Hadzimuhamedovic, Amra, “SUCCISA VIRESCIT: What makes a place of worship so powerful that people do not accept its destruction”

Bosnia is the country of long common history of Jews, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, a history that is reflected in townscapes in which church belfries have been leaning towards the mosque minarets, standing close to the domes of the synagogues. The 50 years of post WWII socialist regime  – during which places of worship had been abandoned, closed, converted into the storages and often destroyed – was proceeded by the 1992-1996 period of war destruction during which places of worship belonging to the others were targets of wanton and systematic destruction that was used as a powerful tool of ethnic cleansing.

The Bosnian cases of destruction and reconstruction of places of worship at the very threshold of 21st century confirm with the painful strength that in fact, the places of worship  are far more complex phenomenon than the architectural and symbolical frame for religious ritual, and are inseparable from the human destinies of those on whose memory it is imprinted. Complexity or integrity of tangible and intangible, cultural and natural, movable and immovable makes places of worship powerful to influence the people’s emotions even if its architectural form is destroyed.

In some cases, the site of a destroyed church or mosque takes on the significance of the monument itself, while also acquiring a new, symbolically more powerful meaning of association with one’s belief in survival.  This phenomenon, in which the semantic charge of the remains of a sacred building following an attempt to destroy a site comes to transcend its original value, is present in all cultures and all periods.  This new, intangible component of the place of worship often even goes beyond the call for physical authenticity, so that without problem the destroyed form can be restored with the full charge of its meaning for the community.  When, for instance, the Monte Cassino monastery was bombed out of existence, the Rt. Rev. Stephen Schappler, Abbott of Conception Abbey at Conception, Mo., wrote: “True to the device on her coat of arms, Succisa Virescit (when cut down, it grows again), the Abbey of Abbeys will have a rebirth.” [1]

By way of comparison, let us also cite the sacred oak of Guernica in Spain, which survived the destruction of the village and the community and took on the role of the place with the most potent meaning in the structure of the village.  In the perception of the people of Guernica, this was not in the least diminished by the fact that a new oak was planted on the site of the old one.

Stolac, a small town in the south of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was razed to the ground in the summer of 1993.  The town centre included a square with shops and a mosque built in 1519. This, the Čaršija Mosque, was destroyed along with every other non-Catholic religious building.  Eight years after its destruction, the first group of returnees gained the right to return to part of the town.  Studies conducted during the course of working with the community revealed that returning to their home town where every key place had been destroyed was more traumatic than being forced to leave it.  The new relationships between the volumes in the town and the lost points of reference gave rise to disorientation, insecurity, and a sense of placelessness.

Regardless of their religious attachment to worship in the mosque, the people of Stolac saw the reconstruction of the central mosque as a prerequisite for true return and for ensuring that they could exercise their human rights. [2]

Most of those who helped to clear the site had never seen the slab before, as it had been covered with cement during restoration works on the mosque in the 1960s.  The explosion that destroyed the mosque had shattered the cement, leaving intact this polished slab of stone, which was endowed by the symbolism of a new significance of indestructibility, a witness to survival… The very day that the stone was discovered, an allegedly old tradition that the stone was a namaz taš, a prayer stone, began to circulate, since the motifs on it had been so carved that there could be no doubt it was designed to face the qibla.

According to this suddenly revived tradition, the namaz taš was place there in the 15th century, when the decision was taken to build a mosque on the site, and served as the first substitute for a mihrab, as the prayer stone of the prayer leader.

This folk tradition, whether transmitted or invented, has a parallel in the Old Testament basis for the understanding of the relationship between people and the meaning of place.  The Old Testament image of the stone erected as a pillar by Jacob at the place where he had his ladder dream, so as to mark a place of particular significance and to preserve the memory of God’s promised to him, is a parable of the meaning of the monument or heritage as a whole: “And Jacob … took the stone that he had put for his pillow, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel.” [3] “And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house.” [4] The namaz taš in Stolac is a place or form which, with the same force locally that Jacob’s stone has globally, links us or our community with the knowledge, memory and feeling that are our bond with the past and warrant of the future.

This ability of the community to develop narratives that replace destroyed symbols of the security of the homeland ensures the vitality of the entirety of expression of the cultural heritage. Like the Guernica oak, the stone slab in the courtyard of the Stolac mosque, which has now been rebuilt, [5] has become the symbol of resistance and of the survival of the entire Stolac community.


