WWI was sparked in historic city of variety

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — If you find yourself on Ferhadija street behind the old synagogue at noon, close your eyes and listen to the bells from the Catholic cathedral and the Serb-Orthodox church mixing with the Muslim call for prayer. They call this the sound of Sarajevo.


Yet, Sarajevo is also known for the sound of a gunshot that led to World War I a century ago. It was June 28, 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s crown prince Franz Ferdinand was assassinated here by Gavrilo Princip.

The Great War left millions dead and made four empires disappear. A memorial plaque and video displays of photos from the assassination decorate a museum building at the downtown corner where Princip changed the world. The war’s centennial will be marked this summer with conferences, exhibits and concerts.

World War I is just one era in the history of this multicultural city of 390,000, with its legacies of Islamic Ottoman, Jewish, Christian Orthodox and Roman Catholic religions. The city is fondly known for playing host to the 1984 Winter Olympics. And it is infamously remembered as a key battleground of the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

Despite the dark chapters of the past, today, the city is defined by what locals call “the Sarajevo spirit,” an interesting and mostly harmonious mix of religions and cultures. Any visit must include a look at how that blend came to be.

Start with the old town called Bascarsija.

Ottoman Turks founded Sarajevo in the 15th century as a center of commerce with three malls, colonies of traders and hundreds of shops. The tolerant empire filled the town’s skyline with minarets and church towers, attracting anyone who fled Europe’s Catholic inquisition.

When Queen Isabella of Spain expelled Sephardic Jews in 1492, thousands found refuge in “Yerushalaim chico,” or Little Jerusalem, which is how they nicknamed the city.

Sarajevo’s soul resides in this Oriental quarter and residents believe that time runs slower in its water pipe bars, mosques and crafts shops.

Tourists usually stop at the Sebilj fountain on the central square for selfies and to refresh themselves from one of its pipes – as locals sometimes whisper the first part of an old Sarajevo saying: “Whoever drinks water from Bascarsija …” The travel advisory ends by saying the water is cursed and will make you return to Sarajevo over and over till you die.

Perhaps better to turn to coffee – a gastronomic cult served in small copper pots and little cups with a sugar cube and glass of water aside.

Here is how it goes: Dip cube into coffee. Bite off the soaked part. Let melt on tongue. Sip coffee and let it flow over the sugar. Enjoy for a moment before you wash it down with water. Why? Because it makes every next sip of coffee taste like the first one.

Often there is an extra cup for whoever accidently comes by. A refusal to share is an insult. Locals spend hours drinking if only because it is a good excuse for prolonged conversation.

Real-time begins again where Bascarsija ends – and a new chapter in history opens. In 1878, Bosnia turned from a western Ottoman province into a southeastern Austro-Hungarian province. The transition is visible at Ferhadija street. Look west, and the secessionist-style four-story buildings and churches tell you: Central Europe. Perhaps Austria. Look east: perhaps some old part of Istanbul with the low, stone structures with oriental shops, minarets and water fountains.

In the chaotic century that followed, Sarajevo was part of four countries and in two wars, proving accurate Winston Churchill’s description of the Balkans: “Too much history for little geography.”