A Crash (Dummy) Course in Bosnian History

The academic in me writhed in pain even at the idea of writing something like this. An uncited, cliff-note style summary of hundreds of years of rich Bosnian history? To top it off, incredibly well written with a sharp sense of humor? (OK, maybe not). Don’t do it. Just don’t. It’s not worth it. It goes against everything you’ve been trained to do.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that there may be people out there that wanted to find out a little more about Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex history without succumbing to paralysis as a result of holding a thick history book for hours upon hours of exciting reading (hey now, for me, it is). For all we know, all they heard about the country was the negative stuff that is constantly regurgitated in the media.

The point was further driven home through a conversation with a younger cousin of mine, earlier in the year. We talked about favorite U.S. presidents, and the girl spouted off George Washington facts like she was a daughter of the American revolution. And yet, when I asked her who her favorite Bosnian historical figure was, she stared at me blankly, as if to say, “you took something fun and made it un-fun.” I don’t mean to pick on the poor girl, but I thought to myself, there are hundreds of scholarly works on Bosnian history (mostly in the Bosnian language, obviously), but very little digestible information that even a child could appreciate. Especially in English – the “international language,” for whatever that is still worth (hello Mandarin, Ni hao).

And so, because I know there will be someone out there who will complain, I sincerely hope the information I present below does not offend anyone in any way, nor does it take away or distract from real historical research and information that is readily available both on the Internet and in those dusty things with a spine and multiple chins (no not grandma).

Picking tobacco in Bosnia
Bosnian peasants pick tobacco

Tribes (no not the video game)

Many would argue Bosnia is still a collection of barbaric, warring tribes (…that’s a political joke), however, that’s how it all started. By all accounts, the Illyrians (think cool ancient “Greek,” looking dudes) were one of the first well-established civilizations to live in the area that is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, the very name of the country Bosnia is hypothesized to derive from the ancient Illyrian word Bosona, meaning “running water.” Makes sense when you think about all of those rivers and waterfalls in the country. Beautiful, eh?

The region also saw other tribes either invading, passing through or being assimilated, such as the Goths and Celts. The Roman Empire had a heavy presence in the area, eventually bringing it under its dominion despite fierce resistance. One of the most well known Illyrian chieftains was a man by the name of Bato (not Brazzo), who was born in what is now Bosnia.

Sarajevo was the first European city to have a Catholic Church, Jewish Synagogue, Orthodox Church, and Islamic Mosque in the same neighborhood.

Bans, kings, and vassals (oh my)

As the Slavic tribes descended onto the region, the Illyrians were pushed further south, as well as assimilated. Bannates (smaller principalities) formed – the first systems that resembled some sort of “state,” (although this was a concept that wouldn’t emerge for hundreds of years).

One of the most famous Bosnian bans (chieftains or rulers) was a man by the name of Kulin. Cool name, right? My man Cool-in ruled between 1180 and 1204. Bosnian people to this day remember the days of Kulin Ban as a sort of “Golden Age.” It was the first time that Bosnia was, in essence, an independent bannate or little kingdom, with only nominal vassalage to the Byzantine Empire.

Around this time, the Bosnian Church emerged as a threat to the Catholic order. The Bosnian Church was an independent religious order with its own set of beliefs and customs, sometimes starkly at odds with the common Christian tradition in Europe at the time.

Bosnia, for the most part, remained a vassalized bannate until 1377 when Tvrtko Kotromanic crowned himself king and established the Kingdom of Bosnia (confident guy, give him that). Under his reign, the kingdom grew both in size and in power. Tvrtko is also remembered historically as one of Bosnia’s greatest rulers or leaders.

Bosnian men smoking tobacco
Bosnian men warm up around the stove smoking pipe tobacco

Ottoman period (no not the furniture)

The Bosnian Kingdom eventually fell to the invading Ottoman forces that descended onto Europe. No, these were not men carrying a bunch of furniture. The Ottoman Empire was a powerful entity from what is now Turkey. The Bosnian royalty was executed (well, that sucks) and a Bosnian province under the rule of the Ottoman Empire was established. This would remain in effect from 1463 to 1878. In addition to being one of the longest periods in Bosnian history, it had a monumental effect on the country and its population.

