Blagej and Mostar and their rivers

Blagej was, once upon a time, the capital of Bosnian royalty.  It’s a small, quiet town at the spot where a very short river (the Buna) Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 12.15.02 PMmeets a bigger one.  (Map: bottom right)

Mostar became the capital of the region when the Ottomans took over in 1468.  It’s a small city with a famous bridge.  The much bigger Neretva River flows past and down to the sea.

We camped at a tiny and nearly-perfect campground on the Buna River, a small tributary of the Neretva that flows straight out of the mountainside.   Our host was a veteran of the 1992-1995 war, and the van overlooked a little bar and café across the river, where we were able to see Bosnia and Greece battle to a “nil-nil” tie in a World Cup qualifying soccer game.  Just down the street is this small mosque, dedicated to the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman II in 1520!  It’s been lovingly cared for, and restored after the 1992-1995 war.

Minaret, Suleyman Mosque, Blagej

A lot of people are surprised to find mosques in Europe, particularly five-hundred year old mosques.  The story of Bosnia becoming at least mostly-Muslim is interesting.  The area is isolated by mountains all around, and doesn’t really have lots of resources coveted by outsiders.  So Catholic and Orthodox conquerors from west and east didn’t invest much here and mostly just took rents and tributes from the peasants, who were sort of Christian, in their own Bosnian way, before the army of the Ottoman Empire arrived.

They had protective amulets to block the Evil Eye and shrines to local spirits, and they also supported Franciscan friars.  They prayed before icons like Orthodox do, and pretty much followed the liturgical celebrations of the Eastern church as each year cycled around.  But they didn’t have many priests, and the Bosnian Church lacked central organization.  A Papal Crusade from Rome in the 1300’s had swept through to exterminate the Bogomil “Heresy” for their rejection of the cross as a symbol, their failure to venerate the Virgin Mary, and their lack of “proper” sacraments.

Unlike their neighbors who would later call themselves “Croatian,” the people of the Bosnian mountains converted to Islam in large numbers.  Bogomils already prayed the Lord’s Prayer five times a day, so Islam didn’t seem as strange.  You got a tax break if you converted, which was attractive, and a better education for your kids.  On the down side, pork and alcohol were discouraged and circumcision was required.  Merchants tended to convert sooner than farmers, because the markets to the east were more lucrative than those to the west.  And if you were a Muslim, you could advance faster in the huge Ottoman army.

The coolest place in Blagaj, and maybe in all Bosnia, was right up the river from our campground.  It’s a cave about as big as our garage, and the Buna River begins back in that cave, deep under the mountain!  The water really is that blue!  This is a view from the window of the Dervish House, a place where Sufi orders have come to pray for 500 years.

View of Cave from which the Buna River flows

Here is a look at the Blagaj Dervish House itself:

Dervish House, Blagej, Herzegovina

We canoed from here with a Bosnian guy named (approximately) Jared.  The river is very cold and shallow, and only about 6 miles long.  The current carried us past beautiful riverside houses, some with swimming pools and most with sitting areas on the riverbank.  Because of the way the mountains encircle the Buna Valley, it has a milder microclimate than the rest of the region, and Jared and his friends rock climb almost all year-round.  The Buna flows into the larger Nerevta River.

Mostar is the small city just up the Nerevta.  The Ottomans weren’t interested in the slightly-sunnier and milder Blagaj climate.  They moved the capital from Blagaj to Mostar and began building mosques, big houses, and caravanserais (trading posts).  Salespeople from the east would come to trade and stay for months.

Their most famous building is the Old Bridge (Stari Most), from which the city takes its name.  It has a steep arch, buttressed by the strength of the rocky banks, and the profile of that arch is the symbol of the city.  It’s probably the most famous Ottoman landmark in the Balkans.


Mostar was the focus of intense fighting during the 1992-1995 wars.  First the Serbs (Orthodox) came in from the east, then Croats (Catholics) and Bosniaks (Muslims, basically) pushed them out.  Then the Croats turned on the Bosniaks and shelled most of the churches and mosques in the town, and destroyed the famous bridge on November 9, 1993, while the world watched in disbelief.  It was rebuilt in 2003-2004 with help from an interesting coalition that included UNESCO, of course, the Aga Khan Trust, Turkey, and a probably-not-penitent Croatian Republic.

The most beautiful building we saw in Mostar was the rebuilt Central Mosque on the left bank of the river.  Here’s the sanctuary.  The central niche faces southeast, toward Mecca.  The stairway is called a minbar, and it’s really an elevated pulpit or speaker’s podium.

