The most beautiful piece of architecture in the world is a bridge. Its lines are elegant and arching; its colors are the insides of a mountain. This bridge over the River Neretva embodies the purity of functionality like few things ever built with human hands. A perennial favorite of painters and photographers, its form has the subtle flair of high art and a confidence borne of fulfilling an eternally useful purpose. Its purpose is to connect two sides of a river. The Old Bridge, the Stari Most, is simple, delicate, and so strong that it required over 60 mortars to destroy.
You will not understand the Balkan wars by staying two nights in Bosnia for a look at Stari Most. Whole lifetimes might be lived in Bosnia without ever fully understanding what led to full-scale war in very recent memory. But the results are visible, from the WE ALL BLEED graffiti on the walls of Mostar to the broken balcony of a cinderblock apartment building, looking just as it did in Wade Davis’s war photography of 20 years ago. In the Davis photo a woman sits smoking behind a railing, which is bent in from a blast. Today the balcony is empty, and the railing is still bent.
You would recognize Stari Most if you saw it—look it up, type it in—or you would feel as though you did. Smooth and pale as eggshell, a mathematically flawless half-circle jointed by sections of discontinuity. At the time of its building, Stari Most was the widest man-made arch in the world. The architect reputedly skipped town before the public set foot on his unprecedented feat of engineering, because he feared the consequences of failure under a sultan’s commission. The peak was off-center by 40 centimeters, but not because the Ottomans constructed anything off-center. The bridge was built with precision by the measure of an arshin. But the bridge spanned a geologic fault line, and it adjusted to a 14-centimeter shift of ground. Earthquakes introduced enough imperfection to be called character. The bridge strained but stood.
The Ottoman empire excelled, among other things, at bridges. Naturally people were drawn to Mostar so they could cross the river. Bridges always attract traffic that way. But this one was set in a panorama of rugged cliffs and little tile-roofed houses, reflected in a deep turquoise current. It was built to be picturesque, as the sultans preferred. Tourism was a feature of life in Mostar from that time forward. Wealth pooled, overflowed, and came roaring down the river with projects that a wooden-bridged village would never have undertaken. Infrastructure meant communication, meant travelers passing through, meant money passing through, meant a rising star of importance. So the people of Mostar were called the bridge-keepers, and the bridge kept them, too.
On light poles, on mailboxes, on what seemed like every available surface along the street I walked in Mostar were death notices—of old age, usually. They were printed on white paper with green borders and crowned by stars and crescents. Their uniformity suggested they were publications of the local mosque. Photos of the deceased gazed from the top left corners—head-shots of elderly, unsmiling, gently wrinkled humans. I could not read the announcements but recognized dates, times, and lists of descendants’ names. After Google Translate, with massaging:
We inform our relatives, friends and acquaintances that our mother and grandmother, M—, at 9:05 a.m., after a short illness, in her 78th year of life, passed on to the hereafter. The funeral prayer will be held on Friday. After prayer at 17:15, the deceased will be taken and buried in Sarica graveyard. She is survived by a daughter, husband, grandchildren, their families, and many other relatives.
The funeral begins on Wednesday outside the Livac mosque at 17:15h. After the funeral prayer, the deceased will be taken to the Livac cemetery and buried. The Tawhid prayer for the dead will be observed in the house of the deceased at 17:00h. Mourners: son, daughters, spouse, son-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, sisters-in-law, cousins, their families, and other relatives, acquaintances and friends.
I wondered fleetingly if this was a habit from wartime—putting up notices of the dead and missing. Though maybe it was a much older habit, and simply the most efficient way to get a message out. Memory temporarily spans the gulf between life and death. I saw a similar one much later, pinned to the wall of an American post office: “E—passed away Thursday, she is in heaven dancing with her Roy.”
Though built by a Muslim sultan and situated in a Muslim neighborhood, the bridge was a source of universal community pride. It did connect a predominantly Muslim side of town to the rest of Mostar, and was a front line of conflict during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. From the hills above, the Bosnian Croat army shelled the bridge steadily for several days in November of 1993. Shell after shell until it gave way, despite the fact that they had done their best to protect the bridge from Bosnian Serb explosives in earlier phases of the conflict. It is hard to retrace the logic of a siege, but the associations of historic architecture, a literal connector of the community, were not lost on the bombers. The bridge was no accidental casualty. It was a ligament, and it was cut.
Reconstruction has meaning in the Balkans as in few other parts of the world. It means putting the world back together, recreating the skyline you used to know or the touchstone of cultural heritage that never seemed so salient until it was gone. But reconstruction takes money, lots of it, and the efforts to rebuild sometimes took the form of a vast, bureaucratic enterprise to forcibly make this place look the way it looked before, and to forcibly stitch together a population still reeling from the rends.
