York City, the Golden Gate and you know it’s San Francisco; Venice’s iconic Rialto Bridge, London’s Tower Bridge, the Chain Bridge in Budapest, and so many bridges around the world identify the cities they serve. Modern bridges are marvels of design that boggle the mind. In Mostar, what is now Bosnia y Herzegovina, the Stari Most bridge spans a spot along the Neretva River, and though a relatively small stone structure designed more than 600 years ago, it is an iconic symbol that identifies the city.
A number of distinctions makes the City of Mostar special. The area has been occupied by humans since prehistory (at least 3,000 years ago); the river has served as an artery of commerce, a Roman Empire-era settlement once thrived there, and the location has been as a gathering point of cultures. Over the centuries several Western religions erected churches, temples, and mosques there. And Mostar is located in a region of far southwestern Europe that has been the scene of tragic wars and bloodshed that go back more than 100 years. The Mostar bridge is recognizable to people around the world.
In comparison with other famous bridges, Mostar’s is quite small. Its length is just over 95 feet, a height above water of nearly 79 feet, and a width of just over 13 feet. (By comparison, the Golden Gate Bridge is almost 9,000 feet in length, approximately 200 feet above the water, and has a width of about 90 feet.) But, getting a bridge to span the banks of the Neretva River in the 14th Century was difficult; previous rope and suspension designs failed, which impeded Mostar’s growth. Around the mid 1400s, the Ottomans ruled the area (the first recorded name of the city was around 1474 as “mostari” or “bridge keepers”). By the 1550s Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Magnificent ordered the design and construction of a permanent structure. Architect and civil engineer Mimar Hayruddin was tasked with the job. But the sultan’s exasperation with previous failures prompted him to add an incentive clause: if the bridge failed, Hayruddin would be put to death.
Hayruddin labored on the design and construction for nine years. He chose a graceful arch, which is easy on the eye and self-supports the load, eliminating the need for a pillar in the river that would bottleneck boat traffic up and down the waterway. But the specter of previous failures gave Hayruddin doubts. So he hedged his bets. Hayruddin began digging his own grave. If the bridge failed, he would take comfort that he chose his own final resting place.
But lo and behold, when the final scaffolding was removed and the bridge opened to traffic in 1566, it not only held, but endured for 427 years. Hayruddin would go on to live another 22 years and he died in 1588. The structure’s design is praised as an outstanding example of Ottoman bridgework. And thanks to the bridge, the city of Mostar prospered and became an important link of commerce, culture, and religion. Thanks to Hayruddin, it is highly likely the bridge would have remained in place to this day. But in 1993 the dark hearts of hatred and war plagued that region of the Balkans and erupted into conflict known as the Yugoslav Wars.
The death of Josip Broz Tito in May of 1980 marked the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia, a complicated region of disparate cultures and religions. Tito had skillfully succeeded in holding together a “non-aligned” nation. He deftly avoided becoming a lackey of the USSR, headquartered in Moscow, or the under-appreciated vassal of Western-capitalist nations (with the United States as the leading influence). After Tito’s death the ghosts of ethnic and nationalist discord festered, resulting in a series of bloody wars; atrocities, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and ruin were suffered by the region’s inhabitants. Today, the former Yugoslavia is now six independent countries, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia y Herzegovina, along with two autonomous regions, Kosovo and Vojvodina.
But back in November 1993 Bosnian Croats were locked in a fierce battle with Bosnian Muslims and fighting was underway in and around Mostar. Bosnian Croat gunners trained their fire on the bridge and destroyed it. What had stood for more than four centuries was now rubble and would stay that way for about a decade. But within months after its destruction UNESCO launched a campaign to restore the structure. Rebuilding began in June 2001 and was completed in July 2004. In 2005 the bridge was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The restored bridge continues its role as an anchor to serve the people and businesses of Mostar. And thanks to an ancient tradition that has been reworked for modern times, it is possible to jump off the bridge at the center and plunge into the river below. Legend has it that in 1664 a 16-year-old boy leapt from the bridge as a rite of passage and also to ensure his life would not be a failure. The daring of the boy’s exploit continued to be romanticized and in 1968 a bridge diving festival began and takes place toward the end of July each year. But over the years taking the plunge has resulted in at least four deaths and many injuries.
There are a number of spots in and around Mostar to view the bridge and photograph it. Appreciating the beauty of Hayruddin’s creation, and having some understanding of the area, gives one hope that history and the importance of linking people together shows the Mostar Bridge is more than its basic function of spanning a river. It can also be a bridge to that which divides us.
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