TO MOST visitors, Mostar's Stari Most, or Old Bridge, was a symbol of all they most cherished and admired about the old Yugoslavia and Bosnia. Arching over the rushing torrent of the Neretva river, this graceful and delicate-looking structure had withstood the vicissitudes of 437 years, outliving the changing regimes of the Ottomans, Austrians, royalist Yugoslavs and Communists. It seemed a symbol of Bosnia's durability. Its very nature, as a bridge, symbolised to many what Bosnia is, a meeting place of several cultures and religions.
Its destruction 10 years ago was equally symbolic of the tearing- up of old ties in Yugoslavia, as Serbs, Croats and Muslims hurled themselves into a brutal war. But the Serbs, though the main culprits in Bosnia's overall tragedy, were not the immediate cause of this particular tragedy.
Instead, the Stari Most fell victim to the struggle between Croats and Muslims, battling for control of Mostar, regional capital of Herzegovina. A Croatian General, Slobodan Praljak, ordered his men to shell it. He had no time for tradition or nostalgia, saying he was not sorry, because it was "just an old bridge", and its destruction would keep Croats and Muslims apart. On 1 November, 1993, the Old Bridge finally tumbled into the icy Neretva. A monument once listed as a Unesco world heritage site remained only on photographs and in the memories of the people of Mostar, as well as in the minds of architects and former tourists.
But now the Old Bridge is beginning a new life. The two sides of an elegant stone replica are only a few feet apart, awaiting the placing of the final stone next week. When that moment comes, the 29 metre-wide bridge, its arch rising 20 metres above the Neretva, will look much the same as it did.
The reconstruction of the bridge and other monuments in Mostar has cost pounds 10m. Work started two years ago, mainly financed by the World Bank and the Aga Khan Foundation as well as by Italy, France, the Netherlands and Turkey.
A Turkish firm won the contract for rebuilding the bridge. The Turks may have proposed the best plan, but there was a neat symbolism about this, bearing in mind that a Turkish architect, Mimar Hajrudin, looked at the Neretva almost 500 years ago and built in his mind a beautiful white stone bridge to connect its banks.
It was a masterpiece of its time, reputedly constructed using mortar made from horse-hair and egg-whites. Legend says that to be on the safe side, Hajrudin went to the nearby Radobolja river and constructed a small bridge with an elegant arch. It was finished in 1558 and was an almost perfect prototype of the Mostar bridge. The experience and knowledge gained from this were used by Hajrudin and his masons when they …