Dr. Amra Hadzimuhamedovic
International University of Sarajevo
Commissioner to Preserve National Monuments
Bosnia and Herzegovina


[1] The Bombing of Monte Cassino, Time,  Monday, Feb.,  28, 1944., http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,796392-1,00.html, accessed on 15. 04. 2006.
[2] See: Amra Hadžimuhamedović, “Claiming the Homeland – Heritage and Uprootedness”, Forum Bosnae 44 (2008), Sarajevo, 328-345.
[3] Genesis, 28:18-19.
[4] Genesis, 28:22
[5] See: Amra Hadžimuhamedović, “Redefinicija primjene metoda zaštite i prezentacije graditeljskog naslijeđa u procesu poslijeratne obnove – slučaj Čaršijske džamije u Stocu”  “Redefinition of protection and presentation methods of the architectural heritage in the process of post-war rehabilitation – The Case of the Čaršija Mosque in Stolac”, Baština (Heritage) I (2005), Annual Journal of Commission to Preserve National Monuments, Sarajevo, 71-11,  (C.E.E.O.L  and EBSCO online archives)


BELGIQUE: Colloque – "Journée de la restauration du patrimonie 2011 – Un patrimoine à redéfinir: L´avenir des églises classées en Wallonie"

9 décembre 2011, Moulins de Beez , Namur (Belgique)

“Day of heritage conservation – A heritage to redefine: The Future of listed churches in Wallonia”

Au-delà de la solution radicale et ultime de la désacralisation, d’autres pistes méritent d’être explorées pour assurer un avenir aux édifices du culte classés. Ils peuvent devenir des espaces partagés entre communautés pratiquantes et communautés citoyennes, dans le respect des lieux et de chacun. Les édifices du culte sont peut-être appelés à devenir des espaces de convivialité ou les centres culturels de demain tout en conservant une vocation sacrée, si la raison, la volonté et la tolérance s’invitent au débat…

Colloque organisé par la DGO4 (Direction générale opérationnelle Aménagement du Territoire, Logement, Patrimoine et Énergie),
Département du Patrimoine, Direction de la Restauration

Lire la suite…

Wollner, Petr, “Church as a Symbol of Reconciliation”

The Forum in Canterbury last year, where the European network for historic places of worship was established, joined people of different professions, experiences and knowledge from 24 countries of Europe and Canada, to think and talk about churches, or sacred space in general.

My rough estimate is 300 000 churches in all European countries, built in nearly 2000 years of history of Christianity in Europe. Meeting places with living God, also symbols of power of the Church in certain periods, in most cases important treasuries of art and architecture, important landmarks of every city or village, meeting points of people of all generations.

What a change at the beginning of 21st century! We realise that thousands of European churches are not used any more, standing as a silent witness of faith of our ancestors, for some reason forgotten and abandoned.

Suddenly we must organize conferences and discuss how to save these beautiful buildings, formerly standing as natural centres of the community life. Suddenly we must discuss whether it is acceptable to transform these buildings to concert halls, cultural centres or, in worse cases to family houses or restaurants. The answer is not easy, and it is impossible to find general unity in solutions.

It is fully legitimate to say, from the viewpoint of devoted Christians, that the church is the house of God, and it is better to shut the door and leave nature to transform the church into ruins if there is nobody to worship Him in this place any more. However, it is equally legitimate to say that the church is an important witness of history and culture of the place, and to give all effort to save it for future generations.

The chapel of St. Cross in winter, in front foundations of baroque 18th century church which was demolished by the communist army.

My native country, the Czech Republic, is one of the countries, where these questions are really important, with more than 8000 churches and chapels within the whole country, and maybe 25% from this number just empty and without use, many others used only occasionally. The majority of our inhabitants, like in many other European countries, lost their faith, or at least the need to live their faith in unity with the Church. In addition to this reality, the complicated history of central Europe in 20th century dramatically affected traditional communities in many areas. The former multicultural and multinational area of Austrian Empire, and also new countries, created after the year 1918, like Czechoslovakia, became witnesses of painful periods of WW II, holocaust, and finally the transfer of three million Germans, living for centuries in Sudeten (a large area of Bohemia and Moravia along the border with Germany), to their war destroyed motherland. In a very short time life disappeared from hundreds of villages, towns and their churches. The following period of the communist government completed the destruction, leaving a great number of these places without any care, or transforming it into military areas, in the best cases inviting new inhabitants without any relationship to the history and tradition of the land.

