Memory and Form: An Exploration of the Stari Most, Mostar (BIH)

By Krishnamurthy, Sukanya | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Memory and Form: An Exploration of the Stari Most, Mostar (BIH)


Krishnamurthy, Sukanya, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


This paper explores the performance of memory and forgetting through the urban palimpsest that is the Old Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar, BiH. Drawing on the results of qualitative fieldwork done in the city in 2009/10 a framework is established to analyze the site through two axes: one as an object seeped in history and commemoration; and the other through its representation (pre- /post-destruction, monument for reconciliation). Through these axes, the paper aims to understand the role that architecture or form plays in performing urban memory and forgetting.

Keywords: Memory, forgetting, monuments, urban spaces, representation, identity

1. Introduction

It has been more than eight years since the symbolic Old Bridge1 at Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), was rebuilt, but the arguments that surround it have not waned. Various voices, conflicting views and mediated stories can be heard when the people of the city are asked about its presence, responding with myriad explanations marked by remembering and forgetting. The presence of the Old Bridge is simultaneously a number of things - history, memory, monument, ruin, a glorious past and an ambivalent future. The confusion and trepidation can be read in the short excerpt from a narrative interview with a resident of Mostar during the course of the fieldwork conducted between October and November 2009, and March 2010.

Aida, the Head of the NGO RESCATE (Mostar office),2 explains:

Today they want to make a symbol of it, I don't know why. I suppose it is useful material for advertising. Which is wrong. [The] Old Bridge has its purpose, by itself, [of] connecting two sides. People are jumping from it; people are taking photos of it. First it's beautiful. It has its architectural value. Why can't it be like any other bridge?"

She continues vehemently:

I simply refuse to connect the Old Bridge and the recent war. I don't want to connect it (!) I choose not to connect it. I don't want to see the bridge as a symbol. It's not a symbol of connecting two people. That is wrong. It's a bridge please. Please leave [let] the bridge to [just] be a bridge.

Five minutes pass before she continues along the same vein about the Old Bridge during the war.

[...] but then the Old Bridge was destroyed, it became a whole other [new] concept. That is why I said Mostar, as a city, and as urban settlement, goes together with the Old Bridge - those [these] two are one. So when the Old Bridge was destroyed, it was considered [that] Mostar is dead - totally killed. Because that component is [of the city was] destroyed, no one could even imagine this [ever imagined this possible]. Now it's an advertisement, it's some story that they want to sell. Much greater value of a bridge is its perception as a bridge, than as any other created symbol.

If on one hand there is this narrative that refuses to accept the Old Bridge as a symbol, then on the other an "official" (UNESCO) international narrative reads:

With the "renaissance" of the Old Bridge and its surroundings, the symbolic power and meaning of the City of Mostar - as an exceptional and universal symbol of coexistence of communities from diverse cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds - has been reinforced and strengthened, underlining the unlimited efforts of human solidarity for peace and powerful co-operation in the face of overwhelming catastrophes.

The small city of Mostar was thrown into the limelight of the Croat-Bosniak War (1992-1994) when the Old Bridge fell into the waters of the river Neretva on 9 November 1993, with the image of the destroyed bridge being one of the many poignant images of the war. The Old Bridge that was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, in the sixteenth century, was not just an architectural marvel but progressed into part of the living history of the city and was a testament to the people of the city and the region, that took on a more complex definition and role after its destruction. …

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