The main attraction of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina is undoubtedly the Stari Most – the Old Bridge. While it is not the only reason to visit Mostar, it is clearly the most visited site in the country as well as the heart of the city. In fact, the name Mostar derives from the Stari Most, the word most, meaning bridge in the local language. The soldiers who once protected the river crossing in the towers which flank the Old Bridge were called Mostari, or bridge keepers. Its graceful single span archway is an architectural wonder even after the nearly five centuries since it was first designed and built by the renowned Ottoman architect Hayruddin. The bridge is also host to the bridge diving tradition, a still celebrated cultural activity, the performance of which delights locals and visitors alike. The Old Bridge, of course, was not untouched by the recent conflicts that devastated the region, and so part of its narrative includes a history of destruction as well as restoration.
The Old Bridge was originally constructed during the Ottoman period. Completed in 1566, the Old Bridge replaced the wooden suspension bridge that had previously existed on site. The Old Bridge was commissioned by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as part of Mostar’s greater development as a settlement linking the coast to the resource rich interior. Built from locally quarried stone, the Old Bridge spanned 29 metres across the Neretva River – at its source, the coldest river in the world - at a height of about 22 metres.
The Old Bridge stood for 427 years with little architectural intervention before it was intentionally destroyed in 1993 by the HVO, the Croatian military force operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the wars. The destruction of the Old Bridge as well as other significant heritage sites in Mostar, and throughout the country, was part of a greater aggression targeting the physical representation of cultural identity. This level of wide scale destruction was shocking and had not been seen in Europe since WWII. The destruction of the Old Bridge was devastating to the local community who considered the bridge an essential part of their city and under the shadow of which many, many generations had grown and made memories.
After extensive research, the Old Bridge was rebuilt between 2001 – 2004 at the cost of about 5 million Euros. With contributions from the international community, the reconstruction was carried out according to the traditional Ottoman construction techniques and using the same local limestone, tenelija, that was used to construct the original 16th century bridge. In 2005, the Old Bridge was inscribed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. Since its reconstruction, visitors from around the world have sought out Mostar's stunning architectural features.
A special aspect of the Old Bridge is the associated diving tradition. It is believed that local men started diving from the Old Bridge in the 16th century, a practice which has continued to the present day. During the warmer months, members of the local dive club will perform a dive for onlookers after collecting sufficient tips. Members of the dive club also offer dive training to adventurous visitors who would like to attempt the dive themselves. After learning the appropriate diving technique and making a successful dive, visitors can add their name to the official list of dive club members! Are you brave enough to take the plunge and become a member of the Mostar Diving Club?
While Sheva Walking Tours encourage visitors to explore beyond the Old Bridge and the surrounding historic centre, the Old Bridge should be a part of any visit to Mostar. Be sure to learn about the Old Bridge from the mouth of a local, to truly understand how the Old Bridge is more than a structure or symbol, but a highly valued member of the community. All of the walking tours offered by Sheva’s Walking Tours will highlight some aspect of the Old Bridge and explain the monument's importance to the local community.
While visiting during the warmer months, spend enough time on the bank of the Neretva River below the bridge to not only take in the site (and get that perfect picture), but to watch one of the local bridge divers take the plunge. For those guests who spend the night in Mostar, the sunrise, sunset and twilight are the best times to enjoy the Old Bridge and spend some time in its company. The daytime crowds that clog the narrow streets and the treads of the Old Bridge have thinned out, amplifying the magical experience of the Old Bridge. If you are looking for a romantic moment, it is these quiet times that will do it!
If you are interested in learning more about the Old Bridge, its history, and construction, Sheva Walking Tours recommends visiting the Old Bridge Museum located in the Tara tower on the east side of the bridge. As a bonus, the highest portion of the tower offers a spectacular view of the Old Bridge from above. Alternatively, if you decide to visit the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, be sure to climb the steep steps of the minaret in order to take in the iconic view of the Old Bridge and its surroundings. Alternatively, Čardak offers a perfect location to lounge, enjoy a traditional coffee, and appreciate the Old Bridge from yet another vantage point.
If you time your visit to Mostar just right, you can attend the Mostar Traditional Bridge Diving Competition that takes place every year on the last weekend of July. During this event, spectators find a seat on either side of the Neretva River or on boats and rafts clustered along the banks to watch the competitors dive from the Old Bridge. For 5 years, the Red Bull Cliff Diving Competition has also brought professional divers from all over the world to compete in Mostar. These fearless divers plunge into the Neretva from a platform built on top of the Old Bridge, further adding to its height! The Red Bull events span several days and lend a particularly celebratory atmosphere to the entire city.
Since its reconstruction, the Old Bridge has come to symbolize the joining of two communities, one on either side of the river, a convenient symbol for post-war reconciliation. The Old Bridge, however, is much more than a symbol and has always and continues to join two banks of the Neretva River that are part of a single community. Although made of stone, the Old Bridge is treated more like a living entity, embedded with the memories and stories of local community members who have lived in its proximity and have passed over and been supported by the well-worn stone treads of the bridge’s arch, both in the past and the present.
Interested in learning more about the Old Bridge? On your visit to Mostar, be sure to take a local free walking tour or private tour with Sheva Walking Tours and find time to explore the Old Bridge Museum. A visit to the Old Bridge will become even more memorable as you immerse yourself into the local context, and come to understand the history and current meaning of this incredible architectural gem.
Writer and Photographer: Caroline, co-founder of Sheva Walking Tours