Mihrab & Minbar, Mostar Mosque

Most of Mostar is postcard-perfect now.  The old town is full of souvenir shops selling refrigerator magnets, tote bags, bracelets with your name on it, prayer beads, straw hats, and carvings.  The cobblestones are scrubbed daily.  But if you walk up the mountainside toward where artillery blasted the city 25 years ago, you see buildings with thirty-foot birch trees growing inside and shrapnel holes.

A ruined building, Mostar

The owners have probably fled and may never return.  Virtually all of Mostar’s Jews and Serbs are gone, but at what point does the government take over and demolish such a building?   And who, if anyone, do they compensate for their loss?  The wars of the 1990’s, like WWII, caused forced migration, not to mention genocidal murder as a tool of ethnic segregation.  Former Bosnian Jews mostly went to Israel, at first temporarily, but most have remained there.  Serbs mostly moved to a sector won when the 1995 Dayton treaty ending the Bosnian War.  Mostar is a Croat/Bosniak city today.

Trees, Rivers, and Mountains

The theme of my sabbatical has been “trees and rivers,” referring to two metaphorical ways that religion functions in human society.  As a growing tree, religion gives us the opportunity to branch out toward the sun, sometimes by splitting from the main trunk.  “Treeness” includes schisms and heresies as well as differentiation caused by enlightenment or progress.  “Riverness” is the less-frequent way in which religion allows separate flows of human life to come together and unite.  It includes syncretism, multiculturalisms, and what the Spanish call “convivencia,” or living together.  Bosnia, for a time, was a religiously river-like place, with plenty of intermarriage between people of different faiths.

A third metaphor would have been too much for a sabbatical study, but “mountain” would be a good one.  I’ve spoken and taught about how there are many paths to the top of the mountain of spiritual life, including in this talk a few years ago in Minneapolis.  Religion can be seen as the human effort to move closer to the highest, the truest, the most beautiful, the most compassionate place in our world.  Or in our hearts.

Above the lovely Buna river valley stand forested mountains, defining regions and dialects.  Above Blagej, the small town where we camped, stands a great mountain with a fortress from the 1100’s.  You can walk up on a switchback trail on the back side or you can climb up, frequently using all four limbs and helpful cables bolted into the rock.  Jared took us up the hard way late one afternoon, and we thought how much our rock-climbing son and daughter-in-law would love it.  Lynnell loved it.  I liked it pretty well, but wish I was 30 pounds lighter!  Here we are, coming down from a cave where Jared found some actual cave-people potsherds and we watched bats in the light of our headlamps.

Cables helping us on steeper portions of Blagej Mountain Climb

We descended for maybe 20 minutes, and then Jared told us it was time to start climbing again.  “Why?” I asked, and they both laughed.  But I was serious!  I wanted to just finish climbing down and be done by sunset, but there was A Fortress to see, and it was Up There.  Over There.  I sighed deeply and we climbed on.

Just before we got to the top, my Spidey Sense left me and I failed to notice a rock under some tall grass.  I fell and came up with this goose-egg on my shin within ten seconds.

John's Shine Egg after a fall near the top of Blagej Mountain

About twenty minutes later, as the sun was disappearing on the other side of the Buna Valley, we came upon the fortress.  After that, we learned, we would take the nice, gradual, switchback trail for a couple miles back down to our campground.  Whew!

Blagej Fortress, restored section at left

As we walked toward the fortress gate, an enormous BANG! sounded, and I was sure someone had detonated a bomb nearby.  But Jared smiled, deservedly pleased with his timing.

You see, every day during the sacred month of Ramadan, someone fires a gunshot in every town, signaling that the fast was over.  Muslims from Bosnia to Malaysia say a quick grace and reach for whatever is on the buffet!  Jared knew quite well that the Iftar signal for his town would come from that Fortress just about when we got there.

Here’s a billboard advertising Iftar dinner at sunset

Iftar Buffet at Motel Coming Up!

Ramadan Mubarak!  (Have a blessed Ramadan)

I’ll close with a greeting to my Muslim friends: may your fasting be a blessing to you and those you love.  May you draw closer to God, who is simultaneously the mountaintop, the treetop, and the place where our rivers flow down to the sea.

Yugoslavia was such a good idea

As a country, the idea of Yugoslavia was not obvious.  Even though most of the people in this corner of the Balkans spoke the same language and ate the same foods, there have always been greater forces working to split the “South Slavs” from each other.  (Yugo, also spelled зуго, means south.)  The centrifugal forces include waves of successive empires and the effects of all those mountain ranges separating, say, an Orthodox village from a Catholic one.

The people here were once subjects of the Roman Empire (Italy is just an eight-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea).  And the Byzantine Empire.  And the Ottoman. And Austro-Hungarian.  The western parts tend to be Roman Catholic, and the eastern parts Orthodox.  And a bunch of utterly European Muslims, mostly in Bosnia.

