Green hills and minarets: Why Bosnia and Herzegovina is a draw for Gulf tourists


“Yanni, it is cheap! The weather is cool but most importantly, it’s very, very Muslim-friendly. My family feels very comfortable here. Not like some other European destinations.” In a few sentences, Abdul Malik (not his real name) summed up why Bosnia and Herzegovina has quietly become one of Europe’s most appealing destination for Gulf tourists.
Abdul Malik and I are sitting having a meal overlooking Sarajevo’s Bascarsija Square, which is where the old town bazaar begins. We are both eating a national dish, “cevapi,” which is a Bosnian take on the humble kebab. It’s a chilly Balkan evening, and I have my jacket zipped up but Abdul Malik doesn’t; he says he has come here for the cool evenings. Each cevapi has cost us around five Bosnian marks, the equivalent of ten Saudi riyals, which will go further here than anywhere else in western Europe.
In front of us in the dim light of late-night tourist shops and cafes, Arab children chase plump pigeons around the Ottoman-era “Sebilj,” or fountain, where once upon a time a man sat pouring water for weary travelers. Today, the man has been replaced by two beautiful brass taps that flow into stone troughs; the travelers these days are less weary, and more wealthy — with many Arabs from the Gulf.
The steps around the Sebilj are popular with teenagers who pose for selfies with their smartphones. The ornately carved, wooden Sebilj — the symbol of Sarajevo — makes a good setting. There will be quite a few Instagram shots with #sebilj floating around the Gulf cyber-world tonight.
Mosques, halal food
Close your eyes in the center of this European capital during the summer months, and you are just as likely to hear Arabic as you are a Balkan or European language. That is the result of the growing popularity of Bosnia and Herzegovina among Gulf tourists.
In 2010, Sarajevo recorded approximately 1,000 tourists from the Gulf. These days the figure is closer to 60,000.
Lejla Brckalija from the Tourism Association of Sarajevo Canton believes the primary appeal is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Muslim-friendliness.
“The culture of Bosnia and Herzegovina is more comfortable for Muslim tourists. We don’t have to prepare too much for them. We already have mosques, ablution facilities and halal food.”
“The tourists also like the country’s Muslim history. There are lots of heritage tours that go to cities such as Mostar and include the Islamic history of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she says.
The land was under Ottoman rule for almost four hundred years, from the fifteenth century long before communism arrived. Then there was a period of Austro-Hungarian rule, but it was Muslim rule that left the most indelible mark on the Balkan nation, which is famous for its beautiful green mountainous countryside.
Take a short drive out of Sarajevo and within minutes, you will find yourself surrounded by green rolling hills. Pencil-thin minarets peer out from thick woodland while far below, beautiful blue water flows in torrents along the valley floor. This is a country made for skiing in winter and for water sports in summer.
Figures from Muslim history
The centuries of Ottoman rule have left behind a huge Islamic heritage for Muslim travelers to explore. In Sarajevo there is the Gazi Husrev Beg complex, which contains the city’s grandest mosque — one of the finest examples of Ottoman mosque architecture in the country.
The Muwaqqithana — clock tower — is one of Europe’s earliest public toilets and is still open today, along with the Kurshumli Madrasa, now a museum. All of these, along with other monuments around the city, were constructed in the 16th century by Gazi Husrev Beg, the Sanjak-beg (local governor) of the region for the Ottoman Empire.
Gazi Husrev Beg is just one of many figures that make up Bosnia’s proud Muslim heritage.
“Bosnians gave the Ottoman Empire at least seventeen Grand Viziers. Some people say more. Medieval Bosnia was a rich source of strong, diplomatic leaders, and almost all of these left a legacy somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” explains Adil Okic, a curator at the Gazi Husrev Beg complex in Sarajevo.
He is right, for scattered all over this beautiful nation are ancient monuments built by significant figures from Muslim history, such as the stunning stone bridge spanning the river Drina in Visegrad, just east of Sarajevo and close to the Serbian border.
This 11-arched, classic piece of Ottoman architecture was built by none other than Mimar Sinan, the most famous of all Muslim architects. The bridge is one of three sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The other two are the Mostar Bridge and the Stecaks, medieval tombstones near Kakanj.
Just north of Visegrad is yet another place of important Muslim history, albeit a modern and darker one. Srebrenica’s Genocide Memorial honors the victims of the Srebrenica Genocide, which occurred in July 1995 when more than 8,000 Muslims were murdered in the town.
Revival in Islamic education
What makes traveling to such places so easy for a Muslim tourist in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that almost everywhere you go, you find Muslims, halal food, prayer facilities and increasingly, someone who speaks Arabic. At the same time, Bosnia is also experiencing a revival in Islamic education.
“More and more young people are graduating in Islamic studies here now and more people are giving their children an Islamic education. People are once again learning Arabic,” explains Hafiz Kenan of The Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo.
The faculty is housed in a stunning neo-Moorish building close to Bascarsija Square where the Sebilj stands, proudly reminding Bosnians of how their city and nation has always served travelers.
It is a custom they are determined to continue.