Stećci, the mysterious medieval tomb sculptures of the Balkans (and a Bosnian coffee break)

Any of you nerds out there wait breathlessly for UNESCO to announce the newest additions to their list of World Heritage Sites?  [Raises hand].  Well, a few days ago I was delighted to read that stećci, tombstones from medieval graveyards in the Balkans, had been added to the list.

Most Stećci—about 60,000 of them—are found in graveyards in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Our pictures were taken in Sarajevo.

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A typical stećak (that’s the singular of stećci) is shaped like a sarcophagus with a pointed roof.  They’re pretty massive.  This one has a conga line-up of smiley faced dudes with hands on each other’s shoulders.

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The stećci were created from the 10th – 15th centuries.  The grave marker on the left is from the later Ottoman era (that’s why it’s shaped like a turban).  The stećak on the right has a symbol of a bow and arrow.

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The fleurs-de-lis design looks more like Western European art of the time period.

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The stećci are more than grave markers of course.  Surely they were created as works of  art meant to celebrate the deceased and give us clues about their lives.  This fellow, for example, clearly spent a lot of time making jazz hands under a grapevine.

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Who created the stećci?  That seems to be a matter of controversy.  Amir, the journalist we spent a day with in Sarajevo, told us they were made by the Bogomils.  Bogomils were a group of Christian gnostics who lived in the Balkans from the 10th century until they were killed off in the 15th century.  As their beliefs were considered heretical by other Christians, they were persecuted relentlessly by crusades.

The reason I question if all of the stećci were in fact created by Bogomils is the presence of the cross symbol on some of the monuments.  (The feathered-hair guy in this monument has a cross coming from behind one shoulder and a sun above the other.)  Bogomils rejected churches, preferring to see their bodies as temples, and did not use crosses.

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Another intriguing element: these horseshoe arches which show a Moorish influence.

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Cruciform tombstone.

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And how about this one?  It looks Celtic to me.

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My favorite stećak—I love the horse’s floppy legs in the hunting scene.

Since they’ve been declared UNESCO sites, hopefully there will be increased scholarship about these mysterious medieval beauties.  If you have any information about them, please share!

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Listen up, you nice people from UNESCO.  Now that you’ve had the good sense to designate stećci as UNESCO sites, I have another suggestion: add Bosnian coffee culture to your list of Intangible Cultural Heritage because it is truly a treasure.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of indulging in Bosnian coffee, here’s a primer.  First, let the coffee sit a while in the metal pot, so the grounds (similar to those in Turkish coffee) have a chance to settle.  Now slowly pour the coffee into the cup, leaving the sludgy part inside the metal pot.  Take a sip of water to cleanse your palette.  Okay, time to drink, but this is important: make sure you have coffee companions so you can really chat it up.  Doesn’t matter what you talk about—in fact, total b.s. is preferred.  If you don’t happen to have a coffee b.s-ing partner, sit at an outdoor café and make earnest eye contact with passersby, begging them with your puppy dog eyes to come join you for a cup.  Soon enough, you’ll find a friend to join you, maybe a several people so you can really shoot the shiz.  Smoke a ton of cigarettes and then order more coffee.  Repeat as necessary.

 

How we got to Sarajevo: bus from Mostar.

Where we slept: Apartment Center.  Price: €23.20 for a double. Recommended: highly.

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13 comments

  1. Pretty neat photos 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Sarajevo is so interesting—we kept our fingers on the camera button. 🙂

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  2. They are amazing, I have just spent a while looking them up, I must admit I had never heard of them, so thank you for sharing your photos 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that they are quite compelling. I never heard of them before our trip to BiH either, so I’m hoping someone with expertise will stop in and fill me in on their history. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes the details on the web are a bit sketchy, it would be lovely to know more about them 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very intriguing–and amusing too. The designs seem
    sort of Celtic as well as Moorish. I wonder what was going on as far as trade routes in those centuries. Also I wonder how the amazing coffee first got there. Legend has it that when the Turks ended their siege of Vienna in 1685, they left behind sacks of coffee beans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I was trying to use all my art history experience to sort out what I was seeing. The faces in the figures also seem medieval Celtic, don’t you think? Sarajevo is a cross roads of cultures, which accounts for the way it’s like Istanbul in one area and Vienna a couple block from that. I love it!

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  4. As always, thanks for a fascinating journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you bappel2014. I didn’t spend nearly enough time in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a fascinating place!

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  5. I’ve been to Ireland quite a few times and they look very Celtic to me (other than the turban and the moorish arches that is….) Similarities to things I’ve seen in old monastic ruins dating from the 6th to the 10th century. Thanks for sharing – I’ve never heard of these and would love to see them!

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    1. That’s when the monasteries in Ireland were quite isolated, yes? It’s so strange to see the Celtic connection, but it appears to be so strong!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting. The cross might have been added by a later crusader trying to ‘save’ the deceased.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that is interesting, I never thought it may have been added later.

      Liked by 1 person

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