Culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cultural symbols of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the Old Mostar Bridge and stone tombstones /stecci, pl. of stecak/. One of unique cultural spots of Bosnia and Herzegovina and surrounding Balkan countries are surely stećci tomb stones /plural of stećak/, horizontal slabs pseudo-sarcophagi and upright standing slabs and crosses – raised on ancient graveyards throughout the Serbian lands. Stećci or staćaks tomb stones make and present unusual, amazing, mystical and not clearly researched witnesses of ancient past that were built in the period from the end of the 13th century until the first decades of the 16th century. Stećci or staćaks tomb stones are unique both in the European and the world culture and neither have direct copies nor represent copies of some other monuments. Those monumental carved stone blocks – stećaks densely spread on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in southwest Serbia, the southern part of Croatia, Macedonia, western Montenegro and especially in large numbers on the territory of the Medieval Bosnia and Hum, on ancient grave yards where Serbian population used to live in the past.

The term stecak is of new origin, and does not correspond to the original folk expression which designates specific medieval tombstones. Local population name the stecaks stones /plural of stecak/as “mramorovi, mramorje, kamenovi, biljezi” and so on, along the folk derivative form of “stojecak, which means the stone which stands /above someone’s grave/. Stecaks tomb stones weight from 100 to 32000 kg. According to some researchers, the first stacak with inscription designates the grave of the zhupan /lord/ Grdesa /Grda/ from Trebinje, who died sometimes between 1151 and 1178, which was found in the Medieval necropolis of Police, near Trebinje. The Grdesa zhupan was one of the most distinguished Serb noblemen and knights of the 12th century, about whom there are not other preserved documents.

The Herzegovina area, in earlier periods part of the territories of Hum, Travunija and Zagorje was during the whole Middle Age settled by Serbs and was an integral part of the Serbian principalities, and later of the Serbian State under Nemanjic Dynasty. After the death of Tzar Dusan in 1355, starts gradual but unrestrained fall of the Serbian State, because of weakening of the central powers and the rulers’ inability to control powerful local lords. In this period, on the territory of the future Herzegovina, the powerful noble Vojinovic Family distinguishes itself, descendants of the High-duke Vojin from Gatacko Polje, one of the closest associate of the Serbian King Stefan Decanski. In 1373, by united attack of the Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebejanovic and the Bosnian Ban Tvrtko, Nikola Altomanovic, the last descendant of the Vojinovic Family was conquered in the battle, taken prisoner and blinded, and the territory he run was divided between the Prince Lazar and the Ban Tvrtko. It was the first time that Gacko, Bileca and Trebinje came under control of the Bosnian ruler. In order to assure his administration in the newly acquired Serbian territories, Tvrtko leaned on two, until that time, little known aristocratic families – of Jablanici and Kosace. After the mentioned victory, Kosaca Family gained the territory east of Neretva River up to Prijepolje, while Pavlovici Jablanici Family run towns of Bileca and Trebinje and the area between those towns. The area of Herzegovina Plana was, by this division, at the end of the 14th century, located on the borders of territories that we controlled by Kosace and Pavlovici Jablanici Families.
At least seventy thousands of steaks-stećci /plural of stecak/ are found on the mountainous-hilly areas of Dinaric Mountains. In regard with various matters Stećci are unique monuments that have succeeded to connect culturally several countries of the former Yugoslavia with the total of 66.573 stećaks found on 2988 localities. Some of stećaks are Medieval tombstones, while for other stone monuments we still can not determine what they were used for. Stećci /stecaks/ belong to the row of megalithic stone blocks in regard with their quantities. Stećci represent real Medieval forms carved in stone with relief which depict religious emblems, human figures, animals, floral ornaments, inscriptions… The first stacak with inscription is the monument of the Trebinje Medieval lord /zhupan/ Grdesa who died between 1151 and 1178. This stecak was found in the Medieval necropolis in Police village near Trebinje. The zhupan – lord Grdesa was one of the most important Serb noblemen and knights of the 12th century, but there are no preserved artifacts about him. From the motifs on reliefs we learn on the Romanesque and Gothic cultural circle influence but also about inheritance of the antiquity as well as the Slavonic mythology and even of the Indo-European cultural circle. Majority of stećci are more than several tons weight but largest exceeds 30 tons, as such stecak of Pavle Radenovic from Pavlovac village near Sarajevo which weights 31920 kg. The largest number of stećci, among them are the most beautifully decorated examples are found in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the hugest stecaks which is at the same time the richest in decoration is located in the village of Donje Zgosce, close to Kakanj in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stone cutters seats in Bosnia and Herzegovina were probably situated near Stolac, Trebinje, Gacko, Konjic, Listica, Kladanj, Zvornik, Rogatica, Travnik and Kupres and in Cista village and surrounding of Topola in Croatia, while in Montenegro close to Niksic and Pljevlja, while it is believed that stećci in Serbia have been brought from the eastern Bosnia. Stećaks were set around churches, besides the wells and water surfaces, on the prehistorical tumulus sites, on elevated spots, within the area of an older architecture, on the Medieval graveyards areas. The Bosnian-Herzegovinean poet Mak Dizdar was inspired by stećaks to create some of the most beautiful verses dedicated to stećaks – the mystical remnants of the past who considered them “the Stone Sleepers”.

