Thursday 2 August 2012

Jewish Sarajevo, a beautiful church and the Bosnian Pyramids

Sarajevo has a Jewish community of about 700 people. About 300 of these are "halachically" Jewish with the rest being offspring of mixed Jewish/ non-Jewish marriages. This is the remnant of a once much bigger presence, firmly established in the 16th century century with an influx of Sephardi Jews as a result of the earlier expulsion from Spain and much reduced during the Holocaust and by the exodus of several hundred community members during the Balkan War of 1992-95.

Sarajevo has been referred to as the "Little Jerusalem" due to the long and proud Jewish history in the city. The legacy of this long presence includes probably the most famous Jewish Book in the world - the Sarajevo Haggadah, hundreds of beautiful songs brought from Spain at the time of the expulsion and still sometimes sung in the original Judeo-Spanish, a wealth of Jewish learning and writing and a story of  largely peaceful co-existence with Muslim and Christian neighbours.

There have been dark periods in this history. The darkest of course occurred during the Second World War when the former Yugoslavia was occupied by Germany and when some 85% of the city's almost 12,000 Jews were transported to their deaths at a variety of camps in the former Yugoslavia. During this period, a number of Jewish intellectuals played a significant part in the resistance, including the writer Laura Papo La Bohoretta was eventually arrested and murdered. There are many stories of Muslim and Christian Bosnians helping Jewish friends and neighbours to evade the German occupiers and there are currently 40 Bosnian names on the register of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. However, this is only one side of the story as the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, who spent much of the war in Berlin and broadcast messages of support for the German regime also came to Bosnia during this time, recruited local Muslims to a special SS Division, who then participated in the killing of Jews and other minorities.
Sarajevo by Yekkes
Ashkenazi Synagogue, Sarajevo

Jews have generally been well integrated into Bosnian society over the centuries and an example of this continuing acceptance included the Jewish relief organisation, La Benovelencija, assisting Muslims, Serbs and Croats to leave the city during the siege by taking them out with groups of elderly Jews and Jewish children who were evacuated from the city. Jewish community leaders have described this as repaying the help given to by fellow Bosnians to many Jews during the Second World War.

There are few remaining Jewish institutions in Sarajevo. The Great Synagogue in the city centre, built in 1581, is now a museum exhibiting a collection of religious objects, photographs and biographies of leading Bosnian Jewish artists and intellectuals including La Bohoretta (who is honoured by a plaque on the building's exterior), Daniel Ozmo and Doctor Isak Samokovlija. There are also exhibits relating to the Holocaust, to Bosnian Jewish life between the wars and a replica of the Sarajevo Haggadah is on display. The building is very well maintained and the damage sustained during the 1992-95 war has been repaired but it is not hard to feel the sense of loss of this once great community as this once "great" synagogue no longer serves a living community. Adjacent to the synagogue is the New Temple Gallery, another building owned by the Jewish community and used for art exhibitions. it was closed on the day I visited the Museum.

There remains one working synagogue in Sarajevo - the Ashkenazi synagogue across the river Miljacka, and a short walk from the Latinska Bridge. This synagogue is one of the largest in Europe and was built in 1902 to the design of architects Karl Parzik and Jungwirth. Built in the Moorish style, it is the only working synagogue in the country today. I understand that the interior is also in Moorish style with arches and wall pantings by Ludwig Oisner, but at the time of my visit the synagogue was locked. I have no count I will return to Sarajevo so seeing the inside of this imposing building will be on my list of must-dos.

One of the most enduring legacies of Sarajevo's Jewish community is its influence on music. The Sephardim spoke, read and wrote in Judeo-Spanish having brought the language with them from Spain following the expulsion of 1492 and many books, songs and poems were written in this beautiful, but now almost dead language. A number of singers such as Israeli's Yasmin Levy and Mor Karbasi are working hard to preserve this music and to promote it to a wide audience. Flory Jagoda, born in Sarajevo but now resident in the United States has recorded many of the specifically Bosnian songs. You can hear one of them by clicking on the video below.

Although Sarajevo has only one working synagogue today, the city is not short of religious buildings with many mosques and Orthodox and Catholic churches. I especially enjoyed visiting the Franciscan Monastery and Church of Saint Antonio in the Bistrik quarter of the city, very close to my hotel. The church was built in a very short period in 1912 and replaced a less robust earlier structure. Designed by architect Josip Vancas in the new gothic style, the church is a very large structure, towering over the neighbouring residential buildings and the famous Sarajevska Pivara brewery. The interior was refurbished in the 1960's and features stunning stained glass windows by Croatian artists Ivo Dulcic, wood carvings by sculptor Zdenko Grgic and a beautiful mural of the Last Supper behind the central altar.

Bistrik is a pretty quarter with many interesting buildings in a range of styles including art nouveau apartments, brightly coloured houses and rows of well maintained cottages. It is also a very green part of the city with many gardens, trees and grassy areas.

The final stop on my short visit to Bosnia was Visoko, a small town just a short drive from Sarajevo and which until recently attracted visitors with its leather trade and handicraft workshops, its fortress and a small town museum. This all changed in April 2005 when Semir Osmanagic, an American based Bosnian researcher noticed two geometrically symmetrical hills close to the town. Osmanagic maintained that the Visocia Hill (now known as the Bosnian pyramid of the Sun) and Pljesivica Hill (now the Bosnian pyramid of the Moon) shared characteristics with pyramids he had studied in Egypt and in South America. As you might expect, his assertions created quite a stir amongst archaeologists and the general public with a great deal of doubt being cast on his views.

After numerous subsequent excavations, he has been able to convince many experts (although not all), that the formations are not natural. Evidence to support Osmanagic's case include geological verification that the Visocica Hill is a massive stone formation in the shape of a pyramid, with excavations showing large slabs of hand carved stone at each level of the hill. Satellite, thermal and radar images of Pljesevica Hill show perfectly identical dimensions - surely indicating that the structure is artificial in nature.

On the morning of my visit, the upper levels of the hills were shrouded in mist and a steady drizzle was falling. Accompanied my travelling partner, I slowly made my way up Pljesivica Hill. There is a small entry fee to climb to where the excavations are exposed and after asking whether or not we spoke German (which we don't), the attendant explained to us (in German) that we must keep to the wooden edged steps cut into the mud (so maybe we do understand German?). Good advice, but some stretches of the climb either don't have steps cut in, or the wooden edges have already been worn away. What did I think? Well, there is definitely a massive sloping rock formation under the heavily forested top soil of the hill and it does look man made to me, although very different to the Egyptian pyramids which have been exposed to centuries of weathering. Osmanogic believes the structures to be more than 10,000 years old and they may have originated when the Balkan peninsula was a refuge for Mediterranean civilisations during the last ice age.

Still the subject of much debate the site is now being further excavated by a number of experts drawn from across the world. One thing for certain, looking down on the exquisite green countryside from the misty and heavily wooded hill top, it wasn't hard to imagine that an ancient civilisation would choose this place as a refuge from the encroaching ice.

And a confession. Visoko wan't my absolute last stop in Bosnia. That honour and delight fell to Samis, where there was just enough time for another coffee and a piece of baklava before going to the airport.


  1. just posted a link to your blog on a new book I am writing.
    In regards to Semir Osmanagich

  2. just posted a link to your blog on a new book I am writing.
    In regards to Semir Osmanagich