The reason that Bosnia and Hercegovina is equally as complicated as it is beautiful is hard to explain, and I am the last person to claim that it can even be understood at all. Part of it, however, is how nationalities and religion are weirdly intertwined in the Balkans. Talking about a Croat means talking about someone who is Catholic, a Serb is someone who is orthodox, and a Bosniak is Muslim. A Bosnian Croat is a Catholic from Bosnia, and a Bosnian Serb is an Orthodox from Bosnia. Adding to the confusion quite a few of the people there are not even that religious. They grew up in Yugoslav communism and don’t identify much with their religious heritage that was to define their identity in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
Travelling in Bosnia and Hercegovina, however, the impact of religion on the country in its political and societal struggles is impossible to miss. At the same time, it is its multiethnic and multireligious history that founds its potential as a modern country that has an amazing amount of beauty to show. Today I want to talk about two places in Hercegovina that have significant spiritual meaning for Catholics and Muslims respectively, and that still are so fundamentally different from one another.
The first one is Međugorje, a small town that lives up to its name which means „between mountains“. It is set between the barren karst hills that turn the gorgeous green colour with thick forests only further North. About 30 years ago this was an insignificant village. Today it is the third largest pilgrimage site for Catholics in Europe.
In 1981, six teenagers witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the hills outside the village, and some of them have continued to have visions of her ever since – or so the story goes. Not much is known about the nature of the apparitions, and they aren’t recognized as a miracle by the Vatican, but that doesn’t stop pilgrims from coming here – thousands of them!
Međugorje has turned into a huge industry. There are souvenir shops upon souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, a huge sports centre, and a retail industry that might be unmatched elsewhere in the country. People who live here are wealthy, rents and land prices have skyrocketed. A highway is being built from Croatia where a lot of the pilgrims are coming from. But it is by far not restricted to the neighbouring countries. They are coming from all over the continent, if not all over the world, to walk up the now so-called Apparition Hill, to catch the tears from the weeping Jesus statue (another miracle, supposedly) and to visit services in the Cathedral.
Since there is so much commerce around, I have to say that Međugorje doesn’t feel like a very spiritual place to me. But I very much agree with Bata, my friend who has taught me so much about this country, who says, in a gist: „You don’t have to believe the miracle of the apparition. But 30 years ago there was absolutely nothing in this place, and look what it’s become. I’ll easily call that a miracle.“ Certainly the pilgrimage site illustrates how religious matters can influence the economy and thereby the politics of a region.
The second place I want to introduce to you is Blagaj. Not only does it hold the ruins of Stjepan grad, or the Blagaj fort, a medieval fortress that was seat to the dukes and counts of Hercegovina region – but also it is home to a beautiful Tekija. Tekija is the Bosnian term for what in Albania is usually called a Tekke or what is found on Wikipedia by the name Khanqah. It is a place for retreat and meditation of members of the Muslim Sufi Order.
As is the case with a Tekija traditionally, it is set in a place of natural beauty and power. The house is cuddled under the mighty hill that carries the fortress, right next to a cave in the cold stone. Out of this cave flows ther river Buna, shooting out with all its might. The place is called Vrelo Bune, source of the Buna, but the actual source is 19 km away somewhere deep inside the mountain. Satellites have been sent down there to find out about this after divers had unsuccessfully tried to find the source.
I love Blagaj. I have been there seven times in total now, and my favourite moments were when I had time to enter the Tekija, scarved up and wearing a long skirt, sit down and listen to the forceful sounds of the river and absolutely nothing else. There is a scent of peace in the air, a quiet feeling of content that settles right in my heart whenever I go. The beauty of the house, in- and outside, is of great simplicity. Not much is needed here. Just an honest and open heart to hear the spirits of the earth and skies, and the voices inside of oneself as they slowly calm down simultaneously with the body. Yes, Blagaj holds a very special place in my heart.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Međugorje is a bad place while Blagaj is wonderful. There are places sacred to Christianity in the world that really speak to me as well – not least in the Balkans! And Međugorje certainly has that feel, that indiscribable aura. It is just a lot more frequented and, as I said, commercialized which I find a bit unfortunate, but that is certainly a very personal thing. Both places are absolutely worth a visit, and both tell a lot about Hercegovina’s history and its situation today.
What are spiritual places you have visited? And how have they spoken to you?