The Heritage of Persian Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Iván Szántó (Eötvös Loránd Univ./Budapest)

Although Islam arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina through Ottoman mediation, the collections of the country’s museums and libraries show that these developments also resulted in these regions’ consequent integration into a wider Islamic cultural sphere. The number of visitors and immigrants from Iran in the Ottoman Empire was considerable; it was also not uncommon to find people of Iranian origin in important positions in the Ottoman administration of Bosnia. In addition to that, Ottoman institutions often had a Persian imprint as a result of continuing contacts between Ottoman Anatolia and Safavid Iran. Recitations in Sufi dervish lodges of the Mevlevi and Bektashi orders, for instance, were often sung in Persian. Many well-educated Bosnians were proficient in the Persian language, as was reported with much admiration by the seventeenth-century Ottoman traveller, Evliya Çelebi (whose own mastery of Persian is testified by an autograph graffiti he left inside the now-destroyed Aladža Mosque of Foča). So high was the prestige of this language that many local intellectuals felt compelled to study and compose Persian poetry or to write commentaries on Persian literature. Some of the finest elaborations on works by Classical Persian authors were written by Bosnian authors. Even today, their readership extends to places as far away from Bosnia as India. It should be noted, however, that Iranian-born migrants were not necessarily ethnic Persians; more often they were Turkic-speaking Azeris, such as Ulama Beg, who held various positions in Bosnia and the Balkans during the 1540s and 50s.

Military men were followed by artists. Tradition has it that Sarajevo’s mosque of Gazi Hüsrev Beg (completed in 1530/1), was built by Asir ‘Ali Ajami (a.k.a. Acem Alisi), a native of the then Iranian capital, Tabriz, who may have been captured by the Ottomans during one of their many victories over the Safavids. In terms of style, however, the mosque of Gazi Hüsrev Beg is a typical example of “classical” Ottoman architecture, displaying little or no Iranian characteristics. The library connected to Gazi Hüsrev Beg’s mosque, whose collection of Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, and Persian manuscripts has almost miraculously survived the destructions of the twentieth century, holds a large number of works by Iranian artists and authors. The overwhelming majority of these manuscripts was copied in the Ottomans’ European provinces – chiefly by Bosnians, regardless of the language in which they are written. There are a few examples of imported items, however, including a handful of Iranian-made manuscripts. Of particular interest is a Divan (Collected Poems) of the celebrated Persian poet, Hafiz, which is the only illustrated Persian manuscript found in Bosnia and Herzegovina today (inv. no. R-I-1366). While, unfortunately, the manuscript is neither dated nor signed, its four full-page paintings clearly point to an early-sixteenth century date of production. The paintings alone would not make this work an outstanding example of Persian book art, but the fact of its existence, importantly, proves the availability of fine Iranian manuscripts in Ottoman Bosnia. Its four illustrations loosely follow the contents of the two couplets above and below each respective painting: the first shows the famous lovers Leyli and Majnun in the desert; the second depicts Khusraw and Shirin, another famous couple; the third a polo game; while on the fourth a drinking scene is depicted in which the poet, Hafiz, himself also appears.

Islamic art continued to be collected in Bosnia in the later Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods. Curiously, many Persian artefacts were brought to the country by its new Austro-Hungarian masters. The material, which is discussed elsewhere by the present author (Iván Szántó, “Persian Art for the Balkans in Austro-Hungarian Cultural Policies,” in: Yuka Kadoi and Iván Szántó, eds.: The Shaping of Persian Art: Collections and Interpretations of the Art of Iran and Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Newcastle, 2012, 82-97), chiefly comprises metalwork preserved in the Zemaljski Muzej in Sarajevo. Though the bulk of these objects does not predate the nineteenth century, the collection includes artefacts from between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries from a vast region encompassing Anatolia, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Central Asia, and even India. The founders of the Zemaljski Muzej, Benjámin von Kállay and Ćiro Truhelka among them, envisioned a museum with a focus on history, archaeology, and ethnography, aiming to establish this institution as a springboard for a modern nation-state. This may explain the zeal with which Islamic objects – as opposed to European fine art – was given priority in the acquisition policy of the museum. Most of these vessels, caskets, lamp holders, incense burners, etc., were sent to Sarajevo from Vienna and Budapest, and some were even purchased in Central Asia exclusively for the museum. The collection is heterogeneous in quality, but a few highlights represent later Persian and Central Asian metal crafts at their best. These sets of kitchenware and other copper and brass utensils were intended as prototypes for modern copies to be produced by local craftsmen. While that project seems to not have gone beyond its experimental phase, the said metal objects still remain in the museum and enrich the diverse artistic heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For images from the Divan of Hafiz, click here and here. Examples of metal objects currently on display at the Zemaljski Muzej can be seen here, here, and here.


2 Responses to “The Heritage of Persian Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina”
  1. Meral says:

    I understand that you call it Iranian but please do not call it Persian, Tabriz is a city in Azerbaycan and Azerbaycan is just a place of Türks and do not forget that Safavid was a Turkic Empire not Persian. Their rulers spoke Turkish and they also ruled some Persian populated areas, it is pretty shameless to relate everything to Persians

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