Mostar & Blagaj: An old bridge, a Sufi order and Bosnia's present and past

  • Robert Rigney
  • 15 Oct 2021

Although a tourist trap since the end of the war, this Bosnian hinterland still serves a serious purpose, attracting till today people of a religious cast, wishing to make prayers at the tomb of one of the Balkans greatest Sufi saints.

The Old Bridge in Mostar is a rebuilt 16th-century Ottoman bridge that crosses the river Neretva and connects the two parts of the city. ( AP )

From Berlin to Salt Lake City, everywhere Bosnians settle there is a restaurant or café inevitably named Stari Most - the Old Bridge. That bridge, of course, is Bosnia’s most photogenic as well as symbolic monument, the famous high-arched humpbacked bridge of Mostar, linking Muslim and Christian halves of the city; east with west - the bridge which gives its name to Mostar itself. 

From Sarajevo to Mostar it is about 135 kilometres.

The train to Mostar is an ancient communist-era clunker with no air-conditioning and grimy windows looking out at the ever-changing hills of Bosnia and waving children.

Upon getting off the train in Mostar the changed climate hits you immediately. While Sarajevo to the north is nestled in lush green hills, well-watered, fruit orchards everywhere, essentially Central European in aspect, Mostar, however, is hot, dry and stony. One senses the Mediterranean is not far now. It is the only place in Bosnia where honey-sweet yellow figs grow.

Mostar is evenly divided between Muslims, in the east and Catholics (Croatians) in the West. The river Neretva separates the two; the Old Bridge unites the two. 

Croatians from the north tend to look down on Croatians from Dalmatia, and the Dalmatians look down upon the Croatian Herzegovinans, hot-headed, tainted by the Balkan touch. The Croatian Herzegovinans in turn look down on the Muslims. It’s been 25 years since the war between Croats and Muslims, but there are still a lot of simmering unresolved conflicts, which periodically erupt into incidents.

Tito’s Brotherhood and Unity was the glue that kept the people of Yugoslavia from going at each other’s throats. 

Before the war, Mostar’s population hovered around 130,000, with Croats and Muslims in the majority, followed by Serbs – there had also been Jews right up until World War II – all living in relative harmony. However, after the Bosnian War, the population dwindled to a mere thirty thousand, a deep chasm running through the city’s ethnic landscape with the city’s symbol of ethnic rapport, the Old Bridge, commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, overseen by the architect Mimar Sinan, and built by his student Mimar Hayreddin, destroyed utterly.

Citizens of Mostar walk at Neretva river bank in front of improvized bridge at place of famous Old Bridge Thursday, November 30, 1995, by the sign reminder of Bosnian Croats made destruction at Muslim-held part o the town.(AP)

The bridge was reconstructed in 2004 with much fanfare. Several EU nations as well as Turkey funded its construction. Today it spans the Neretva with a single arch, 17.85 meters high and  27.34 meters wide, and is perhaps Bosnia’s most iconic tourist attraction, drawing sightseers from Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast, and shunting them north to Sarajevo.

In 2005, Turkey's then Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Mostar along with his wife Emine Erdogan especially to see the city's Old Bridge, which was designed in the 16th century by a Turkish architect. A masterpiece of classic Ottoman architecture, the bridge has been restored after being destroyed during the 1992-1995 Balkan wars by Bosnian Croat forces.(AP)


Not far from Mostar is the town of Blagaj, famous for its tekke or Sufi lodge spectacularly set in the face of a cliff out of which issues the Buna river, a tributary to the Neretva.

To get there you have to drive through the Muslim part of town, which was hardest hit in the war and least renovated since the end, past bullet-riddled war ruins pasted with green fringed Islamic obit notices. Then there are vineyards, scrubby hills, sheep grazing in a soccer field.  

After forty minutes we arrived in Blagaj. As I was let off in front of a shady café with the Bosnian coat of arms in the window, the sound of cicadas filled the air and a guy driving by shirtless with flip-flops on a moped. 

There was a small grocery shop, a sportska kladionica betting shop, and next to it a poster advertising hadj trips to Mecca. Inside a café, a toothless old gibber with a yellow, tobacco-stained walrus moustache ate ice cream while his pal drank Turkish coffee. The main street was lined with low houses with slate roofs, some fallen-in. Dipping down to the river, I found a campsite, erected my tent and set off for the tekke.

The Dervish Tekke, a holy place for Muslims, built in the 16th century near the spring of the Buna river, is seen in the town of Blagaj, near Mostar.(AP)

Under cliffs rising up hundreds of meters to the fortress of Stjepangrad, out of which flows the river Buna – the site of the tekka has long been a mystical place, even in pagan times. 