But the idea of all these people having a free and diverse country pleases us Americans a lot.  They weren’t going to be subjects of a foreign emperor or king, but instead would cooperate as fellow South Slavs in this beautiful and mountainous land.  Besides, the so-called “nations” were all really similar.  Of course, that didn’t make unifying other countries around here easy, either.  Think of Germany and Italy, which after 150 years are still not convinced they are really unitary.  So we set our aim at Yugoslavia, hoping to learn more about diversity

We ferried over from Bari, Italy, about ten days ago, and set up our van for four days of sun in Dubrovnik, on the coast of Croatia.  Yugoslavia spent the nineties in an awful break-up, and the six former republics became independent states.  Croatia is most famous for its coastline and islands.  We loved the beach, rented an umbrella on two days, and just plain gaped at the gorgeous scenery.

View of Dubrovnik Harbor from our van

We also went into the old walled city, with its polished stone streets and perfect tile roofs, and walked along the ramparts.  Unfortunately, we learned that the roofs were so new because Serbian fighters shelling the city from the mountainside above had burned or blasted all the old ones in 1991.  The “Yugoslavian People’s Army,” basically were punishing Croatia for seceding from Yugoslavia.

We took a side trip to Montenegro (another of the six former Yugoslavian republics).  We were greeted by a 60-minute line of cars at the border and were surprised to find out we had to buy car insurance for 18 Euros.  We thought it was a scam, but the same thing was to happen a few days later entering Bosnia, and Lynnell recalled that many European car rentals do not allow you to enter those two very poor non-E.U. countries.   Here’s the border crossing:

Border from Croatia into Montenegro

And here is the insurance office.

Montenegran Insurance Sales Office at Border

Rick Steves’ Guidebook advised us to drive around the fjord called the Bay of Kotor, and it was great advice.  Huge forested mountains slope steeply into the water.  Villages of houses that look like Monopoly game pieces cling to the shore.   I had mussels for lunch that had been in the fjord a few hours before.

John Loving the Mussels

Lynnell ordered grilled fish, choosing from five actual just-caught fishes on a giant platter.  We continued our drive and reached the Kotor Fortress in mid-afternoon.  Much like Dubrovnik, Kotor is a red-roofed sanctuary from naval and land attacks.  The walls are immense, and climb up the mountainside maybe a half-mile to a lookout and artillery post on the top.   We took this photo from a little chapel halfway to the top (and then turned back!).  The modern city lies outside the walls along the bay.

Kotor seen from Church on Mountainside

After the wars in the 1990’s, at least one of the new countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina, resisted the insane nationalistic fervor that drove Serbians and Croats to atrocities, ethnic cleansing, mass deportations, and state-sanctioned acts of terror I will not name here.  B & H had been, and to some extent still is, a multicultural place.   You see minarets and steeples in the same village.  And even the road signs, unlike in the other former Yugoslav Republics, are multi-language.   Or more accurately, multi-alphabet.  Serbs and Croats are always finding ways to diverge, and during the 1800’s, a Serbian invented a cyrillic alphabet which is now the official alphabet of Serbia.   People are free to call their restaurant a ресторан or a restoran.  On road signs, the government spells town names both ways: мостар is Mostar, and сарајево is Sarajevo.  But sometimes, vandals who disapprove make changes:

Serbian (Cyrillic) Sspellings crossed out

Even calling the language everyone speaks “Serbo-Croatian” is sort of like “Scottish-English” or “Americo-Canadian.”  It’s the same language, with small variations, but the Orthodox people call themselves Serbs (сербс).  Catholic people call themselves Croatians.  It’s one of the only examples in the world of people being able to use two different alphabets.  According to Wikipedia, 47% of the 8 million or so Serbians in the former Yugoslavia prefer the Latin alphabet, and 36% prefer the цзриллиц.

OK, a couple more pictures before I sign off.  The internet here is spotty and it’s been too long between posts!  Here’s the Bosnian guy at the border selling us insurance for his country.  He used a manual portable typewriter and carbon paper.  It’s a really poor country.

Clerk sells us Bosnia Road Insurance with Manual Typewriter

But we found him and his fellow Bosnians helpful, even if we had to use sign language and google translate sometimes.  Below, Lynnell asks where we can find a B-H Telecom store where we could buy SIM cards for our precious phones.

Asking for help with getting SIM cards

That’s all for now.  In our next post, we’ll have more about the geographic beauty and human tragedy of this former country, a cautionary tale about the dangers of religion, patriotism, and nationalism.



April and May in Pictures

Photos from our time in Jerusalem / Haifa / Istanbul / Rome / Sorrento / Naples / Pompeii / Tuscan Hills / Elba / Rome / Vegas / Zion National Park.

Hover your cursor over each image to see the caption.