At dawn, the dark shapes of seven minarets appeared against the lightening sky of the Neretva valley.
When we arrived the night before, Mostar's skyline had been occluded by darkness, but in the morning light of our first day in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the graceful beauty of the medieval fairy tale city resolved into shapes and colors that revealed not only the spires, domes, and bridges of the diverse architecture of a blended culture, but also the scars of civil war and the weight of a tragic past.
Mostar is the cultural capital of Herzegovina, most famous outside the Balkans for the graceful arc of its Old Bridge, or "Stari Most," from which Mostar derives its name.
When the Ottomans built it in 1566, the original span was the longest single bridge in the world, connecting the two halves of the city - much like Bosnia itself bridges the worlds of East and West, Islam and Christianity.
Bounded by the Dinaric Mountains and laid out along the river, the city feels compact, so we set out to explore it on foot. We crossed the deep ravine of the fast-flowing Neretva, entered the city center, and were everywhere reminded of the 18-month siege that had gripped the city 20 years before. There were bombed-out buildings standing amid new construction, fields of uncleared rubble, and every so often, a star-shaped mark on the sidewalk left by a mortar strike.
We visited a quiet mosque, toured a centuries-old inn that still entertains travelers, and came upon grassy parks that are now tombstone-filled graveyards, because during the siege, snipers would not allow the dead to be carried outside the city.
Circling back toward the river, we soon found ourselves walking on the smooth cobblestones of the pedestrian market. There, we felt transported to a Middle Eastern bazaar as we walked among the stalls selling colorful scarves, jewelry, copperware, and water pipes. And we rested in the cool shade of a leafy cafe courtyard, sitting by a gurgling fountain, drinking thick, strong, Bosnian coffee, and nibbling on sweet bites of baklava and Turkish Delight.
Watching the natives of Mostar pass outside the cafe, we reflected on the city's blend of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, who are called "Bosniaks." The groups are indistinguishable by their appearance or dress, and locals told us only people's names reveal their ethnic identity. They shopped and mixed freely, and it was difficult to imagine a time when it was any other way.
As sunset approached, we made our way to the Old Bridge. Destroyed by shelling in 1993, it was finally repaired and restored in 2004, using many of the original stones that had fallen into the river. Now, as before, it stands almost 70 feet above the water, uniting the city. As the sun dropped behind the mountains, we noticed a sign on the bridge with a familiar message that we had seen in every Mostar neighborhood. It read simply, "Never forget."
Keith Costigan writes from Perkasie.
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