Stecci, and why UNESCO’s inclusion to the World Heritage List is so important

Broken stećak depicted by Hugo Charlemont, 1901.

The Bosnian writer and philosopher-poet Mak Dizdar once remarked that the secrets of Bosnia are hidden in the words inscribed on the ancient marble of the stecci (medieval tombstones). Dizdar was so fascinated by these ancient objects (some dating as far back as the 12th century) that it inspired much of his writing and creative contributions to BiH’s literary heritage.

Often seeing himself as a modern-day interpreter of the profound words and secrets found in the epitaphs carved into the faces of these stecci, Dizdar brought these “stone sleepers,” back to life through their philosophy on life, the passage between two worlds, homeland, yearning, love, and death. Needless to say, these primordial slabs of marble are far more than their physical form. They encompass BiH’s history as a place of cross-boundaries, hospitality and gnostic visions of the universe.

No matter what sort of transformations, religious, political or otherwise, Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced over the eons, they have always been there, reminiscent of the region’s importance. Stecci usually depict celestial objects, hunting, male and female form outlines, dancing and other aspects of life and the imagination of the time. Many feature short passages written in Bosančica (Bosnian Cyrillic).

Unfortunately, during the 1990s war, many of these stone monuments were severely damaged or even outright destroyed. Today, even though over 60,000 of these objects are found in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone, they are either in severe disrepair or forgotten altogether. A cultural treasure laid to waste, and ignored for more “pressing,” matters.

On July 15, 2016, UNESCO announced that stecci, found in “30 sites (22 from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2 from Croatia, 3 from Montenegro, and 3 from Serbia),” spanning across the region would become one of the newest additions to the World Heritage List. What exactly does this mean? UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) catalogs places of cultural importance around the world, often bringing attention to these sites and even helping to preserve them. At the very least, this inclusion will bring attention to BiH’s and the wider region’s cultural treasures and the importance of preserving them for future generations. In addition to stecci, the Old Mostar Bridge (Stari Most) and the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad are also considered part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Perhaps one of the greatest stories in the process of gaining this recognition was the joint cooperation between the governments of the ex-Yugoslav countries. Even though stecci are often attributed to the Bosnian Kingdom and the Bosnian Church, an independent gnostic religious offshoot in BiH, many historians also attribute stecci to all three major religious groups of the time in the region. They have always been a symbol of cooperation and our common unity in this world.

UNESCO’s recognition is indeed a major step forward, but preserving these treasures, and most importantly sharing their importance and enjoying them is vital because they represent all of us who call the country and the region home.

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