When the bridge was destroyed, there were many options on the table other than replica. New designs were drawn up for a modern bridge in place of the old one, or a monument of some kind to mark the empty space where the wind now passed through. But the people of Mostar decided: make it the way it was before. Memorials are for the crimes of an outsider, to remember those bastards and what they did. But when a house is divided against itself, all the inhabitants want is to forget this ever happened. Put things back the way they were before the rupture. Monument is for memory; reconstruction is active forgetting.
Mostar’s mayor Safet Orućević refused the $1 million Turkey pledged to the restoration project. He did not want this project to be construed as uniquely Muslim, or as evidence of Istanbul’s lingering influence. He assembled a more international funding scheme, though he accepted the leadership of a Turkish company specializing in the care and restoration of Ottoman bridges. The Hungarian army was in town, acting as a peacekeeping force, and their divers helped hoist stones from the river, collecting pieces of the old bridge. It was a beautiful project—fun, from a conservation standpoint, despite the charged air of Bosnia. They used Ottoman building techniques, and learned quite a lot about 16th century bridge-building. They published papers. So the bridge got built pretty much as it had been before, with cramps, dowels, iron, lead, and lime. On July 23, 2004, in the presence of international dignitaries, Stari Most opened to foot traffic once more.
Reconstruction is everywhere in the broader region. The beautiful Church of St. Panteleimon, for example, overlooking Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, where new-hewn stone comfortably associates with toppled pillars of the Roman empire. The medieval abbey on the island of Lokrum, shelled mercilessly in 1991, but still arching its entryways over young families of tourists or peacocks, who trail their respective mothers. There is comfort in the buildings resting where they always have, although something about them always made me look twice. Something too clean about the stone and mortar, lacking a patina of age and experience that can’t quite be replaced. In that sense, reconstruction is more like time travel than preservation—taking us back to when the building was new, rewinding past the harshest of the intervening years.
At first glance, reconstruction has all the indulgence of peace. Mostar rebuilt its Old Bridge when its apartment buildings are still crumbling, after all. Every city has its abandoned architectures, but Mostar’s are strikingly visible: bombshell-shaped holes in white cinderblock walls, and patches bricked in different reds. Sunlight off sleek, curved windows in a new office complex. Sunlight through yawning holes in a square edifice from another century, and sun in the eyes of crane operators as construction continues apace. Despite the fact that office buildings are far cheaper to rebuild than Ottoman stone bridges—despite the fact that there were other bridges easier to rebuild and there was no pressing infrastructural need for this one—Stari Most topped the priority list. The bridge is a symbol of connection, an international joint effort of historically Christian and Muslim nations, and the physical evidence of a possible future here. Mostar needed to rebuild, but what it needed most urgently was a reason to.
My relatives looked at me in horror when I told them I was going to Bosnia. They had images of the Balkans flashing in their brains that I, so young at the end of the 20th century, did not. Nothing about the atmosphere of the Balkans felt threatening in 2016—not stable, perhaps, but businesslike. My friend and I found our whitewashed hostel tucked behind other buildings on pleasantly confusing residential streets. The hostel was fairly new, and the proprietor hadn’t yet listed himself on major backpacker websites like Hostelworld or AirBnB, but relied successfully on word of mouth. “We are small hostel, with big heart,” he said as he poured me a glass of vivid pink beet juice. He was serving us hurmašica, a traditional syrup-soaked sweet made by his mother in the apartment upstairs. Small speakers on the table discharged a whiplash playlist of elevator jazz, dance music in unrecognizable languages, and Anglophone country and western.
In the Balkans, I thought constantly about peace. It was hard for me to imagine intense, confused violence there. Sometimes war seemed like a disease, and the rest of the world stood back from the suffering, not knowing the causes or cures. Afraid to catch it, and yet somehow still half-believing that these people were just naturally predisposed to this particular horror.
But Susan Sontag famously argued against using war as a metaphor, specifically a metaphor for illness, and against using illness as a metaphor for war. “Only in the most limited sense is any historical event or problem like an illness,” she wrote. Figurative speech is not just harmless, she argued, but has its own feedback loops. To think about war like an illness inevitably oversimplifies both: “an invitation to self-righteousness, if not to fanaticism.” In other words, metaphor is a symptom that can become a cause.
Balkanization entered English (and German, and French) political vocabulary as a term for irredeemable fragmentation. Before 1914, a speaker of English might have said that one country or movement broke into many smaller ones, and after that, the same speaker might say that it Balkanized. The connotation is negative, or at least casts some doubt about whether independence from the whole was a good idea. This beautiful little peninsula experienced the rise and fall of multiple empires and many local disturbances, and the shifts were never bloodless. There is no better illustration of this word than the tiny clip of video, just a minute or two taped by local news media, of the Old Bridge falling into the river. “Balkanized” in English doesn’t mean bravely independent. It means broken.
For war and suffering to become the object of international attention they must represent something more than the local conflict. They must be a metaphor. The Bosnian war, Sontag wrote, represented “the stand of a small, fledgling southern European country wishing to remain multicultural as well as independent against the dominant power of the region and its neo-fascist program of ethnic cleansing.” Through international journalism, the Balkans became a theater for the world’s thinking about violence and responsibility. Politically, it became the type site for a particular kind of unraveling.
