Steven Aiello

Mostar, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik and Split- Ottoman Bridges and Sepharadi Synagogues

In Mostar- after arriving rather late, we took a taxi to the guesthouse at which we’d booked a room, the Pansion Anja. The father and son team met us in front of the building, taking our bags and saying that they’d tried calling us because they wanted to pick us up from the bus station. They showed us into the beautiful room and heated up water for us to have tea. After discussing our plans for the next day, they offered to drive us to the nearby Blagaj town, an offer which we happily accepted.

After getting some sleep, we awoke early to leave the house before 8. Walking around in the cold, drizzly morning, we circumnavigated the Stari Grad (Old city) of Mostar seemingly before most of the occupants had awoken. Another tourist town, the old city of Mostar seemed mostly closed for the winter season; many shops opened late or not at all, all three restored Ottoman homes and the Bridge Museum were all closed. However we got to take wonderful photos of the Stari Most (Old Bridge) and other bridges, to see the photo exhibit next to the Stari Most, to visit the two main mosques in the city, Karadjoz-bey and Koski Mehmed Pasha, and to climb the minaret of the latter, to see the Franciscan/Catholic Church, the site of the old synagogue, the Orthodox Church turned Srb Republic Consulate and the Herzegovina Museum. After walking all around the Stari Grad, we returned to our home, had lunch and then left with our hosts (, three generations, as the grandfather joined us in the car as well) to the nearby town of Blagaj. There, after getting dropped off, we saw the tekke (Suffi house), had tea in the little café run by the tekke, saw the water source of the Buna river, and then walked around on the other side of the river looking unsuccessfully for the Eco Museum, before returning to the town in time to catch the 4 pm bus back to Mostar.

After walking back from the bus stop to the pansion, we finished packing, had dinner and were then taken to the train station just in time to buy our tickets, say our goodbyes and board the train for the two hour ride to Sarajevo.


Sarajevo- we arrived around 9pm and (finally) found someone to call the hostel for us; they came to pick us up. Apparently the hostel owner has found that if he doesn’t pick up his customers, cab drivers will “steal” many of them and bring them to other hostels. After getting some great maps, we went to sleep, planning on getting an early morning start.

Friday morning- we walked around the old city- the Turkish part of town, finding the old synagogue (from 1581), Isa Bey mosque compound, Morica Han (inn). Bascarsija market area, sebilj fountain in its center, the Latin Bridge where WWI started, the Emperor’s Mosque and the Ashkenazi synagogue where Friday night services and dinner are held. After an unsuccessful first attempt at finding the Jewish cemetery, we crossed the river again, this time via the Romeo and Juliette Bridge, walking past the (closed indefinitely) National Museum and stopping at the Historical Museum for an hour of Bosnian history, including a very moving exhibit on the (civil) war years.


From there we took a tram and then taxi to the Tunnel Museum, which turned out to be closed for repairs. Returning, we took a bus, then tram back to the Ottoman area center where the rest of the museums are located. On the bus we befriended a group of a Turkish, Bosnian and Palestinian-Mexican-American students who we had overheard speaking English, and who turned out to all study English literature at an international school in Sarajevo. They walked us to the Jewish Museum, where we said goodbye (temporarily). Then we walked through the Jewish museum, taking in a building that had served the Jewish community as its first house of prayer in 1581 and various exhibits on Bosnian Jewry. We learned that Jews had first come to Sarajevo under the Ottoman Empire after being expelled from Spain and traveling to other locations in Europe, that pre-WWII they had constituted 30% of the Sarajevo population, but after the loss of 12,000 lives in the Holocaust, the community had never been the same. Today approximately 700 Jews live in Sarajevo, many (perhaps about half) in mixed marriages, the Ashkenazi and Sepharadi populations effectively merged to become one small but cohesive community (the former group arrived in Bosnia beginning in the 19th century). The Ashkenazi synagogue is used to pray in on a weekly basis, the liturgical style is Sepharadi, and congregants come from both backgrounds. In addition to a collection of Bosnian Judaica, the museum had a listing of Bosnian Righteous Among the Nations, as well as an enormous book which includes the names of the approximately 12,000 Bosnian Holocaust victims.

