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City of Mahalas

Baščaršija shops - Copyright © by Alan Grant

The area of Sarajevo has long been inhabited by man. Neolithic traces have been found and there is evidence of a large Roman settlement at Ilidža to the west of the city. At the time of the Ottoman conquest in the 1430s there were Catholics living in the area, feudal wards of the Serbian Orthodox Pavlović family. It was only in mid century that what was to become the city was founded. Its name is a Slavic contraction of the Turkish words saraj (court) and ovaši (field). "Like most Ottoman cities," writes Donia, "Sarajevo was divided into mahalas. Each mahala was typically home to members of only one religious community, and each was anchored by a house of worship, so the mahala system meant that, with some exceptions, residences were segregated by religion."

Visitors from abroad often commented upon the extraordinary beauty and rich vegetation of Sarajevo's mahalas. Evlija Čelebi, visiting in 1660, called Sarajevo "progressive, beautiful, and lively" and reported that "unlimited fresh water flows everywhere," making possible "numerous gardens that look like rose gardens or enclosed paradise gardens." Most private residences were inward-oriented, with a large outer gate leading to an inner courtyard that often included a central fountain, fruit trees, and a vegetable garden. Fruits, vegetables, and flowers grew in the spacious area between residences. Water was readily available, either at one of over two hundred public fountains or from a host of fountains in local mosques or residences. Residence were built to accommodate gender segregation.

The largest non-Muslim mahala was inhabited primarily by Catholics from Dubrovnik who were either craftsmen in the building trades or representatives of Dubrovnik's commercial interests. The Latin Quarter, distinguished by a small Catholic church, contained sixty-six houses in the mid-1500s. By the end of the century, some native Sarajevo Catholics and representatives from other mercantile cities also lived there. An Orthodox mahala, established about a hundred metres from the city's eastern end, was anchored by a Serbian Orthodox church built sometime between 1520 and 1539. The church still stands, albeit with substantial modifications that have enlarged the structure over the years.

The city's fourth group - until their destruction in 1941 - were Sarajevo's Jews.


Sarajevo: A Biography. 2005. Robert Donia [C. Hurst & Co]

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