“To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
THE COVER OF nearly every edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon prominently features the same extraordinary architectural, cultural, and pontine monument found in Mostar, Herzegovina (see page banner above). Rebecca West called it “one of the most beautiful bridges in the world,” which to me only suggests she hadn’t seen every bridge in the world. Elegant in its simplicity, its centrality on the Neretva river, dramatically emphasized by its towering height over the deep and narrow culvert, and its rustic setting, all contribute to the aesthetic effect of the bridge. It is virtually impossible to take a bad picture of the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) and it is hard to imagine the city without its signature span. (Although the words Mostar and Stari Most are clearly related, they do not mean the same thing. Mostar is derived from mostari, “bridge-keeper”.)
It may have been this bridge on the cover, more than anything else, that drew my attention to the book initially and eventually to the tortured history of Yugoslavia. It appeared to me ancient, alien and alluring, staggeringly beautiful, unreachable. It was a goal for years to see it and stand on it myself.
Stari Most is a pedestrian bridge in both senses of the word: it simply joins the two sides of the city straddling the Neretva and was designed for foot traffic. Motor bridges came later. Walking it can be a challenge especially if you are, like me, prone to vertigo. (I had the same heart-pounding experience walking the Stari Most as I have driving the high, narrow Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.) The Stari Most deck itself is graded at a steep 10 degrees, cobbled and ribbed. The walk feels precarious (at 6’4”, my center of gravity towers over the low parapet) but is worth the experience.
The bridge’s signature feature—what accentuates its height, position, and weightless feeling—is also its central structural element: the pointed arch. On first glance, the arch may appear to be a true semi-circle, a commonplace of Roman architecture. It is created, in fact, by the superimposition of a smaller circle at the top of the arc of a larger circle. As a result, the deviation of the curve from a true circle is extremely subtle.
While a familiar architectural feature today, the pointed arch – sometimes called an ogive arch – is an Islamic engineering innovation first exhibited at Qusayr ‘Amra in present-day Jordan in the early 8th Century CE and most famously known from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The pointed arch distributes load more efficiently and allows for the construction of tall, lightweight, open structures. Although the precise means and time of transmission are unclear, there is no doubt that the European gothic arch, the hallmark of Christian medieval engineering, is derived directly from the pointed arch of Islamic provenance.
As unique as the Stari Most is, its basic elements are common throughout the former Ottoman lands. While visiting Sarajevo in 2010, I walked to the “Goat’s Bridge” upriver on the Miljacka: simple, utilitarian, sturdy (see above). The Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic bridge (below) in Visegrad, Bosnia – arguably more famous than the Stari Most as the centerpiece of Nobel Prize-winning Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina – exhibits the same feature over ten arches.
The history of the Stari Most is straightforward. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned the bridge, attributed to Mimar Hayruddin, in 1557 CE. Replacing a wooden span, it was completed by 1567 CE. (Legend has it Hayruddin was so apprehensive of the arch’s structural integrity that he planned his own funeral in advance of what he was sure would be a complete collapse of the span.) There it remained a lovely architectural jewel to be encountered by adventurers from Evliya Çelebi and Joseph Hammer to Rebecca West.
During the wars of succession of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar became the battleground of two consecutive conflicts: the Croat/Bosnian war against Serb-dominated federal Yugoslavia and, following Croat gains from that battle, the siege of Mostar by Croatian national forces and local irregulars. As a symbol that also physically linked the Catholic Croatian right bank to the Muslim Bosnian left bank of the Neretva, the bridge became a primary target for Croatian gunners on November 8, 1993.
You can see its destruction here:
It is hard to watch something so beautiful destroyed. There is some satisfaction, to me at least, that something that looks so light and delicate withstood such pounding as long as it did.
The Croatian-Bosnian war ended with a ceasefire in 1994. Yugoslavia broke up into sovereign constituent republics and plans were immediately made to rebuild the bridge. A multinational and multilateral coalition raised the money and recovered original building materials from the riverbed for reconstruction that started in 2001. The new bridge was inaugurated on July 24, 2004. It was this span that I visited and crossed in 2010.