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Volume 34, Number 6November/December 1983

In This Issue

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Olympics in the Nearest East

Written by Brian Clark and Arlene Mueller
Additional photographs by Brian Clark and Arlene Mueller

For nearly 70 years, Sarajevo, in today's Yugoslavia, has been trying to live down its reputation as the powder keg of the First World War. But in February, finally, the city may succeed - by hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics.

To many skiers and skaters, as well as bob-sledders and other winter sports competitors, Sarajevo may seem an odd place to hold the Winter Olympics. Set between two low hills amid the central Yugoslavian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo, an industrial city of 400,000 people, doesn't bear comparison with such posh ski areas as, say, San Moritz, Chamonix or Sun Valley. The area, in fact, its skyline broken by the shapes of nearly 80 historic mosques, looks as if it should be the Arab East rather than the Dinaric Alps.

Actually, the Sarajevo area is a splendid setting for winter events. Though Sarajevo itself is no ski area, Mount Jahorina, site of the women's alpine events, Mount Bjelasnica, site of the men's events, and Mount Trebevic, where bob-sledding will be held, are no more than 20 to 30 kilometers away (13 to 20 miles). Furthermore, the region can almost always guarantee earlier and deeper snow than winter resorts in, say, the Mont Blanc massif or the Jura, thanks to an odd quirk in weather patterns: warm moist air sweeping eastward from the Adriatic Sea is trapped behind the Dinaric Alps and meets icy currents of air from Siberia. The result is a blanket of snow in Bosnia.

Yugolsavia, moreover, is working hard - and spending close to $200 million - to ensure success. Its Olympic Committee has already carved new ski trails onto the flanks of Mount Bjelasnica, restored a 90-year old observatory on the summit - for use as a restaurant, and as a command center for the men's downhill ski events - and built bob-sled runs, ski lifts and jumps. Work is also proceeding on slopes, trails and runs for slalom, cross-country and bob-sledding races as well as an event called the "biathlon" - a contest in which skiers with rifles shoot at targets along a 20-kilometer cross-country ski course (12.5 miles). Other projects include a $10 million communications tower to transmit instant press coverage to the world - and provide televised and photographic side glances at the mosques, palaces, bridges, shops and inns that so clearly suggest Sarajevo's rich Muslim past.

Few in the West recall that the "Near East" once included what used to be called "the Balkans," a region that took in most of today's Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania (See Aramco World, May-June 1973), or that large areas of the Balkans were dominated by Islam for 400 years. To numerous contestants, visitors, readers and viewers, therefore, the Islamic character of the Sarajevo area will probably come as a distinct surprise.

Islam came to the Balkans in the early 15th century when the Ottoman Turks completed their conquest of Bosnia, and began to occupy the valley under Mount Trebevic, settle along the lovely Miljacka River and, as a sign of permanence, contructed a great palace for the sultan's deputy. They also renamed the city "Sarajevo" - "palace in the fields" - built mosques, bridges, mills, inns, shops and government quarters as, bit by bit, they settled in for what would eventually be a long stay. The Ottomans also transformed Sarajevo into the biggest and most beautiful capital of the Turkish-ruled Balkans - second, it was said, only to Istanbul. Today, as a result, Bosnia-Herzegovinia has some 1,800,000 Muslims, and Yugoslavia as a whole close to 3,800,000. (The size of this Muslim minority, as well as recent efforts to reassert its Islamic identity, has aroused displeasure - and opposition - from the government, according to the magazine Arabia.)

Traces of Yugoslavia's Muslim past are easy to find. Even the casual tourist cannot miss Arabic calligraphy on Sarajevo buildings, the sound of the adhan, the call to prayer, or - an example of distinctly Muslim architecture - the 16-century, 11-arched, 180-meter (590 feet) Visegrad Bridge built by the famous Ottoman architect, Sinan.

There are also shops and restaurants like the Morica Han, one of the best in the Muslim quarter, and coffee houses like the 300-year old Musina Kafana, high on a hillside overlooking Sarajevo. The Musina Kafana serves rich dark Turska kafa in tiny white porcelain cups called fildzans and at least once a week patrons are sure to repeat the well worn story of Muso, a former owner, who refused to accept payment from two customers who annoyed him by drinking their coffee too quickly. Instead, he ordered them to get out and never come back. "If you drink coffee in a hurry, and without enjoyment, I do not want you in my coffee house," he said. To Muso, time was as important as sugar in the enjoyment of coffee - and today's habitues agree.

The popularity of that story reflects the fact that coffee, discovered in Yemen and introduced to the Ottoman Empire about the middle of the 16th century, has been an important element in Near East diets for centuries - and in Sarajevan diets almost from the time the first Ottoman coffee shop was opened in Istanbul in 1554. Unlike Istanbul, however, where officialdom sporadically banned coffee and closed down coffee shops, Sarajevo was free to enjoy the new beverage and it was soon accepted as an agreeable addition to the city's life.

For a city expecting an influx of people and vehicles, such manifestations of an ancient past are not necessarily a boon; communities trying to cope with crowds and traffic usually find narrow streets, old houses and traditional architecture a problem rather than an advantage. But to Ahmed Karabegovic, secretary general of the Sarajevo Olympics Organizing Committee, and a Muslim, the Muslim ambience is a definite plus. Though the rest of Sarajevo has been spruced up and modernized, the Muslim quarter has been left alone. This, says the secretary general, is the heart of Sarajevo and should remain just the way it has been since the 16th century, Olympics or no Olympics.

Brian Clark, a staff writer for the Modesto Bee in California, toured Yugoslavia as preparations for the Winter Olympics were getting underway.

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the November/December 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1983 images.