Photo: Mujo Hasanovic, Unsplash

An inner and outer Bosnia and Herzegovina

In its land and in its own “geography,” Bosnia and Herzegovina has come to accommodate itself as: 

a) an area/a land,
b) a history, 
c) a society, 
d) a state, 
e) a community, 
f) a spirituality.

Although the aforementioned Bosnianness has been anything but steady and constant throughout the ages, we have often been only too eager to adulate everything Bosnian and we continue to do so; we have employed cooing tones when referring to it and still do so, just like when addressing one’s dear parent or a sweet child. We continue, even to this day, and we have every right to do so.

Throughout various epochs and historical periods, there have been hundreds of writers, historiographers, Hesychasts, Franciscans and Sufis who have emerged from their own divergent worldviews and creeds, and who love this land of Bosnia.

They love it even when they selfishly appropriate it only for themselves. They love it even when they look on it as prey.

It is hard to write about Bosnia without wanting to woo it. This seems/has seemed especially true during periods of Bosnian peace (or rather the longer and happy truces in between terrifying wars!), when the Bosnian man begins to repent, although he does so very rarely, indeed. Then, time and again, during his states of heightened realization that the past cannot be fixed, nor past hopes fulfilled, he once again begins to understand that Bosnia is a land whose warp consists of opposites and diversities, and whose woof contains luring similarities. Though, often, as is the case with Bosnia, the woof is weaker than the warp.

So the constant effort made in trying to complete a weaving out of contradictions is Bosnia’s true state and, for the most part, its abiding existence.

The Geography of Bosnia (a land of figs and olives, a land of June snowfalls)

It seems that Bosnia’s diverse geography, her land with its mountains and karst fields, the expanses of the Posavina and Spreča Plains, have all, to a great extent, shaped Bosnia as a history and a society, a country and community, as well as the multitude of spiritualities, which simultaneously repel and attract one another.

There is at least a grain of truth in stating that the geography of Bosnia, as a mainly mountainous, hilly “inner land,” has determined that, almost always, everything in Bosnia is/will be together, yet often separated. To be visible from the outside, but also hidden, unassuming and, from within, an entity unto itself.

This notion of always being together, yet often being separated has endured and survived in mountainous, continental Bosnia for almost a thousand years. For this land is (was) a refuge.

Noel Malcolm says: “Mountainous areas act as refuges for populations which, in flatter country, would otherwise be exterminated or driven away. One has only to look at the survival of the Basques in the Pyrenees… .”

The idea of Bosnia as an “inner land” (terra interior), which is entered, was illustrated by Ivan Lovrenović. Bosnia has been described by many as a land rooted in the past, “very much isolated from all others.” For example, this was the situation for Bosnia in the 13th century. Many pages have also been written about “Bosnia as a remote land” during some historical periods.

All of this – the “interior nature of Bosnia”, its “isolation” from others, and its “remoteness” – resulted in Bosnia’s medieval transformation from an area into a country, and then from that country into a permanent state framework which had its own geography to thank for its survival. “It is hard to conquer Bosnia due to the inaccessibility of its terrain and, even once conquered, such an occupation might be called into question due to the disobedience of its landowners.”

The geography of Bosnia and Herzegovina is reflected in the bountiful nature and riches, which are arranged in contrast to one another, but also as an ensemble and synthetic collection. At one end, Bosnia is a land of figs and olives, and at another there are often snowstorms in June and pre-summer snowstorms high up in the mountains!

It’s clear to everyone that there is an obvious contrast between the scorched karst plains of Herzegovina on one side (during the summer months its landscapes almost resemble small Saharan deserts or Asian wastelands), and the fertile fields and abundance of vegetation in Posavina, in the Spreča River Valley and in the variety of landscapes around the Una River on the other. It’s not unusual to find such contrasting landscapes in countries that cover an area seven times greater than that of Bosnia. But, when we find such contrast in a land like Bosnia – then we see such peculiarity as a gift, a miracle.

With this gift also comes considerable variety in the flora and fauna.

The seaside and coastal area of Bosnia and Herzegovina is “a land of olive branches”, a land of “fig trees.” It’s as though these two floral characteristics make Bosnia a biblical-Quranic replica of Mount Sinai.