Despite the longevity of Ottoman rule in Bosnia, it wasn’t always peaceful. In 1831 a Bosniak lord by the name of Husein-kapetan Gradascevic led a rebellion for Bosnian independence. Even though it failed, he is remembered today as the “Dragon of Bosnia,” and one of the country’s foremost historical figures. He was also known for his benevolent and tolerant rule, constructing both Christian and Islamic buildings in his native Gradacac.

The reason Bosnia and Herzegovina has a high percentage of Muslims (Bosniaks) is because of the conversions to Islam that took place during this period. Additionally, many of the country’s famous landmarks such as the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar were constructed. I don’t recommend jumping off of it like many tourists have attempted. You’ll truly feel the impact of history.

A Yugoslav postage stamp depicting Gradacac with its Gradacac Castle and the Husejnija Mosque

Austro-Hungarian Empire (…strikes back, literally)

At the close of the 19th century, Ottoman power weakened significantly. It began to be known as the “sick man of Europe.”As a result, European states such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire smelled blood and pounced on the opportunity to annex the Bosnian province. For the first time in over 400 years, Bosnia was no longer part of the Ottoman dominion. From one empire to the next.

This caused a lot of instability in the country, as many people were unsure of what it would mean. Nationalism and politics started to really emerge as powerful forces of change. To this day, this sort of undercurrent is at play in Bosnia. It came to a boil in 1914 when a young Bosnian Serb man by the name of Gavrilo Princip killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, who was visiting Sarajevo. Many would argue that this was the catalyst for World War I as the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Russia backed Serbia, Germany backed the Austro-Hungarians, and here we go. Didn’t take much, did it?

A train in Sarajevo
A train in Sarajevo

Yugoslavia (you know, famous for Tito and the Yugo…ok, let’s forget the latter)

As the Austro-Hungarian forces, together with the other Central Powers, lost the Great War, the Yugoslav nations came together to form an independent kingdom, known later as Yugoslavia. Bosnia was fully incorporated. This would last from 1918 to 1992. Yugoslavia was not initially socialist, this political change only occurred during and after World War II, as part of Tito’s partisan resistance to fascist rule by Nazi Germany and their collaborators.

Yugoslavia remained in place for a long period in Bosnian history. It witnessed a World War, the blossoming of rock and roll, football, and even the Olympics in 1984, hosted in Sarajevo. Many people around the world still remember the city and the country for this occasion. Despite the fact that the country consisted of various ethnic groups, relative peace existed until the reemergence of ethnic nationalism which reared its ugly head at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.

The War and on-wards

As nationalist rhetoric came to a boil, Bosnia and Herzegovina held a referendum and declared independence in 1992. This tipped the dominoes which led to a war, ethnic cleansing and even genocide, something unseen in Europe since the Holocaust. Over 100,000 people were killed, and millions more displaced from their homes. You might have heard some Bosnians talking about it (hint, obvious sarcasm). Many families still divide time between before the war and after the war.

A peace agreement was signed in 1995 and the independent modern state of Bosnia and Herzegovina was established. And so, here we are today.  Bosnia is still reeling from the effects of war, even though it took place over 20 years ago.

You just read over 1,000 years worth of history.  Feels pretty good, eh? Maybe now you’re ready to graduate to the real thing. That’s right, Wikipedia! (I’m kidding).  Even if you’re not the book worm type, at least check out the National Museum the next time you’re in Sarajevo, or do check out Wiki articles on sights such as stecci, Bascarsija, Pocitelj, the Stari Most, etc. You never know what you might learn.  History is literally all around you in Bosnia. You might even be inspired to write your own blog article complete with hist(e)orical references.

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