Radimlja necropolis of stećci is situated in Vidovo Polje, 3 km west of Stolac, on the road connecting Capljina and Stolac. By large number of stećaks and its diversity of basic forms and the high quality of artistic completion and richness of plastic decorations and relief depictions and inscriptions, where famous historic persons were mentioned, as well as by its unusual location and approach ability, the Radimlja stecak necropolis ranks among the most significant monuments of the Medieval period of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Radimlja necropolis is regarded as one of the best decorated necropolis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By its artistic features Radimlja stećaks necropolis belongs to the few most valuable and important necropolis of Bosnian and Herzegovinean stećaks whatsoever.

Director of UNESCO office in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Siniša Šešum confirms that there are number of elements of the intangible heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which should be nominated for the UNESCO sites, or are already present on the tentative list, as the sevdalinka songs and jumps from the Old Bridge in Mostar. He considers those traditions very significant for the inheritance of Bosnia and Herzeovina, but also for the whole region and EU.

„Zmijanje Embroidery“, the cultural heritage of the world
The Zmijanje Embroidery is considered the oldest hand work of embroidery in the Balkans. Zmijanje embroidery features unique technique of Cross-Stitch pattern, always in dark blue color, which is since 2014 the part of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. The Zmijanje area is situated in the north-west of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and makes the central part of the Bosnian Krajina with harsh winds and beauty of the Manjaca Mountain Plateau, from where the Zmijanje Embroidery origins. The Zmijanje area is recorded in the Middle Ages within the old Bosnian zhupa of Zemljanik /Zemljanik parish/, that is first time mentioned in the Prijezda founding charter from 1287, with numerous villages inhabited by the Serbs of Orthodox faith. Zmijanje area is since the 16th century settled predominantly by Serbs in the area between Vrbas River in the east and Sana River in the west, the Kozara Mountain in the north and Mrkonjic Grad and Kljuc in the south. In the middle ages there was in this area the Zupljanik zhupa /county/ within the Donji Krajevi – later Krajina. Skilled hands of the Krajina Embroiders and a number of folklore ensembles renown for their picturesque traditional costumes and impressive dances of Zmijanje are proud to keep the tradition of the Zmijanje Embroidery.

Carpet and Rug Hand weaving

Carpet weaving is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished manifestations of nomadic culture and an art dating back to the Bronze Age, which belongs to the most widespread crafts of the cultural heritage of the Balkans. Almost every house in our past used to possess a loom and almost every women knew the secrets of this old handcraft, so we can consider the handweaving of carpets and rugs as the women occupation. Various hand-knitted and hand woven coverings for house, rugs, carpets, curtains, blankets, mulches, wall-coverings and fibers for cloths, and bedding were manufactured by talented women, nearly all needed for a home. Hand knotting wool, cotton or silk is indeed a work of art – that is why handmade carpets and rugs are unquestionably a source of great satisfaction, and honourable possessions. Carpet weaving is also a self-fulfilling and meditative activity. People who produce something valuable or something related to art are happier and more self-fulfilled. They feel the joy of creating something new and beautiful. Furthermore, the patient and relaxed mental state after doing similar things over and over is meditative and calming and generates new creations…. The Capljina Tepih Center is one of the most distinguished workshop in Bosnia and Herzegovina which represent tha ancient techniques of carpet weaving ……