The geography of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also remarkable for the layout of its river basins. Moving across the face of Bosnia, the rivers here flow into two different basins, although not equally. For example, the sources of the Bosna River and Neretva River are close to one another, geographically, but destiny has led them to opposite watersheds, with the Neretva flowing toward the Adriatic and the Bosna toward the Black Sea!

Even the basins of these two rivers speak volumes about the shattered nature of Bosnia upon its own unique land, in contradiction to its wholeness. It is as if the openness of Bosnia has given rise to the bifurcation of its life-giving diversity.

Furthermore, it is the rivers that have largely shaped Bosnia as a space/land, for the two famous waterways, the Drina in the east and the Sava to the north, with the Dinaric Mountains lying to the west, have co-created and enclosed Bosnia as an inner land, enclosing it as a country that outlives its own history and peoples, its own society and state apparatuses.

In addition to the Drina and Sava Rivers, the Bosna River affirms itself as Bosnia’s precious aorta. A country with such vast lengths of its borders etched along great rivers…it must be rich and abundant in water. As one Bosnian poet says:

Bosnia, it is one good land.
Its springs bubble when it cries,
Bow down and drink, my son, 
No one will mind….” 

Moreover, Bosnia and Herzegovina has its famous underground river, the Trebišnjica, which repeatedly ventures down into the bowels of the earth, and then emerges, in order to cool its inward heat.

Yet, the gifts and abundance of water in Bosnia haven’t been given as offerings or taken shape as simply rivers and streams.

The various manifestations of water in Bosnia make their presence known through an abundance of rain, snow, fog, dew, hoarfrost, white ice…

Bosnia is a veritable treasure trove of water; upon its land “water is rain, water is a river, water is a sea, water is dew, water is hail and ice, water is freshness, water is steam… .” Bosnia also has deep snows – the plentifulness of her water.

All of this diversity has been bequeathed to Bosnia and all of it is an integral component of the contrast of water which is, again, clearly visible in contrast to the long droughts and temporary reductions in water flow and rainfall – so that humans and animals and the absorbent pores of plants become thirsty for it.

So we can see: With its geography, climate, the changing of the seasons – Bosnia is a land of contrasts.

These contrasts are sustained by the contradictory entirety of Bosnia.

Every schoolbook on the geography of Bosnia states succinctly: Bosnia is a continental land! 

Hot summers! Cold winters! Those mountains of Bosnia, which gladly become green by the end of April and into May, soon become clad in yellow and then a pessimistic brown and melancholic hue by the end of November and in the days of December.

As far as its weather is concerned, Bosnia is a land of constant changes and alternations: snow and rain, cold winters and hot summers, which give way to frozen landscapes with their sweet flowers.

Renowned travelers who have passed through Bosnia have made note of these “restless landscapes.” Evliya Çelebi, a traveler who visited our country in the 17th century, left an unparalleled description of Bosnia. He talks of how he sat and enjoyed some time beside the Pliva River:  “To sit in those patios surrounded by lush greenery, right in front of these mills, and to observe the flow of the Pliva River, which is like a great sea and, by the wisdom and power of God, flows above one’s head; and to watch as it falls down the cliffs is such an interesting and unique [sight] that one can only be filled with admiration for the Almighty Creator and remain amazed and spellbound. One who observes the flow of this river at noon will become enchanted. The sun-splashed Pliva, which shines like a stone from Najaf, and the flipping of many fish, both big and small, one after the other like lightning, is a wonderful and magical sight!”

S. Bouillon, a Frenchman who traveled in the middle of the 19th century, wrote about the “wonderful fields of rye and corn” of Bosnia; he recounts that he would travel “at one moment through gentle and bright landscapes, beautiful valleys, village estates and slopes, at another through wild mountains, wilder than those seen the day before.” Here, Bouillon is clearly referring to the contrasting landscapes of Bosnia.

Bosnian history (in the hope that it becomes one through the land, that it is united by history)

Even the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not without its own contrasts: unity and sharp differences.