From the Jewish museum we went to the Beza Bruzistan museum, which tells the history of Sarajevo and the surrounding region from “prehistorical” times up until the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with written descriptions as well as archeological and ethnographic displays. From there we split up, Eliana continued walking around the Bascarsija area while I quickly perused Srzco house, a well-kept Ottoman house which once belonged to a wealthy Muslim family, as evidenced by the double courtyard, extensive guest rooms and servant quarters. After that we walked up to the Alija Izetbegovic Museum, which tells the story of the 1992-1995 war through a description of the country’s first president, a remarkable character who has written several books and is responsible for some incredible quotes.

From there we picked up some Shabbat supplies, headed back to the hostel and prepared for Shabbat. Walking back down to the Ottoman area, we met up with our student friends again to walk around, have some tea and juice and talk for 90 minutes. After getting to hang out with them, we headed to the Ashkenazi synagogue, where we met David Kimhi- the hazzan, his wife, a Jewish American professor who is working on her third book on the Balkans, this one on the Sarajevo Jewish community, as well as many community members who spoke English and/or Hebrew. Services were held upstairs, with mixed seating, mostly traditional Sepharadi tunes and nusah (wording). Interesting of note was the communal standing and bowing for barekhu and sitting during the ‘Alenu prayer. Most congregants used a booklet with transliteration into Bosnian. The community now speaks Bosnian, although pre-war there had still been a Ladino-speaking community and some of the older members happily communicated with Eliana via Spanish. Younger members spoke English and/or Hebrew pretty well. We met a younger couple and a man whose Muslim wife did not come (he as well as several others expressed surprise at seeing a Jewish woman with hair covered) and there were some other younger members who sat in the outside room drinking beer, but at the communal dinner, almost all of the members were older. Here too, many of the younger generations have left, for Israel, the US, or other European destinations.

After dinner we said goodbye and Shabbat shalom to everyone (Saturday services are held only on rare occasions, for holidays or the arrival of a special guest or group), then walked back to our hostel. After sleeping in, praying and eating lunch, we headed out for a walk around the Ottoman area again, past the shops and with more time to appreciate the architecture of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian legacies. We then  split again; Eliana stayed in the center of the city while I spent about an hour walking to and locating the old Jewish cemetery, up on a sprawling hill, with Ashkenazi graves on the left and Sepharadi graves on the right. After walking around the cemetery, which is in fairly poor condition, I walked back to the center, and we headed back to the hostel, where we ate, packed, prayed and prepared to leave. At 5:30pm we were driven to the bus station by the father of the man who runs the hostel, picked up our bus tickets and then boarded a bus to Mostar, where we spent the night before continuing on to Dubrovnik.


Sunday am- Dubrovnik. We arrived shortly after 10am and deposited our bags in the luggage room of the modest central bus station (seemingly swarming with female police officers who ask to see your passport). We then took an expensive taxi ride the 5 kilometers to the old city of Dubrovnik. After a visit to the Franciscan Monastery, just inside the walls of the old city, with its 700 year old pharmacy, the oldest still-active one in the world, I got a map from the tourist information site, and we began roaming the pretty small old city area. After stopping at a photo exhibit in Sponza Palace, at the far end of the Placa, honoring the fallen defenders of the city from the 1991-1992 war with Serbia, we found the synagogue/Jewish museum, only to discover that it was closed on Sundays. We then found the (still-active) mosque, an equally surprising find, stopping inside for a quick look around. Continuing from there, we began our museum visits with the Ethnographic Museum Rupe, purchasing a student entrance ticket that turned out to be a better deal than the much touted Dubrovnik card (especially as we had less interest in the city walls walk, having had a very similar experience with the old city walls in Jerusalem). After a short visit to the brief Ethnographic museum, which is housed in an large, old wheat storage building, we stopped for lunch (bread and soda), then continued on to Luza Palace, included in our 4 museum ticket. After 90 minutes or so visiting the various exhibits in Luza Palace, we walked along the pier and the water for a bit, then to the north-east exit of the city walls, where Revelin Fortress and the virtual history and archeological museums are located. We spent the rest of the time until 4:00 pm (about 80 minutes) in both museums, with the latter primarily devoted to 9th-11th century church relics and the former offering a unique chance to digitally tour otherwise inaccessible Dubrovnik highlights, such as rare artifacts from the city archives, as yet unfinished archeological sites, or former summer island residences now used by private organizations. When the clock struck 4pm, it was time to leave, and we once more walked the length of the strada, passing the church of St. Blaise, patron saint of the city, Luza and Sponza Palaces, the Orlando Column, stores, both fountains and the Franciscan Monastery, before exiting through Pile Gate. After getting on to a bus that would reach the bus station, we went the length of the route before finally reaching the bus station, getting off and buying tickets for the 6pm bus to Split, due to arrive at 11pm.


