Pocitelj – the ancient city carved out of sun-drenched cliffs

Looking at the pale grey, sun-drenched stones from a distance, one is reminded of Tolkien’s mythical city Minas Tirith. This is no fantasy, however, but very much a real-life place, steeped in thousands of years of history and tradition.

Pocitelj is located in the Capljina municipality in the southern portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina, directly south of the city of Mostar, on the banks of the river Neretva. Carved out of natural karst formations, for which the region of Herzegovina is known for, the ancient city tells its story through the layers of its fortified complex walls – first medieval, then Ottoman. The sleepy town is now all but forgotten, a day trip for tourists crowding around the Stari Most (Old Bridge) to the north in Mostar.

Pocitelj in the distance
Children playing alongside the riverbank with mighty Pocitelj in the distance.

Perhaps its most recognizable feature is the citadel towering above the village which looks like it seemingly just appeared out of the mountain, at peace with its surroundings.  This structure was constructed by King Tvrtko I 1383 in an attempt to cement control over the local region on his path towards the Adriatic coast. Tvrtko’s reign is characterized by the somewhat rapid growth of the Bosnian kingdom and his march to the sea. Pocitelj played its part in this growth by housing troops, protecting this critical point.

The Seal of Tvrtko I of Bosnia
The Seal of Tvrtko I of Bosnia

Following the fall of the Bosnian kingdom, the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1471 and remained within its control until 1878. During the Ottoman period, Pocitelj began to evolve further, with several new constructions. It was under the Ottoman rule that the several of the city’s notable structures were built.

The Šišman Ibrahim-pašina džamija or Hajji Alija mosque was constructed in 1563. It was built in the classical Ottoman, single-room domed style, but took heavy damage in 1993 when Bosnian Croat forces damaged the structure with explosives. Many other buildings in the town took heavy damage. Luckily, the mosque was successfully rehabilitated following the war, and much of it stands in its original condition.

The Šišman Ibrahim-paša medresa (Muslim religious school) is close by to the mosque.  The structure also dates back to the period pre-1664. It contains several classrooms, a courtyard, and several lecture rooms.

The hamam was also built during this period and served as an important public bathhouse. One of the most heavily damaged components of the city is the han (inn), from which only parts of the walling and gate remain.  The sahat-kula, or clocktower, was built in a Mediterranean-Dalmatian architecture style and was most likely constructed post-1664 since it is not mentioned in Evlija Čelebi’s travel chronicle.

The various houses of Pocitelj are a mixture of Mediterranean and Ottoman-style elements with certain local features. One of the most important housing units within Pocitelj is the Gavrakanpetanović house, built in the 16th century for the town’s local rulers. The historic structure, like much of the town, was also set on fire during the war in 1993. It has since been partially restored and rehabilitated.

Pocitelj is a city that embodies the Bosnian feeling of rahat, or enjoyment.  A place of cejf.  It is felt, and imagined, as it was, with bustling bazaars and open-air markets. Kids running to school, and soldiers guarding its walls with the turquoise Neretva flowing below.  Today, it’s an escape from a busy, technology-laden world into something that was.

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