The city of Mostar, halfway between Sarajevo and Dubrovnik, dates back to the fifteenth century, when a small hamlet emerged on the banks of the river Neretva.
Most, in Serbo/ Croatian, means bridge. Stari means old. Mostar could be - and has been – loosely interpreted to mean "Keeper of the bridge." Indeed, since 1566, the left and right banks of Mostar have been connected by the famed Stari Most.
In November 1993, after twenty-four hours of artillery bombardment in the midst of the Yugoslav Civil War, it collapsed into the Neretva below.
The Stari Most had been, at 427 years old, one of the oldest bridges in urban Europe. It was regarded as a treasure of Ottoman engineering, Bosnia and Herzegovina having been part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries (from 1463 to 1878).
The Turks had, recalls Daniel Biau in 'The Bridge and the City: A Universal Love Story,' at the end of the fifteenth century "islamized the region and developed a small town on the mountainside, on the left bank.
"Mostar became the center of Herzegovina.
"In 1558, a first stone bridge was built on the Radobolja, a tributary of the Neretva River on the right bank. This little hump-backed bridge is actually the prototype and neighbor of the Stari Most.
"Eight years later, Mimar Hajrudin, a former student of (famed Turkish architect) Mimar Sinan, built the new bridge, a very bold move to replace the wooden bridge of the Neretva."
Incidentally, Sinan also designed another bridge in Bosnia, on the river Drina. This bridge between Bosnia and Serbia was built in Višegrad between 1571 and 1577. It is featured in Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić's masterpiece 'The Bridge on the Drina'.
The Stari Most was built in white limestone, tightened by iron clamps, and filled with molten lead. "In fact," writes Biau, "it was the first bridge using metal clamps."
Mostar expanded on the vast and fertile right bank. It survived the First and Second World Wars, and was strengthened during the 1945-90 Yugoslav era. The bridge was a symbol of cohabitation between Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs. Mostar was known as a city of culture, libraries, museums, and theaters.
The 1991-95 Yugoslav Civil War put paid to much of that. In 1993, Mostar's main street, parallel to the Neretva, became the dividing line between Bosnian and Croatian communities. Though the bridge, surmises Biau, had little strategic importance, it symbolized the coexistence between communities; and thus became a casualty.
In July 2004, the new Stari Most, an exact replica of the original bridge, was inaugurated as a symbol of reconciliation between the communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Retrieving techniques of the sixteenth century was not easy," recalls Biau.
"Historically, teenagers used to show their bravery by diving from the bridge into the green waters of the Neretva. On July 24th, 2004, they resumed the challenge and performed 'angel jumps' which they had practiced by training on less prestigious bridges or on the temporary bridge. Those 'angel jumps' inspired me to write this book."