The alternation of harsh winters and hot summers within one calendar year in Bosnia corresponds to the alternation of grand historical periods upon this land and state. Bosnia witnessed the dawning of the Middle Ages upon her tombstones (stećci), which was then followed by the Ottoman era, the Austro-Hungarian era of European hopes, two Yugoslav eras and, finally, recent independence…

These great periods of history were played out upon Bosnia, yet also in Bosnia.

Some nations and people of this country were touched by these periods in a deeper, inner and more spiritual manner, while others merely survived, as though it were some terrible accident.

That Bosnia is a land of contrasts is also evident in the religious tumult of the Middle Ages, its partial embrace of Islam during the time of the Ottomans, its national disparity and fragmentation under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the reticence of some of its people with their national ambiguity during the Yugoslav era… In their sharp contrasts, the great historical periods of Bosnia – those external centuries and the decades of this country during the time of great states, kingdoms and empires – were transcended by a spiritual and inner calm, the spread of Christianity (Catholicism and, later, Orthodoxy), then the expansion of Islam and the arrival of a diasporic Judaism brought by Jewish refugees.

It was actually the expansion of various religions in Bosnia, as well as their mutual imposition and the competition among them, that has further thickened the diverse warp of Bosnia within some mysterious Bosnian woof.

All of these faiths that a Bosnian man, whether resident or settler, has embraced to his own particular divine delight, for his own consolation or when in pain (not so very different from the pain of his neighbors, “the others”!), have been rooted in the very recognizable Abrahamic/Ibrahimic tree in Bosnia.

Of course, all of these faiths and religions have had a chance to overcome and, perhaps, round off the sharp edges of Bosnian history.

But, just when we think that the inhabitants of Bosnia have become aware of their common origin, due to their ancient patriarch and forefather, Abraham/Ibrahim, we soon realize that, in Bosnia, these four Jerusalemite-Meccan branches – from the embryo of Abraham’s/Ibrahim’s faith – are being bitterly interpreted by falling into the maelstrom (where mutual differences are emphasized), accentuating “cliffs” and pointing to “abysses” or the heights of the enormous mountains that are lost in the fog.

This is why so often, here in Bosnia, anyone pointing to the many potential similarities among the local religions – Islam, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Judaism – is (has been) viewed with suspicion.

Despite the strong Abrahamic/Ibrahimic tradition in Bosnia, it does not give rise to a consensus of welcome similarity; rather, differences are emphasized. So faiths and religions in Bosnia are often a matter of devotion, but also of defiance.

Spirituality, but also defiance. A window toward others, but also a thick wall against them.

This is because one Bosnian man responds/has responded to God differently than another. But this is because much of Bosnia’s history has often been shaped in secret, in the country’s regional or peripheral interior. Or, as Nada Klaić puts it (in a slightly different context): Bosnia is a grouping of “Bosnian countries.” 

Muhammad Hadžijahić often speaks of the multitude of “Bosnian countries”. He says: “Usora was one of the ‘countries’ that was connected early on with the eponymous Bosnia.” He adds: “…the Drina and Zagorje parishes on Bosnia’s southeastern periphery… [are] the territorial heritage of Bosnia.” According to Hadžijahić, at the end of the 12th century, the parish of Rama was “on par with Bosnia.”  Further on, with reference to the Neretva parish, he says: “It [the Neretva] became part of Bosnia by the middle of the 11th century.” The same author also speaks of “an early integration of the Zahumlje areas and Bosnia.”

So the following areas: Drina, Usora, Soli, Neretva, Zagorje, Rama, Donji Kraji(s)… all belong to “Bosnian countries”, as Nada Klaić would say, by using the plural. We would say: These are all Bosnian territorial weavings, dissipations, juxtapositions. And, again, here there is also some sort of weaving of connectivity because the “Bosnian countries” have nowhere else to go outside of Bosnia.

Since it comprises different parts – each of which moves along its own imaginary axes and sides of the world within its respective history, society, spirituality…; not to mention the will exerted in wanting to pray in different directions – Bosnia is a mosaic of many spiritual contrasts that touch one another or create sparks along adjacent edges.

This is the diverse historical and inner parallel existence of Bosnia: that it becomes one throughthe land and is being united by its history, constantly striving to become complete and whole, though never entirely, never to the joy and satisfaction of all.

