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)