There are many things I remember about Bosnia in 1996, a year after the Dayton Accord brought that dreadful conflict to an end. But one of the things I remember most vividly is actually something I never saw – the glorious Stari Most that soared across the Neretva River at Mostar.
The Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi described the bridge as being “like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other… I have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.”
As I was leaving Bosnia, my friends in the European Community Monitoring Mission (often called the ice cream men because of their white uniforms) gave me a card that showed the Stari Most in its past glory. So in a way I did see it, I guess.
But after two days of heavy shelling in November 1993, it had collapsed into the milky blue Neretva river below, which turned the colour of blood as the unique pink mortar that sealed the bridge’s original flooring washed out. Having stood for more than four centuries, maybe blood was the right metaphor. It was an attempt to destroy, not just a structure, but a spirit and a culture – because bridges do more than just link land. In the case of Mostar, they linked peoples and cultures.
“Stari Most, which means ‘old bridge’ in the local language, was a stunning architectural jewel built in the Ottoman style in 1557,” said UNESCO. “The bridge came to represent not only the crossing of a river but the weaving of Mostar’s multi-cultural and multi-ethnic fabric of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Jews.”
Unlike many other cultural monuments that have been destroyed during war, however, the Stari Most was rebuilt. And that is the story I am thinking about today, even as Russia relentlessly bombards Ukraine, because it is a story of hope. Hope in action. And a story of how people can rebuild, even after terrible destruction, when they are determined to work together to do so.
“An extraordinary partnership of local residents, national leaders and the international community worked, with enthusiasm, side-by-side in the City of Mostar,” explained an article written in 2004. “The reconstruction of the Stari Most was a crucial step in repairing the economic and social damage of war.”
The people of Mostar had tried to protect their bridge, one story says. “The citizens had tried to protect it with tyres, built a makeshift roof over it with sheet metal and carpets, and in return the bridge protected everybody who dared to go this way to the only drinking water source. Two days and nights the bridge resisted to permanent shelling, until a traitor … revealed the bridge’s secret, its hollow interior. The well-aimed shooting of its hollow chamber finally made the bridge collapse.”
After the bridge collapsed, Spanish military engineers with the United Nations Protection Force mission built a temporary wooden bridge in three days. But the people of Mostar wanted their iconic bridge back. And they wanted to rebuild the bridge using the same technology and materials as the original.
The international community came together to follow their lead.
The World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the World Monuments Fund formed a coalition to oversee the reconstruction of the Stari Most and the historic city centre of Mostar. Additional funding was provided by Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Croatia and the Council of Europe Development Bank, as well as the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).
UNESCO formed an International Committee of Experts (ICE), and the city formed a Project Coordination Unit to manage the reconstruction. Engineer Ruzmir Cisic and architect Tihomir Rozic, both native residents of Mostar, became directors of the PCU, ensuring that ongoing consultation and cooperation among the various groups kept the project moving forward. UNESCO oversaw the scientific and cultural quality control through ICE’s international and local experts in Ottoman architecture and bridge restoration.
Stone ashlars with iron clamps and pins recovered from the Neretva. Litos Online
The bridge was re-built in two phases. The first phase, led by Hungarian army engineers, consisted of lifting submerged stones. In the fall and winter of 1997, 45 engineers working with the Stabilization Force (SFOR) retrieved the bridge’s stones from the river bottom. They brought the first block to the river surface on Sep. 29, 1997.
After Spanish army engineers removed the temporary bridge, the Turkish firm Er-Bu started work on June 7, 2001 to rebuild, using the Ottoman construction techniques. It was an amazing feat. There were no plans they could follow; they had to learn from the stones themselves, made of individual, tiny limestone balls formed by the sea around grains of sand that had hardened over millions of years and quarried locally.
And as experts worked to model the reconstruction, they discovered that the design was far ahead of its time, echoing today’s most common approach for reinforced concrete construction. “As Hajrudin designed the high parts close to the banks as hollow bodies, the weight could be reduced by more than 40%.” How the stones were connected also was remarkable, their strength surviving even bombing and collapse.
Three years later, on July 23, 2004, the rebuilt bridge was inaugurated. It had cost an estimated $15.5 million USD. But some things go beyond money. As Litos, reporting in 2005 on the amazing reconstruction process, put it:
“A chapter of history rose from the ashes with the Mostar bridge, which now has a further special meaning apart from its value as world cultural heritage: it is a memorial and symbol for a civil war in the very centre of Europe and expresses the hope for a (more) peaceful future. Thanks to an extraordinary international cooperation, it will be preserved for further generations not only as an architectural landmark.”
Rebuilt Mostar Bridge inaugurated by UN as symbol of Balkan reconciliation. UN News, Jul. 4, 2004
Bridge over troubled waters. SFOR Informer, May 28, 1997.
Stari Most: rebuilding more than a historic bridge in Mostar. Museum International, LVI, 4/224, pp. 6-17.
The Old Bridge in Mostar. Reconstruction of a Symbol. Litos, Sep/Oct. 2005.