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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Balkan Chronicles: Bridges and Books

The Balkans - the southeastern part of the European peninsula named after the Balkan Mountains. The word Balkan itself is Turkish in origin and is supposed to mean 'a chain of wooded mountains' according to Wikipedia. I was surprised to find out that some of the Croatians I met objected to Croatia being referred to as 'Balkan '  - they insist that Croatia is a part of Europe and not Balkan. To me, admittedly the word Balkan conjures up images of old world cities with winding cobbled streets and brooding castles haunted by vampires; remote hamlets steeped in superstition and dark wild woods where werewolves lurk. Not forgetting the odd witches and the wandering Gypsies... 

The Sava River flows through Zagreb...
Apparently, the River Danube separates Western Europe from Eastern Europe - so the Balkans are to the east of the Danube. The Sava River, (not to be confused with Sava Savanovich, the notorious 17th Century vampire who haunted the watermill on the Rogacica River in Serbia) a tributary of the Danube flows through Zagreb; therefore according to the natives of Zagreb, the part of Zagreb west of the river is in Europe and the part to the east is in the Balkans... 

The aversion to the word 'Balkan' could be its association to poverty, rusticity and even political instability. A Facebook friend, Abhijit Roy, used the word 'balkanisation' to mean the fragmentation of a country. The present day reality is that most of the cities in the Balkan are modern with all the amenities one expects from Europe. In fact, some of the world's most beautiful cities and towns are here - Belgrade, Budapest, Prague...  The countryside and even the mountains are now accessible by well-maintained highways, tunnels and bridges. But I find the Balkans of old much more fascinating...

This illustration shows the disparate influences which have molded the Balkans - Ottoman Empire on the left with the crescent moon signifying Islam; woman holding a child in a manger signifying Christianity in the middle and the man carrying a flag of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the right. In the background is probably the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo.
Copyright belongs to

The Balkans mostly refer to the countries of the former Yugoslavia - Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo; plus Bulgaria, Romania and Albania. It should be noted that Slovenia does not consider itself as being part of the Balkan. What really sets all these countries apart is the fact that this is the part of Europe where two empires have clashed historically: The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The people, language and culture therefore reflects this complex heritage. And when civilisations clash there is bound to be unrest... 

On 28 June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Archduke was shot dead on the Latin Bridge by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, and the assassination came to be known as the Sarajevo Incident. The motive for the assassination was to free the Slavic countries from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and create a greater Serbia or Yugoslavia. This event is believed to have led directly to World War One and used frequently by proponents of the Lynch-pin Theory or should I say, hypothesis? According to this hypothesis (I'm not even sure if it's real or made up by TV scriptwriters!)  a single event could trigger a chain reaction of catastrophic proportions as was surely the case here.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after WWI and led to the formation of Germany and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia but it would take another World War and General Tito to create Yugoslavia. The Ottoman Empire collapsed as well after WWI and morphed into modern-day Turkey. Then of course came the Croatian War and the Bosnian War and the disintegration of Yugoslavia itself in 1991, but that's another story...

This is the stuff of fiction of course. Not surprisingly, spy thrillers, crime fiction and books on political skulduggery have been set in the Balkans. The ones I've read include Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express - an all-time favourite where Hercule Poirot investigates a murder on the Orient Express, which had been stalled by heavy snowfall in a Balkan country. More fascinating is The Secret of Chimneys - which mentioned a fictitious country called Herzoslovakia, a country where the national hobby was 'assassinating kings and having revolutions.' In this book, a king called Nicholas IV was assassinated in 1918 along with his queen in a revolution. The queen was in fact a Parisian actress but the king had concealed this fact. Is King Nicholas based on Archduke Ferdinand of Austria? Archduke Ferdinand's wife, Sophie was a Czech countess who was not blue-blood enough for the ultra-refined Austrian Royal Court. In fact, she was not even allowed to appear in public with him or to sit beside him in state functions except for military functions outside Austria... 

Another book I've read is Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios. I loved this book but modern readers tend to find the protagonist as fumbling and annoying as he prefers talking to action and has a knack for getting himself into danger. Nevertheless, The Mask of Dimitrios, is considered a forerunner in the spy thriller/espionage fiction and the idea of a ruthless but highly intelligent assassin behind certain events. It may have been the model for works such as The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

However, according to some friends from the diplomatic community, the most important book about the region is  The Bridge on the Drina. The novel by Yogoslav writer, Ivo Andric, was published in 1945. It is about the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge, a real-life bridge spanning the Drina River near the town of Visegrad in Bosnia. The story spans four centuries from about 1500 - 1900, when the region was under Ottoman rule and later Austro-Hungarian rule. Ivo Andric was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1961 for his body of work.