The historical parallel existence of Bosnia yearns for a diverse society, to be recognized by those very differences within the similar Bosnian spiritual tonalities.

Coming together in Bosnia – different societies, various senses of belonging

Bosnia is a country with various senses of belonging.

Ever since Bosnia was referred to as an area, a land, a state, a political, geographical…entirety that pulsates, ever since then, Bosnia has not been a country with only one religion, nor has it been a country with believers of just a single faith!

Better put, from its very onset, Bosnia was not a country with only one religion. 

There is nothing in which Bosnia is more divergent, as a whole, than in its religious differences, spiritual edges and jaggedness.

On one hand, the human tree of Bosnia, the ethnic tree of its people (nations) – is singular. Noel Malcolm provides an answer to the question of who resides in Bosnia: “The only reasonable thing that could be said about the ethnic identity of Bosnians [and Herzegovinians] is this: they were Slavs who lived in Bosnia.”

During the long medieval Ottoman presence, Bosnia was undergoing a spiritual divarication. Even later on, during Austro-Hungarian rule and as part of Yugoslavia, people could choose their own religion.

We should start from the assumption that ordinary people in Bosnia developed their divergent sense of spiritual belonging in solitude, in peace. Over a longer timespan, and never overnight.

Moreover, religions entered freely into the lives of ordinary people in Bosnia. Neither Christianity (Catholicism and Orthodoxy) nor Islam could win the trust of an ordinary man through coercion. 

This can be validated (even today) by the religious and spiritual diversity of ordinary Bosnia. And today (despite the terrible aggressions and wars) we can recognize a sense of belonging to the land of Bosnia through the clear language used in the same names that are given to fields, springs, groves and hills.

For example, for centuries, the Muslims of Muslim Brajkovići and the Catholics of Catholic Brajkovići (near Travnik) have used the same names for their water sources, springs and fields. It is no different with Catholic Guča Gora and Muslim Krpeljići.

Throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, this phenomenon of using the same names for local water sources, fields, pastures and hills is quite common, regardless of the owner’s religious affiliation. The same goes for villages where Orthodox Christians and Muslims or Orthodox Christians and Catholics coexist.

In the eyes of the common man, Bosnia has remained a precious land, an undivided motherland. There is, no doubt, a sense of belonging to the land.

It is as if people on the social ladder, which includes peasants, the poor, the common man…, have an innate feeling for the intimate land of Bosnia and their connection to it, and this is felt in a far more harmonious manner.

But Bosnia, in all its social intricacies, is still resistant to any fixed unison. Moreover, it is equally resistant to its own disappearance.


There could be many reasons, because, whenever Bosnia is in question, we should know that it can neither be encompassed by a single question, nor a single answer.

So, for a thousand years now, Bosnia has been resisting any form of unison as strongly as it has been resisting its own demise, perhaps because it is a distinct part of the true Balkans, with its outermost extent facing toward the west.

From the Drina River, and further on toward the Marica River, there are several “replicas” of Bosnia, although each one is different in its own way.

Slicing the Balkans in Bosnia has always been a terrible, tragic, shocking affair. It always leads to a lesser or greater “slicing” of Europe itself.

Let us submit, in closing this essay, that the peaceful periods in Bosnia allow Bosnian societies (Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, secular…) to intertwine about one another, weaving one into the other.

During periods of peace, the “nerve of Bosnian differences, which is created in silence and self-denial, regains courage and is renewed, it thrives and asserts itself. The wars in Bosnia have always negated this quiet difference, because they have imposed opposites. War itself is in contradiction to all that may be realized in life.

Perhaps these external and inner intricacies of Bosnia are no longer a model for anyone involved in great mega-state projects and power alliances; perhaps, somewhere, this country may still be labeled as “wild”;  perhaps it possesses too much of what belongs to the “other” and should be passed by quietly; perhaps Bosnia is still a country with a whole range of needless considerations for one’s fellow citizen, neighbor, the man of a different faith.

Maybe that’s exactly the way it is.

But what other alternative is there in this modern world, which is becoming more and more diverse with every passing day?

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