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A shrine to Muslims and Catholics, Fojnica is also famed for its homemade spirits as well as its spiritual life. What a pity so few tourists are there to try the combination.
|Fojnica landscape. | Photo by Nemanja Cabric|
Few travellers these days come to Fojnica in Bosnia to enjoy the thermal spa or the country food and fresh air – so few that tourism here could hardly be called a flourishing industry.
But those who come will be rewarded with interesting sights, starting with the contrasting views of colourful statues of Jesus and Mary, carved in rock, and the soaring minarets of the local mosques.
Two buildings that have dominated the sleepy town for centuries, the Franciscan Priory of the Holy Spirit and the Carsijska dzamija mosque, illustrate the dual religious heritage of Fojnica as a place important to both Muslims and Catholics. The two shrines are not just religious centres for nearby people. They are also the focal points of interest for all those coming to the Fojnica region.
Brother Nikica Vujica and Mensur Effendi Pasalic, leaders of two biggest religious communities in Fojnica, besides caring for their flocks, also try to contribute to the development of tourism, which offers locals in Fojnica one of their principal hopes of economic salvation.
“Allah made us from one mother and father and brought us into this world to get to know each other and respect each other,” Pasalic says, pointing a finger towards the Koran standing in the mosque window frame.
High on Kriz hill, meanwhile, the friars are battling to save both the Muslim and the Catholic heritage of Fojnica by opening a new museum. But they have yet to obtain any state aid for the project. They need money to appoint some professional staff to deal with tourists.
“In Bosnia and Herzegovina, like everywhere else in the region, the connection between politics and religion is too strong. When it weakens, we will have the chance to live peacefully,” Fra Vujica says.
The Dubrovnik connection:
|Brother Nikica Vujica, besides caring for his flock, also tries to contribute to the development of tourism. | Photo by Nemanja Cabric|
Fojnica’s connections to Catholic Dalmatia date back many centuries. Merchants from Dubrovnik moved to Fojnica in the 14th century, lured by reports of rich deposits of gold, silver, bronze and iron. Along with them came the first friars.
By the time the Ottomans conquered Bosnia in 1463, the Catholics had founded some 35 priories in Central Bosnia. Only three survive, at Fojnica, Kresevo and Kraljeva Sutjeska.
For the fact that the monastery is still there on Kriz hill, from where it towers over the faithful, pilgrims have to thank an important event in the village of Milodraz in Kiseljak municipality that same year.
Fearful on behalf of the Catholic people in Bosnia and keen to protect them from the fury of the Ottoman invaders, the then leader of the Bosnian friars, Fra Anđeo Zvizdovic, knelt before Sultan Mehmet and begged him to spare his co-religionists.
Responding to the request, the Sultan mantled the friar and gave him the famous ahdnama, by which he swore by Allah, Muhammad and his sable that the friars would have the right to live, maintain their honour, keep their property and continue to communicate with the Holy See in Rome.
The ahdnama is deemed a great instance of religious tolerance between Catholics and Muslims in an age not known for its tolerance. Sadly, it perished in a fire in the 17th century, when the archives of Bosnia’s kings, the Franciscan province, and the priory, went up in flames.
Today’s ahdnama is considered an accurate transcript of the original, though the procedure of detecting its date is still in progress so its exact origin is unknown.
Guarding Bosnia’s past:
“Allah made us from one mother and father and brought us into this world to get to know each other and respect each other,” says Mensur Effendi Pasalic. | Photo by Nemanja Cabric
The priory complex consists of a church, museum, and a convent. The church gained its current appearance in 1888. The old convent was a ruin by 2000, so a museum was constructed in its place while the friars then got a new home.
The museum consists of several exhibition spaces on three levels, along with a library. It holds important objects from Bosnia’s cultural, religious and everyday past.
Treasures include national dress, liturgical objects made by medieval craftsmen, mining tools, minerals, jewellery, and other objects connected to the lives of the friars.
There are also paintings from various periods, some from famous artists and of value.
The coin collection is one of the richest in the Balkans and includes coins from Philip of Macedonia’s era to modern times. Sadly, the collection is not on display because they lack the money to sort it out and exhibit it.
The archive also includes a rich collection of documents written in Arabic and Bosancica the medieval Bosnian script, as well as ancient charts and maps.
A circular gallery in the museum houses the oldest armorial in the Balkans, apparently composed from the 14th century but, in the view of scientists, probably dating from the 17th century, an early product of the pan-Slavic (later Illyrian) movement.