In 1470 the Bektashi Janinissaries built the tekke, a two-story, white-washed wood and plaster structure, constructed in the Turkish style with overhanging eaves and a slate roof. Inside is a tomb with a green turban tied to its post, said to be one of twelve resting places of the remains of Sari Saltuk.

“To write the history of the Balkans and southeast Europe at the time of the Ottoman conquest is not possible without taking into consideration the role and impact of Sari-Saltuk on political, military, economic and legal circumstances,” writes an author.

During Ottoman times the semi-mythical life of Sari Salturk was sung by bards and passed down from mouth to mouth till finally in 1480 it was set forth in the Saltukname, an epic, 1,236 page, three-volume work on the life of the Sufi saint written by Abul Khayr Rumi.

The details of Sari Saltuk are difficult to fix down, mixed as they are with the life history of other gazi (warriors) and evlija (saints). There were many folk legends surrounding Sari Saltuk, places in his biography where biographical fact merges with the mythical. Some details are plainly fairytales. For instance, Sari Saltuk is described as having miraculous powers such as being able to travel long distances in the blink of an eye. He was seen as being invincible, assisted by djinns and angels in his fights against infidels, tyrants, witches, monsters.

A Bosnian Muslim girl peers from windows of the Dervish Tekke, a holy place for Muslims, built in the 16th century near the spring of the Buna river, in the town of Blagaj, near Mostar.(AP)

Sari Saltuk appears, furthermore, to have been capable of performing miracles, and is reported to have struggled against witches and giants, and other supernatural beings like a seven-headed dragon, sometimes alongside other heroes of an epic legend like Osman Gazi, Orhan Gazi and Nasreddin Hoca. There are winged horses, trees and animals that speak. Sari Saltuk once had dealings with a nation that had eyes on the top of their heads.

Upon his death, in keeping with his almost invincible nature, he was first poisoned and then stabbed, but didn’t exhale his last breath before he killed his murderer outright. 

What we know to be fact is that Sari Saltuk was an orphan, who lost his father when he was three years old. We also know that he hailed from central Anatolia and, and came to Iznik, Uskudar in Istanbul, after which he moved to Dobrudzha in Bulgaria. The Ottoman travel writer Evliya Celebi states that his real name was Muhammad Buhari.

Sari Saltuk was tied to the Seljuk sultans, though he harboured no political aspirations.  As a dervish, who played an influential role in Seljuk society, he was affiliated with the Bektashi Sufi tariqat and is said to have been a disciple of Haji Bektash Veli, who supposedly sent him to Rumelia – the Ottoman name for the Balkans – establishing a base at Dobrudzha in Bulgaria.

The Bektashi Order wields a strong influence over the Muslims of the Balkans, Central Asia and beyond.(AP)

Sari Saltuk was one of a number of colonizing dervishes, who went on his way somewhere around 1263, to establish tekke – Sufi lodges – in the Balkans, providing security to travellers and strangers.  It is said that these tekke paved the way for eventual Turkish incursions in the fourteenth century.

Sari Saltuk was said to have had a dream in which he would play a role in establishing a large sultanate and making Rumelia (Rum, Byzance, the eastern part of the Roman Empire) an Islamic domain. After having had this dream he called upon the Ottoman ruler, Gazi Osman, who interpreted it for him and urged him to conquer Rumelia.

Sari Saltuk is said to be “the father of Rumelian Turks”, who “enlightened the whole of Anatolia and the Balkans”. Sultan Mehmed Fatih, during the siege of Istanbul in 1453, supposedly dreamed that Sari Saltuk told him that the keys to Istanbul lay in Edirne, the westernmost city of modern Turkey, which Mehmed Fatih interpreted as a sign not to neglect the ancient Ottoman locality.

Sari Saltuk lived in Edirne and is variously thought to have been active in military campaigns in Crimea, Azerbaijan, Samarkand, Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, India and Ethiopia. 

He spoke several languages, was conversant with the New Testament and there is some conjecture as to whether he was a hafiz – someone who knew the Koran by heart. Certain was that he was a very charismatic personality, who became a legendary figure already in his lifetime.

According to the Saltuknami, Sari Saltuk fought with priests, and even on occasion donned priests’ garb, preaching in churches, casting himself as a Catholic priest, while all the while secretly urging Christians to Islam.

After his death in 1297, at 99, it is said by biographer Franz Babinger, that Sari Saltuk became mixed in the minds with various Byzantine saints, for instance, St Naum and St Nikalas.

Upon his death, numerous türbe (tombs)became associated with his name,  tombs stretching from East Anatolia to the Balkans to Eastern Europe, and are said to be found in places as far-flung as Sweden, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania,  and Turkey. The Saltuknama states that there are twelve graves associated with Sari Saltuk, saying that various begs and kings desired to each be protector over a coffin with a portion of his remains. 