Ivo Andric is the most famous writer in Serbian language. Born in Travnik as Ivan, but became known by the diminutive Ivo. When Andrić was two years old, his father Antun died. Because his mother Katarina was too poor to support him, he was raised by his mother’s family in the town of Visegrad on the Drina River in eastern Bosnia, where he noticed the Ottoman Bridge, which later became world famous in his novel The Bridge on the Drina /Na Drini cuprija/. Ivo Andrić had grown up in Visegrad whose bridge he made celebrated. After his study in Vienna Ivo Andrić had been taken prisoner 1914, being a revolutionary, and became an editor in Belgrade 1918 he had created a literary circle with people such as Crnjanski and Milicic. This little group used to frequent the Moscow hotel in Belgrade. But very soon Ivo Andrić had been noticed by his intellectual capacities and became the vice-consul in many European capitals. His diplomatic career reached its summit when Ivo Andric was appointed as Deputy Foreign Minister and later Ambassador to Germany from 1939 to 1941. His ambassadorship ended in 1941 after the German invasion of Yugoslavia. During the World War II, Ivo Andrić refused the comfortable post in Switzerland and lived quietly in Belgrade, completing the three of his most famous novels which were published in 1945, including The Bridge on the Drina. In 1961, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country”. He donated all of the prize money for the improvement of libraries in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ivo Andrić was eminent member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Writers Association.

In two novels of his Andric has been plunging us admirably into a milieu and entanglements in a little village in Bosnia. Each time his romanticist art had succeeded in showing us the connections existing at the transition between the centuries between the Orthodox, Catholic and Muslims rather more than their cultural differences. These links were a way of common living and a neighbor spirit of neighborhood and proximity making to arrive always to mutual understanding in spite of disassembling. More interesting to us has been the “Travnik Chronicle” taking place between 1806 and 1814 in central Bosnia at the moment when Napoleon had a tendency to enlarge the zone of French influence in the Illyrian province. Two consuls, the Austrian and the French could be seen in Travnik waiting for their dreams to be realized within Europe. But the immobility of the East, the mentality of two contradictory ethnos united in opposition to the strangers drowning their civilization vigor. The outstanding novel of “Travnik Chronicle” by Ivo Andrić had already shown the difficulties of a non-negotiated international regulation. Ivo Andric is also an admirable creator of novels among which it could be read on French “Anika’s Times” and “The Thirst”.

“No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists, nor do I know of any work of fiction that more persuasively introduces the reader to a civilization other than our own. It is an intellectual and emotional adventure to encounter the Ottoman world through Andric’s pages in its grandiose beginning and at its tottering finale. It is, in short, a marvelous work, a masterpiece, and very much sui generis. . . . Andric’s sensitive portrait of social change in distant Bosnia has revelatory force.”—William H. McNeill

Emir Kusturica Film Director is to officially begin construction of Kamengrad – Andrićgrad -the Stone Town in Višegrad in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska by the Old Bridge built by Mehmed-paša Sokolović to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1961 awarded to Ivo Andric. Kamengrad /Stone Town/ – Andrićgrad in Višegrad will be the stone version of Emir’s Wooden Town built on Mecavnik, Kusturica says. On the surface of about 17000 hectares between theOld Visegrad Bridge and the confluence of Rzav River and Drina River there will be 50 stone houses built. The Stone Town will contain the church, squares, galleries…

It is the 50 years since Ivo Andric was awarded the Nobel Prize for his novel “Bridge over Drina River”- “for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country”, while the 120 years since the birth of the only Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner will be celebrated next year.


Music in all areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina has strong echoes of the Turkish tradition and is combined with elements of its rich cultural heritage and history. Singing is very popular way of getting together in Bosnia and Herzegovina and usually occupies the whole evening. It is accompanied by the saz, a Persian type of lute. In rural areas, the music draws more on Slavic influences. Ravne pesme is a “flat song” with little variation; ganga is a polyphonic song that sounds like shouting. There are a variety of folk dances. Some are similar to the Serbian and Croatian forms. The gluho kolo /deaf dance/ is a circle dance performed to foot stamping rather than music. There are also different line dances, some performed by men and others by women. The main instruments are the shargija (similar to the saz), the diple (a drone-less bagpipe), Serbian gusle and a wooden flute. Epic hundred-years old poems are performed to the accompaniment of a one-stringed fiddled called a gusle. Sevdalinka songs – sevdalinkas /beautiful traditional love song/ are sentimental melodies usually originally sung by young women that over centuries filled hearts of Balkan peoples with peace, love, happiness and melancholy. Sevdalinkas were designed to be performed in a tranquil back garden or a traditionally decorated large living room, while consuming some mezze and coffee in the way only Bosnian people know it. Unlike most musical types, in Sevdalinkas the singer leads the song, while the accompaniment follows the singer. Sevdalinkas are nowadays performed widely throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and have a strong cultural resonance in the entire country. Sevdalinka songs and way of life must be preserved in any circumstances !

