If one place could claim to really encapsulate this country's identity, spirit and history, it's Jajce. And to most people, Jajce is this view. Looking at it reminded me a little of tourist t-shirts that show an artistic rendering of all the key sites in a country. A composite that could place the Empire State Building side by side with the Statue of Liberty, whose making eyes at the guys of Mount Rushmore from behind the Golden Gate Bridge. It's like a celebratory diorama. Bosnia and Herzegovina = water! forests! castles! Medieval churches! Ottoman mosques! the prettiest hillside houses you've ever seen! They're all right there, piled above the town's very own set of waterfalls. It would be almost twee if it weren't Bosnia.
As a taxi driver told us on our third day in the country, "We have a war
every fifty years. It's tradition!" While that's not precisely true,
it's pretty close and Jajce has characteristically played a significant
part in each. Piled up behind and cascading down around the beloved waterfalls that have witnessed it all are reminders of all different chapters. The 13th century fortress crowns the town, apropos of its status as capital and royal residence of the Bosnian kingdom beginning in the 1420s. St. Luke's Tower, illuminated on the left side of the skyline, harkens back to this time. It's the only in tact Medieval Tower on the Balkan Peninsula and was the location of the coronation of the last Bosnian king. It has been idiosyncratically attached to the side of a mosque since the 1520s, when Ottomans destroyed the church but knew that the historic tower was worth saving.
Across from St. Luke's sits the entrance to the royal catacombs. It's an underground church, complete with nave, altar and the now-emptied tombs of noblemen, built in the 15th century in just about the final years of the Bosnian kingdom. The Ottoman Empire was swooping in and the Austro-Hungarian Empire grabbed a hold of Jajce and successfully protected it for around 60 years. Then, in 1527, Jajce was the very last town in all of Bosnia to fall to the Ottomans. Like everywhere else, this rule lasted about five centuries - at the end of which, Jajce became Austro-Hungarian once more. Unlike many other places, though, both sides cherished this town. It never fell into neglect, was not ignored or forgotten. It retained some of its former-capital luster and in the years before World War I it was treated to an updated road system and modern infrastructure in the surrounding region.
The next chapter of Bosnia and Herzegovina's life came, of course, with another war. It was the big war - and the big turning point. And, of course, Jajce was right there at the center of it. In 1943, during World War II, the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) met and drew up the documents that would outline the new state of Yugoslavia. Tito's Yugoslavia. A museum has been created where this took place, but we found out about it after closing hours. Instead, we visited the small, but bright Ethnographic Museum. A television set up amongst costumes and ancient pottery showed a video about wedding rituals. Three vignettes played on loop, about Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox rituals, respectively.
At ANVOJ, Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed itself "neither Serbian nor
Croatian nor Muslim, but rather Serbian Croatian and Muslim" and
guaranteed brotherhood, freedom and equality for all three people. In
the next fifty years, Jajce's population reflected this sentiment, just
as its steepled and minaretted skyline does. Of course, the war
challenged this very principle and Jajce was placed in its familiar
wartime spotlight once more. Jajce changed hands many times and was bombarded by every side. The town's Serbian population fled, as did the Bosnian Muslims, neither group returned to the town in anything near their pre-war numbers. This young boy waved a Croatian flag as part of a long, honking wedding caravan. Each vehicle has at least one flag bearer, some hung full sized versions over the back window. This sort of nationalistic pride, which we've seen throughout the country (Banja Luka was covered in Serbian flags) is worrisome to some in Jajce. It's uncharacteristic of this town, a symptom of post-war divisions that aren't entirely mended yet.
"All war is stupid," that taxi driver had continued on. "But ours was the stupidest." The constant witness, Jajce's waterfalls, would undoubtedly agree. At some point during the fighting, a hydroelectric power plant up the river was attacked, which caused some major flooding. The falls were cut down by about a third of their size. Once 30 meters tall, they are now around 21. How sadly symbolic that the icon of this most Bosnian citizen, that had survived untouched through all that preceded, was truly hurt by the tragedy of its own people fighting each other. Still, it gushes and it is beautiful. It is visited by its fellow residents of Jajce every day. The town has a unique energy to it. After dark, the cafes overflow, though you won't necessarily hear bursts of laughter. The constant rush of water in the background goes with it so well. Maybe that's chicken and egg, though.
Since the conflict, international organizations have been helping to fund the restoration and renovation of Jajce's historic monuments. There are 24 protected national monuments in what's not a very large place. Above, the Esma Sultana Mosque sits (newly) pretty. This was once the most important mosque in the region but was destroyed - along with the town's Serbian Orthodox Church - during the war in the 90s. It's exterior has been redone, but the inside is still a work in progress. The first historic buildings to be worked on, of course, were those that make up that iconic waterfall panorama. That view is an icon, the "Mostar's Old Bridge" of Northwest Bosnia. To leave it in shambles would have felt too sad.
You don't get the sense that people see themselves as living in what could really become a museum town. Excavations don't take place here, even though accidental findings date back to Aneolithic times. The breakfast room of our hotel has a glass floor, beneath which are Roman ruins found during construction. Luckily, they didn't just cement over them. But one gets the feeling someone else may have. "The owner is Swiss," we were told by someone not associated with the hotel. As if that explained the very logical, thoughtful decision to keep the findings exposed to the public. Even the Mithras Temple, the most ancient jewel in Jajce's sightseeing crown, was discovered by accident during construction. It was found underground, hidden like all temples to this god are.
Now, it is in pieces, above ground, in a green tinted glass box by a condominium behind a Maxi supermarket. It's obviously in the process of being fixed up, completely moved from its original home to help stop the effects of moisture damage. A sign gives the estimated date of restoration completion as April of last year. Like a lot of things, this is probably a combination of a lack of funds and interest. Maybe Jajce just doesn't know what to do with their history anymore. Looking back at all of their amazing town's past may feel impossible without also seeing the events that took place between then and now. It is easier to look forward, to stroll by the waterfall and look out toward the future while the rest of us are taking little tours of their past.