The story starts with a Serb boy being taken from his village as part of the blood tax - Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire are required to hand over a few of their boys every year to serve the empire. The boys are not doomed to a life of servitude and slavery, on the contrary they are educated, thought martial skills and horsemanship. The strongest and bravest grow up to lead the Sultan's army while the ones with sharp minds and quick wits are groomed to be administrators to run the Ottoman Empire.

The mothers of these boys follow them, wailing in grief, until they reach the river where the children are taken across by boat and the mothers can no longer follow. That child is educated in the Ottoman Court and later takes the name of Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic and eventually becomes the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire for almost 15 years. But the memory of his mother wailing still haunts him and he decides to build the most magnificent bridge over the Drina River in memory of that event. 

The bridge was completed in the year 1570, with much difficulties and sacrifices. Apparently, children may have been entombed into the bridge during the construction to ensure that it remains standing. This fact should not come as a surprise as hundreds of people were said to be entombed in the Great Wall of China during its construction too. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that the spirits of the dead children are supposed to be tied to the bridge and to guard it to ensure its continued existence.

The Mehmed Pasa Sokolovich bridge on the River Drina, Visegrad, Bosnia
The most famous bridge in the Balkans is however, the Stari Most or Mostar Bridge, which connects the two banks of the Neretva River in the town of Mostar, Herzegovina. The 427-year old bridge was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat-Bosniak War, along with a number of historical monuments.

The original bridge was built in the 16th Century and considered one of the outstanding examples of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. It was designed by Mimar Hayruddin, an apprentice of the famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sidan. Two fortified towers protected it: the Helebija tower on the northeast bank and the Tara tower on the southwest bank. The towers are the bridge keepers or mostaris.

The original Mostar Bridge - the picture was taken before the
bridge was destroyed. Copyright Wikipedia
The bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and completed in 19 July 1566. Legend has it that the architect was charged under pain of death to construct a bridge of unprecedented proportions. When the scaffolding was finally removed the bridge became an object of wonder and was the widest man-made arch in the world, during its time.

The new Mostar bridge at night. Copyright Wikipedia.
The new Mostar bridge was rebuilt after the war, using Ottoman techniques and utilising the local stones used in the original bridge. It was completed in July 23, 2004.

The book which takes us to modern day Balkan is The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Published in 2011, the book garnered the Orange Prize for Obreht, making her the youngest person to win this award to date. The author was born in Belgrade, but is of Bosniak/ Slovene descent. As she left Yugoslavia at the age of seven, Obreht did not witness the war, which is the setting for the book.

The narrator of the story is a young doctor called Natalia Stefonovic, who lives in an unnamed Balkan country. As a child, she is taken to a zoo by her grandfather; a zoo which was formerly a Sultan's fortress. While observing the tiger in the zoo, her grandfather tells her the story of a woman who was known as 'the tiger's wife.'

A friend of mine, Alena Sanusi, asked me if I knew which city the story was set in. I looked up old fortresses in Balkan cities which had zoo in it and came across Kalemegdon Fortress. Kalemegdon is situated on a hilltop, right in the middle of Belgrade at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava River. The fortress dates back to the early Middle Ages but more importantly, it was captured by the Ottomans in the 16th Century and remained in Ottoman hands for three centuries.

Kalemegdon Fortress

To return to the story, Natalia is caught in the Yugoslavia war. At the end of the war, she visited the village of Galina, the birthplace of her grandfather, as part of a humanitarian medical group to help the villages. In the village, she is shocked to find out that the story of the tiger's wife was not a fairy tale after all.

 The story of the Balkans is incomplete without mentioning the Gypsies. The gypsies here refer to themselves as Romas. Apparently, gypsies originally came from India although no one knows exactly which part of India... perhaps from Rajasthan as some claim they are descended from the Rajputs. The Indian origin is inferred from their language which is Indo-Aryan - apparently all the gypsy clans of the world share a certain language. They are thought to have come to Europe between the 6th - 11th Century. Some claim to have migrated to Europe even earlier, with the army of Alexander the Great or perhaps Julius Ceaser? The Romas also claim that only they have the right to call themselves Romas because they are the true Romans...


ruth leader said...

I love this blog. More please.

tutudutta said...

Thank you, Ruth Leader. I will check out your blog soon.

Julia Dutta said...

Tutu, what an excellent blog. Now that I have subscribed to it, I will receive updates on gmail and may not need to look at facebook.

tutudutta said...

Thank you, Julia. Although I only post something new about once a month so Facebook is good enough :)