Ever since the late 15th century, when the Ottoman Empire bulged deeply into the Balkans, Bosnia has more or less marked the northernmost frontier of Islamic expansion into Eastern Europe. During the two and a half centuries of Ottoman rule over the Balkans, Sarajevo became one of the most important Islamic centers in Europe, and was the largest Muslim majority country so close to the Hapsburg Empire. Because of its Muslim heritage it is not surprising that Sarajevo boasts some of the largest, most important and most beautiful mosques in Europe outside of Turkey and Spain. Among these are several outstanding mosques of the Ottoman period, including the Emperor’s Mosque, the oldest in the city; and the Masjid Gazi Husrev-Begs, which was designed by the famous architect Sinan.
The Ottoman arrival in Europe in the mid-14th century marked the beginning of a steady march northwards that culminated more than a hundred years later at the Austrian Hapsburg frontier. Although the border between the Islam and Christianity continued to shift back and forth, the region now known as Bosnia remained solidly in Ottoman control from 1463 through 1878. The modern country’s strange shape is a relic of this period. Bosnia literally formed a bulge of Muslim Ottoman territory that wedged itself up between the Orthodox Christian east and the Roman Catholic west.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Bosnia became the most important, most influential and most prosperous Ottoman territory in Europe. Despite constant wars with the Austrians and other rival states, Bosnia benefited from to one of the most diverse assortment of peoples and cultures in Europe, including Slavic Orthodox Christians, Germanic Catholic Christians and Spanish Sephardic Jews. Because of the vibrant society promoted by the Ottomans, Bosnia became one of the empire’s greatest sources of leaders, thinkers, artisans and so forth as the Enlightenment dawned on Europe.
The city of Sarajevo was established by the Ottomans as a regional capital in 1461 AD, right around the time they formally completed the annexation of Bosnia. The Emperor’s Mosque was begun shortly thereafter, becoming the first major mosque ever completed so close to Central Europe. Within a century, Sarajevo was a booming city, the largest between Vienna and Istanbul, and according to tradition boasted over a hundred mosques. Even the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan added his stamp to the city with the Masjid Azi Husrev-Begs, which not surprisingly is considered one of the city’s most beautiful.
Sarajevo remained Europe’s largest and most important Muslim city right down to the present day. However, when Christian empires began to reassert themselves in the Balkans in the early 18th century, Sarajevo was increasingly exposed to religious and national hostilities. After witnessing several major battles and even a sacking, Sarajevo was annexed to the Austrian Empire in 1878. Sarajevo has since been a major flashpoint of tension between Muslims and Christians, from the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in 1914 through the siege of the city by the Serbians in the early 1990s. Many of Sarajevo’s mosques are still recovering from this last conflict.
The Emperor’s Mosque, built in honor of Suleyman I, dates from the founding of Sarajevo and is the oldest mosque in the city. Much of the current structure dates from a later renovation and expansion which occurred in the 1560s. Despite these early dates, the mosque has a surprisingly modern look, due in part to European construction influences of the period. Even the dome and minaret, while elegant, are not particularly Ottoman in appearance.
The Masjid Gazi Husrev-Beg is much more along the lines of a traditional-looking Ottoman mosque. Named in honor of the governor who financed it, the Masjid Gazi Husrev-Beg was designed by the master architect Mimar Sinan in the 1530s. It was one of his first serious efforts in mosque design, and though it has only a single dome and minaret, hints at the marvels that Sinan would design in later decades. Much of the current mosque was rebuilt following the war in the 1990s, with some criticism that the new building is somewhat more austere than Sinan’s original design.
Most of Sarajevo’s great mosques are located in and around the old city center. The city’s mosques are generally open to both Muslims and non-Muslims (though access to the latter can be restricted. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.sarajevo-tourism.com (official tourism website of Sarajevo)
Sarajevo boasts more than a hundred mosques spanning the Ottoman and later periods. The recently completed Masjid King Fahd is the largest mosque in southeastern Europe outside of Turkey. Other early mosques include the Masjid Ferhadija and the Masjid Ali Pasha. The Baitus Salaam, or House of Peace, is a modern self-contained mosque and Muslim community. Not too far away, in the city of Banja Luka, are another concentration of major mosques, including the Masjid Ferhadija (not to be confused with the one in Sarajevo) and the Masjid Arnaudija.