“The meaning of the word sevdah in the Turkish language denotes amorous yearning and ecstasy of love, and has its origin in the Arabic expression “säwdâ”, which encompasses and specifies the term “black gall”. Namely, ancient Arabic and Greek doctors believed that the black gall, as one of the four basic substances in the human body, affects our emotional life and provokes a melancholic and irritable mood. There from derives the expression in the Greek language “melancholy” with a figurative meaning of the direct projection of its basic meaning: melan hôlos – black gall. Since it is love itself that causes the same mood, in the Turkish language these terms were brought into a close link with the semantic identity, accomplishing a conceptual result of a dual projection of the basic meaning. Linking these two meanings has opened the process of a poetic transfer of symbolic and emotional qualities from one term to another. This resulted in the birth of a new term related to specific lyrical and psychological features.
In Bosnian society, the feeling of love expressed by the word “sevdah”, retaining the basic tone of its emotional commitment has got a melancholic notion of the Slavic-Bogomilian transience of space and time. In essence, Bosnian sevdah is both, the passionate and painful longing for love, as well as the melancholic and sweet one, the feeling when you are incapable of enduring the pain caused by love, and the pain transforms into the ecstasy of the intoxication of love that compares to the slow process of dying. Pain, because love cannot be fulfilled at that time, sometimes because space and time act as a wall and obstacle to it, sometimes because there are obstacles of individual, social, familial, traditional or simply emotional and psychological nature. Sevdah expresses itself as torture by others and oneself, and the pleasure of whipping deriving from the identification with the yearning and masochistic experience of love despite the awareness of its futility.” (Muhsin Rizvić, Literary Historian). “You remain speechless at its beauty. It turns the sadness and sorrow of sevdah into the sweetest smelling flowers.”  (Salih Trbonja-Sevdi, Mostar Poet)

Prof Esad Bajtal: song SNIJEG PADE NA BEHAR NA VOĆE – “In time of creation of sevdalinka songs, the system of prior arranged marriages as the part of usual life process was functioning as something fully natural. Just because of that, the “abnormal” falling of snow “over flowers of fruits”, as the violation of the usual course of life became the God’s sign for rebellion and expression of demands for the new order of values. The unsustainability of one natural leads to fall and unsustainability of the other, human order. This is the moment which opens the horizon of freedom and new, until then concealed option of the social order. The song which invites for the natural, so the God’s will, demands right for the other, human i.e. social peculiarity, for freedom of the love choice.”

Snijeg pade na behar na voće,  Neka ljubi ko god koga hoće

“The most gentle and beautiful that has ever been created by lyrical and musical art.” (Gerhard Gesemann, Slavicist)

Himzo Polovina – Emina

Himzo Polovina – Moj behare ko li mi te bere

Emina Zecan – Kraj tanana sadrvana

Silvana Armenulić – Moj dilbere

Zehra Deović – Imal jada ko kad akšam pada

Himzo Polovina – Kad ja podjos na Bembasu

Himzo Polovina – Cudna jada od Mostara grada

Mostar sevdah Reunion – Cudna jada od Mostara grada

Beba Selimovic – Ja kakva je sjajna mesecina

Nada Mamula – U djul basti kraj simsira

Amira Medunjanin-Bojan Zulfikarpasic – Telal vice

Amira Medjunanin – Grana od bora

“… It is not enough just to sing a song correctly. There is much more to it. You have to penetrate the inner tissue of a song. A song has its layers just as combat does. Even the worst song has its womb, just as we do, you and me. You have to know how to reach the womb. You have to have a wish to reach it. When you deal with this “geology” or “anatomy”, once you and the song become one, and once you release this song towards others, then the others will realize that it is not a song for the sake of a song, but more than that. Therefore, you have to “render” a song.” (Himzo Polovina, interpreter and heir of sevdalinka).
Sevdah is the way of life…