In many cases, the tombs are still visited and respected to this day. Barefoot pilgrims light candles and incense and offer up ritual sacrifices of sheep or goats in supplication to Sari Saltuk, who is supposed to engender cures for sundry ailments.  In some cases both Christians and Muslims visit the tombs.  One of the tombs was in Blagaj, in the Herzegovina -- and this was where I was headed.

Blagaj, I found, was part holy place, part tourist trap. Along the road leading the tekke stands sold Turkish coffee sets, fridge magnates, yellow Mostar figs and headscarves.  Fish restaurants crowded the banks of the river.

Tourists filed into the tekke under the mimosa tree and honeysuckle, snapping pictures of the building and the cave out of which the river flowed, while pigeons cooed and sparrows darted to and fro in the cave entrance. A group of old ladies chanting Catholic pilgrim songs arrived and were given headscarves to wear, before entering the tekke which smelled of warm wood in the sun. Oriental carpets and kilims were laid out on the floor, and the ancient floorboards creaked as you walked through the various small rooms.

In Mostar and Blagaj, people love spending time there surrounded by the beautiful mountains, enjoying hot sips of Turkish coffee.(AP)

It was here that I met Umut, a young Muslim in his twenties who presided over the tekke. Sitting on a bench under the mimosa tree, we got to talking. On his lapel, he wore the crocheted white flower with a green center – a memento in remembrance of the Srebrenica twenty-five years ago.

“The flower has a message,” said Umut “white signifies innocence, green signifies hope, and eleven petals stand for July 11, 1995”. 

During the war, Umut’s family had to move eight or nine times. His father was interned in a camp close to where they lived in Mostar. Umut would bring him cigarettes, handing them to him through the barbed wire fence. After the war, he came back with a full beard and he seemed strange and different, and Umut didn’t want anything to do with him. 

After the war, Blagaj was its own Muslim municipality. New roads were built and a lot of positive work was done, but all that changed when Blagaj became a part of Mostar.

Now the mayor of Mostar was a Croat and favoured the Croats over the Muslims, so that if you looked at Mostar today, the west side of the city, the Catholic side, was full of new buildings, while the east, Muslim part was still full of bullet-riddled war ruins.

Usually, people didn’t drink tea in Bosnia, preferring mocha coffee, but here before and after the zikr – ritual chanting – tea was served, as was the custom. We sipped tea and talked about Turkey. Umut’s dream was to go there to live and we spoke about Bayrampaşa and Pendik, Istanbul districts where Bosniaks lived, where the streets were lined with restaurants called Stari Most and Mostar. Umut said he dreamed of visiting dervish tekkes in Turkey.

He had learned Turkish from the Turkish visitors, but sometimes some Turks were rude. “You tell me how to dress and we were the ones who built this for you,” Umut recalled one Turkish visitor saying, who refused to put on a headscarf before visiting the tekke.

We spoke about the people who came to visit the tekke. There were people of all nationalities, a lot of Polish and Czechs, Turks. But no Serbs. That is, there were Serbs from Belgrade, who were open and cosmopolitan, but there were no Serbs from Republika Srpska. Alija Izetbegovic had visited the tekke once and Umut shook his hand.

After four years of war and hostilities, the first permanent cement bridge was rebuilt in Bosnia in 1996, connecting for a first time directly the Croat and Muslim controlled banks of Neretva river. The war widened the chasm between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs and the two sides are yet to reconcile with each other.(AP)

After afternoon prayers, I went back to the village centre and drank a bitter lemon in a cafe under the shade of a tree. Some female American tourists had lost their way.

“Do you speak English?” asked the one of a group of Bosnian lads sitting in the café. “When is the bus to Mostar?” 

“I am taxi,” said the Bosnian lad in his broken English. “Come to my home and sleep with me.” 

Sitting in a café Bijelo Dugme was playing melodramatic Yugo love ballades and kittens stretched out in the shade opposite a Muslim cemetery. A red Opel hotrod drove by in the relentless heat, which came at you from all directions. During the day from above, at night from below, and everyone had smokers’ coughs. Ceramic donkeys bearing flower pots (like what you see all over Dalmatia), stood on the edges of the terrace.

Down at the campsite on the river, I laid in a hammock strung between shady olive trees and ate yellow figs. 

Blagaj, I realized finally, has – admittedly – become something of a tourist trap since the end of the war, attracting people merely in search of a nice photo op. However, its serious purpose persists, attracting till today people of a religious cast, wishing to make dua (pray) at the tomb of one of the Balkans greatest Sufi saints.