Sunday night, Split: We arrived in Split (higher up along the Dalmatian coast from Dubrovnik) at night, and the bus was greeted by several “hosts” looking for guests for their pansions (guesthouses). Following one older woman, we snaked through the old city, or Diocletian’s Palace, before arriving at her building just outside of the palace walls. After agreeing on the price, we settled in for the night.

Monday morning: I woke up early and spent two hours walking through and around the old city, finding the various historical, cultural and religious highlights, museum locations, etc. The main areas, the Riva, the various squares, bazaars, were mostly deserted all day, being non-tourist season and a rainy day to boot. After confirming where the Jewish community was located, I picked up Eliana and we began our day in earnest. First we visited the Jewish synagogue, from the 1500s and protruding from the palace walls. The synagogue was built by Spanish exiles, and as the community remained fairly small throughout 500 years of existence, even when Ashkenazim arrived in the 1800s, they simply joined the pre-existing synagogue, choosing to annex a neighboring building and enlarge the synagogue rather than build a new one (a very unusual move for a Jewish community). However the Jewish history in the area is far older, as there is evidence of Jews living in the region during Roman times. We were shown a copy of an old oil lamp with a menorah figure on it which had been found in a dig nearby. We also saw the inside of the synagogue, a glass case of treasures in the back and a list of names of community members, unusual for containing a mixture of both stereotypical Ashkenazi and Sepharadi names (most of which matched names found on the tombstones in the Sarajevo graveyard). The women’s section is relatively new, having been added when the Ashkenazim joined the community. The Split Jewish community has always been small—pre-WWII it numbered less than 300, while today it includes about 100 members. We were told that after WWII most Jews who returned did not want much to do with religion; thus the next generation is mostly secular by default, although they have holiday services and try to organize a minyan when a rabbi visits, and they use other rooms in the structure for a daily meeting place for the community. The teva (where the prayer leader and/or Torah reader stands) is quite high, located in the back of the synagogue and requiring ten or so steps to reach the top. There are two Torah scrolls- a prewar one which was declared invalid and a second, more modern one which the community was able to obtain via assistance from the Israeli Ambassador to Croatia.


After visiting the synagogue and small Jewish ghetto area (from Venetian times), we stopped at the information center for maps and guidance, then the Cathedral, where I ascended the towering bell tower while Eliana, who had had her fill of ascending local heights, toured the inside of the cathedral. Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, is buried inside; after his death, the site was ironically turned into a church in the 7th century. The walls of the Palace and structure are remarkably well-preserved. After visiting the Ethnographic Museum (housed in another old stone house), we entered basement of the palace and paid the entrance fee to tour the bottom, mildewy, but mostly preserved intact thanks to its usage as a garbage dump and sewage area in Roman times. After touring the bottom, we emerged, returned to the synagogue just in time to pray minha, and then after significant searching we located a vegan restaurant for a delicious lunch.

From there we headed up to Marjan Hill, ascending a long flight of stairs to the small, somewhat depressing zoo in the center, then descending while enjoying a wonderful view of the harbor. At the base we finally found the entrance to the 16th century Jewish cemetery, blocked off behind a functioning bar, but with monuments and a plaque to note its existence. Heading back down, we stopped at the bus and train station to verify travel times and prices, returned to where we had spent the night to retrieve our bags, and then waited in the train station for the 9:17 pm train to Zagreb. More to come in Zagreb….

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at