The period of democracy after the year 1989 was very promising and optimistic for the whole society as well as for the Church itself. In the first post- communist census in 1991 nearly 50% of the inhabitants in Bohemia and Moravia proclaimed themselves as members of the Church, mostly Roman Catholic. We could follow a great effort of renewal and reconstruction of destroyed or forgotten places, also with international help. Some of the stories were really moving, when the original inhabitants or their children were coming from Germany with old photos to show how the places looked like 50 years ago, to initiate and support the repairs.

Interior of the chapel of St. Cross, Sumava, West Bohemia, in 1997, photo V. Kudrlicka

One of my favourite places in my country is the chapel of St. Cross in Šumava mountains close to the German border in the Bavarian area. A simple building, built in 1820, with nothing else surviving from the former village and famous glass factory existing there for centuries. Till 1989 it was a prohibited military area. Houses of the village served as a training target for the army, the church survived for one special reason. It was high enough to serve as a military watchtower.

We came there for the first time in March 1990 and we found the church nearly without roof, vaults in ruins, just a few pieces of destroyed furniture left, including destroyed wooden and glass coffins in the crypt, once belonging to the members of a famous glass making family.

As a small miracle, after a long time of repairs, the chapel was reopened again a few years ago, with many pilgrims present from both countries, as a symbol of a long and difficult history, and reconciliation between the nations. A graveyard of the former inhabitants of the village was restored and a new symbolic grave installed, as a memory of 55 people who were shot on the border in this area during the communist era, trying to cross the iron curtain and escape to Germany. Once a year there is a Holy Mass service in the chapel to join all people of good will who are willing to make the one hour walk to the mountains, with some exemption for disabled and old people to use the car in the area of National Park.

The chapel of St. Cross repaired and reopened in 2005 after 57 years of deterioration

These are experiences of hope in a situation less optimistic than 20 years ago, with the number of people proclaiming themselves as Christians much lower again, with an estimate of people attending Sunday services less than 10% of the nation. It is a great challenge for all involved, and especially for the Roman Catholic Church as the owner of 90% of the churches in our country, to invite people again into these wonderful places as meeting points with God, or to join with the others who have a sense for dignity and beauty of the sacred places and find the way how to invite new life there.

Petr Wollner
Deputy Manager, Building and Restoration Department
The Archbishopric of Prague

Truman, Crispin, “One Year On”

It’s one year since we all met, many for the first time, at our conference in Canterbury.  What a wonderful time we had there, everyone enjoyed the fabulous location by the cathedral, the well-organised venue and most importantly, the excitement of being together as a group of people with a shared interest across Europe.

What was also very special about those three days was the huge amount of experience shared, contacts made and the practical work that was done: facilitated very cleverly by Trevor Cooper.  We all agreed that this was a historic opportunity to set up our new network, now known as Future Religious Heritage (FRH).  There was also strong agreement on what the network should aim to do.  Members’ views expressed at the conference are constantly referred back to as the Council plans the future.

Of course it was only once we’d all gone home that the really difficult work began. Faced with our own jobs to do, busy lives and huge geographical distances, it’s tough to follow up on the vision and inspiration of those three days in Canterbury.  We don’t have enough money or time to be able to do things as quickly as we would want or to meet everyone’s aspirations.  Setting up a new network requires, patience, focus, and time.  Those of us who are very involved feel impatience every step of the way.

But look at what has been achieved since Canterbury.  We now have a formally constituted organisation (ASBL) with a part time worker, Leena Seim.  We have the money for the first year (which runs out in July) and we have an active and strong Council which is beginning to run a series of projects to take us to the next stage.  Most importantly we have growing numbers of members: you and your colleagues, who are part of this network and on whom the future will depend.

FRH in the future will be what you make of it.  The foundation stones are in place and the Council is ready to act on your behalf.  Now you need to become involved.  Think back to the energy you felt at Canterbury and think forward about what you’re going to do in the next year to help us make sure historic places of worship begin to take their rightful place in the cultural life of Europe.

Crispin Truman
Chair of Council