The exhibition contains 139 coats of arms, ten of which belong to medieval realms of the region: Macedonia, Illyria, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Rascia – as Serbia was sometimes called in the past. The last is “Primordia”, supposed to represent the lands on what is now the Bosnian coast.
Fra Vujica recalls that Macedonian and Bulgarian government delegations both came to take a look at the coats of arms.
“When I showed the Bulgarian delegation that the Macedonian alms had a crown while the Bulgarian doesn’t, they didn’t look too happy,” he laughs. (Bulgarian nationalists traditionally claim Macedonia is part of their own patrimony - not the other way round.)
The museum is much visited by scholars and students researching on topics like traditional medicines, which were much used here by female healers known as ljekaruse.
“The priory has existed for more than 650 years,” Fra Vujica concludes.
“We have been here at this site for more than 500, before which the Priory was at a place called Pazarice... Through all this time the friars have tried to preserve what they can.”
Rich Muslim heritage, too:
|Detail from Fojnica museum. | Photo by Nemanja Cabric|
The Chief Imam of Fojnica says the priory church is very interesting to him because of its copy of the ahdnama and because of the museum collection.
“It represents true value and I’m glad they’ve kept alive the memory of Bosnia and Herzegovina for so long,” he says.
Fojnica’s mosques have no such attraction for tourists in terms of icons, statues, or anything with an artistic value, of course.
“In Islam the intent is to have visual modesty, while working on our inner richness. It’s up to individual how much can he achieve in doing so,” Pasalic says, pointing to the white empty walls of the mosque and the few objects inside.
The Carsijska dzamija mosque, he adds, contains only verses from the Koran, a green flag with a white star and crescent and a mihrab, from which the cleric leads prayers.
“Both East and the West belong to the dear God, and wherever you turn, God is there,“ he translates from the wall.
However, Pasalic says that Muslim spiritual centres called tekija could be of greater interest to visitors because they present the concept of Islamic love of nature, and their spiritual teachers, called sejh are “specific, interesting people… they always live in beautiful places. It is something we could call Islamic hedonism. Enjoyment in life.
“We have two tekijas on two hills, Vukelici and Oglavak,” he adds. “Both have wonderful views and people have held religious meditations there from long ago.
“Once there were exotic dervishes who used even to stab themselves, but luckily that was forbidden by the Islamic Community in 1984,” Pasalic explains.
Besides the Carsijska Dzamija mosque, founded in 1666, whose modern appearance dates from the late 20th century, there is the small but significant Atik mosque, founded in 1551, which contains some rare editions of the Koran. It is also, unusually, called the “Maiden mosque”.
This is because, according to legend, three sisters in their later years, after failing to get prince charmings, sold off the robes prepared for their weddings to finish the mosque.
Turning back to the guiding principles of Islam, the Chief Imam says that being a good Muslim means believing in one God, praying five times a day, fasting daily, giving charity and performing pilgrimage.
“We have a very demanding fast because it lasts from dawn to sunset and forbids all attractive things – food, drink and bodily pleasures,” Pasalic concludes.
Ivanka Milicic from the village of Ragale for 15 years has run a small production line in domestic cheese. | Photo by Nemanja Cabric
Non-Muslims coming to Fojnica are unlikely to feel tempted by fasting, not least because the area is famed for homemade food and excellent rakija brandy.
Many women in Fojnica make delicious fruit liquors, while their cakes are a tale in itself. Among the best traditional dishes are maglice, a kind of pasta soaked in milk, and keske, a dish made of chicken and grain.
Some households sell their products to visitors and will send them by post if need be.
One is Ivanka Milicic from the village of Ragale, who for 15 years has run a small production line in domestic cheese, whose recipes she constantly upgrades by attending seminars and workshops.
“I always had the same cause over the years, to legally protect my products. My mother made this cheese and I simply continued it,” she says. “I make full-fat smoked cheese, and a full-fat smoked cheese in olive oil with herbs”.
For a decent price, visitors can stay in some of these households and get to know the life and cooking of the locals, using them as a starting place for hiking tours on the many paths that wind through the municipality.
The whole area offers magnificent landscapes and the high altitudes are suitable for winter sports, while summer visitors can enjoy horse riding, mountain biking, hiking along tracks, some of which are 33 kilometres long, and bird watching. Other attractions are the gold mine in Bakovici, Prokosko Lake, and the Kozica waterfalls.
Fojnica is yet to become a tourist hotspot. Pieces of the puzzle are still being fitted in here and there. When every detail finds its place it will be a fine destination for travellers, scholars, medicinal tourists, and sportsman alike - a place where both body and spirit can meet, relax and grow.
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