Proximally, what the bridge connects are two sides of Mostar’s central tourist warren of gelato and coffee pots. The vast arch has stone rib-steps protruding from the surface, as the original did, to keep pedestrians from slipping. To cross the bridge involves a far more dramatic uphill and downhill than I was expecting, and with the mass of grade-school field-trippers pushing against the rest of the crowd, the stone steps are a relief. The whole structure is made from limestone, fine-grained and locally quarried. Below is the river: a fast, cold, geologically deep division.
The trouble with symbols is that they are malleable, and not always in predictable ways. A bridge is a function of language. A symbol of peace and reconciliation should be followed by the actuality of peace and reconciliation. A symbol of connection should be accompanied by actual reconnection. There is no more literal way to connect people across chasms, as the international community recognized when they rallied to rebuild the Stari Most. Language can and does change the way people think. Symbols can and do kick-start the processes they represent. But the international community set so many hopes on Mostar that it’s difficult to strain out hype and hypocrisy here. The New Old Bridge has many concrete effects: Like its predecessor, it brings tourism to Mostar that might otherwise stay on the coast, and concentrates foreigners in historic quarters along the river among clean tablecloths on shaded terraces. It allows people to cross the river without having to walk quite so far up- or downstream. But no bridge, no matter how faithful to the original, can ever make people forget about war.
I struggle with language as a tool that is inherently symbolic, making it difficult to talk about a bridge as just a bridge. Just the slickness of polished stone under soles, just the climb, descent, and toes meeting the other side. Just walking on air. You see temptation is too great. I bend towards metaphor, and the bridge strains but stands. In truth, I don’t even want to avoid twisting this thing into symbol. It is a perfectly good symbol, just as it is a perfectly serviceable bridge. I would like the symbol to do its part in holding the world together.
In 1938, between wars, Virginia Woolf wrote about standing on a bridge across the Thames and watching men move from their homes to their work in the centers of influence. Her essay asked how we are to prevent war. Preventing war, she decided, depends very much on who crosses that bridge and what happens on the other side in churches, parliaments, and universities. The view from the bridge is the realization that preventing war depends largely on how we organize our peacetime.
Stari Most is not a place where reconciliation takes place in the day-to-day. It is crowded with visitors from both near and far. The shops sell souvenir gas masks and pens made from bullet casings. To implement the peace agreement, Mostar was divided administratively along roughly the lines the fighters defined, and the city remains politically turbulent. In that sense, the combatants had their way after all, bridge or no bridge or bridge again.
The distance from the crown of the arch to the river below is almost 80 feet, and for the past 400 years, people have been jumping off. This is how locals use the space. I would not be surprised if the tradition of leaping from the peaked arch of Stari Most dates to the moment it opened to foot traffic the first time. At any rate, the Mostar Diving Club touts a long heritage. I stood next to a young woman, teenaged, who busked for the Diving Club and chatted fluently in English about her aspirations. She had been practicing on one of the shorter bridges just downstream. The Neretva runs deep in this section, turquoise darkening to teal. You fall for a long time, she said, and then the river is shockingly cold and swift. Occasionally people die.
I don’t want to talk about the river, you know, don’t want to call this conflict deep or wild or natural-springing. Peace is both a beautiful and practical thing. I thought constantly about peace as I got on and off busses, as my passport was stamped and my luggage was searched, as I curved down valleys and ate ice cream from the magazine stand. Every day brought a new city in a different nation with yet another unfamiliar language, a refreshed feeling of vulnerability, and overarching amazement. Outside the bus windows people were growing lavender, selling shoes, cutting the weedy grass of a public park with a curved farm blade. The graffitied domes of bunkers rested in fields. People sold mulberries in season alongside dry tobacco out of a plastic sack, young teens smoking and elderly couples resting on park benches. Everywhere I saw the new faces of uninsulated cinderblock buildings with curtains blowing at the window holes. In between, older walls were pitted and gapped. A tree perched on a second story ruin, covering the holes with its leaves. Everywhere I could see the remains and the rebuilt, the New Old Bridge.
Every metaphor has its limits: brokenness, reconciliation, and jumping off half-way. There is a town with residents and tourists and the paths they all take across the river. There is old stone, newly quarried, that holds together despite the shuddering earth. The bridge was never built to connect two sides of a river—the river does not care. People do. People decided to keep the bridge. And it is only a bridge, believe me, I know, but that decision seems significant. Sometimes it’s not possible to know what to build or leave empty, or what metaphors count as true symptoms of peace. Who’s to say how much the outward expression means: your smile, an upside-down arch, the symbol of a bridge.
Read all three essays by Abby Dockter in this series:
“The Bridge” | “The Pyramid” | “The Garden”
Header photo of Mostar and the Stari Most by Abby Dockter.