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History of Sarajevo

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The Ancient Times

The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, is a noisy, motley, and both eastern and western city. It is located on the north bank of river Miljacka in a valley between mountains. The narrow streets of the old town are framed by the traditional Bosnian houses with red-tiled roofs. Many minarets tower on city streets, while majestic green slopes of the Dinaric Alps can be seen in the background. Cities with such a marvelous heritage, beauty, and magnificent architecture must have a long and eventful history, and Sarajevo is certainly among them. The history of Sarajevo starts with ancient times, then passes through the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and the Siege of Sarajevo; and it proceeds till now.

The oldest population of Sarajevo was, probably, the Neanderthals, who lived there in the Middle Paleolithic. Modern humans replaced them in the Upper Paleolithic. Then, the representatives of the Butmir culture in the third millennium BC were the first who left some mark on the history of the Sarajevo region. This culture is most famous for its ceramics with spiral decorations and realistic sculptures of people.

During the Bronze Age, the Illyrian tribes started to organize themselves on the territory of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Illyrian tribe Daesitates, a warlike group to be the last to fall under Roman control, inhabited the Sarajevo region (Hammond, 2011). Since the 3rd century BC, the Romans started to conquer the Balkans. They created two provinces on the territory of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, namely Illyricum and Dalmatia. Sarajevo region was included in the second one. In the 3rd century AD, Christianity penetrated into the Illyrian provinces of the empire (Hammond, 2011). After the division of the Roman Empire in 395, the border between the Western and Eastern Roman Empire has passed along the river Drina, which is very close to Sarajevo (Hammond, 2011). Some people of the Sarajevo region had found themselves under the political and cultural influence of the Byzantine Empire, while others were under the influence of the Catholic West. This division had far-reaching consequences for Sarajevo.

The Ottoman Empire

As a settlement, Sarajevo was founded in about 1461 under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which conquered those lands in 1429 (Tracy, 2016). At this time, the population that was mixed in religious terms, namely Orthodox and Catholics, inhabited the Sarajevo area. According to the Ottoman census of 1455, there were other villages in the Sarajevo region (Tracy, 2016). Isa-Beg Ishakovi? is considered to be the founder of the city. He became the pasha of the Bosnian pashalik with the center in the newly formed Sarajevo (Tracy, 2016). At that time, people of Sarajevo built a fort on the hill in the upper reaches of Miljacka and shopping area, bazaar, the center of which was Ba??ar?ija on the right bank of the river. Emperor’s Mosque and the palace of the pasha were located on the left bank. Also, there were built a mosque, a public bath, and a coaching inn.

The 16th century was the golden age of Sarajevo. At the beginning of the century, Sarajevo was granted city status under the leadership of Gazi Husrev-beg. His leadership was marked by the construction of the library, madrassa, and also the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, which remained the largest mosque in the whole Bosnia even in the 20th century. By the end of the 16th century, Sarajevo became the third city of the Ottoman Empire in Europe after Thessalonica and Edirne in terms of population.

During the Great Turkish War, the Austrian army burned much of the city, taking dozens of thousands of citizens as prisoners. Sarajevo went into a decline, the administrative center of Bosnia moved from Sarajevo to Travnik, and the city’s population could not return to previous levels until the 20th century.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire

On August 19, 1878, Austrian troops occupied Sarajevo after 8-hour battles with Turkish troops and militias from among the local Muslims (Hall, 2014). The city remained the administrative center of Bosnia and Herzegovina under the occupation of Austria-Hungary. In the period from 1878 to 1910, the city’s population has doubled, mainly due to the Catholics who were appointed to public office and engaged in trade and services (Hall, 2014). According to the census of 1910, the population of Sarajevo consisted of 36% Muslims, 34% Catholic, 16% Orthodox, and 12% of the Jews; 32% of citizens were immigrants from the Habsburg Empire (Hall, 2014).

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In 1908, the Sarajevo authorities gladly accepted the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Hall, 2014). On June 28, 1914, there was a famous Sarajevo assassination of the Austrian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Hall, 2014). The murder was the reason why World War I started and led to two days of anti-Serb riots in Sarajevo.


When the war began, the representatives of the Slavic nationalistic movements called for the independence and unification of the South Slavic nationalities. This gave rise to the emergence of Yugoslavia in 1918 (Merdzanovic, 2015). Sarajevo was poorer than the other major cities in Yugoslavia. According to data obtained in 1938, the budget was three times less than in Belgrade, Zagreb, or Ljubljana (Hall, 2014).

World War II came to Sarajevo on April 6, 1941, when the Germans bombed the city (Hall, 2014). The Italians continued bombardments on the 12th and 13th of April (Hall, 2014). It turned out that Sarajevo was in the German occupation zone. In 1943-1944, Sarajevo was bombed by the Anglo-American forces (Hall, 2014). It is estimated that 10961 citizens of Sarajevo died from violence during the war, including 7092 Jews, 1427, Serbs, 412 Muslims, and 106 Croats (Hall, 2014). From March 28 to April 10, 1945, the Yugoslav army fought for the city and freed it defeating the forces of German mountain corps (Hall, 2014). After that, hundreds of streets got new names. In particular, the main street was renamed to Marshal Tito Street.

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In 1945, Sarajevo became the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Hall, 2014). Then, Sarajevo hosted the XIV Winter Olympic Games (Hall, 2014). Since 1989, the city began to experience the onset of the economic crisis and the rising of the ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia (Hall, 2014).

The Siege of Sarajevo

On March 1, 1992, the Muslims shot Serbian wedding in the center of Sarajevo during the referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serbs in the city began to erect barricades (Hall, 2014). On April 6, 1992, six people were killed during a peaceful demonstration and more than a dozen were wounded (Hall, 2014). The Bosnian War broke out, and Bosnian Serb forces besieged the city. Many Serbs fled from Sarajevo during the first months of the war. On May 16, 1992, the detachment under the command of the army of Bosnian Muslims killed Serb residents in Pofali?i, Sarajevo area (Hall, 2014). From 150 up to several thousands of Serb civilians were killed during the war by armed Muslims and Croats (Hall, 2014). In June 1992, the airport that carried humanitarian aid was taken under control of UN peacekeepers, while the army of the Bosnian Muslims controlled most of the city (Hall, 2014). Sarajevo citizens suffered from water and food shortages.

1995 Dayton agreement ended the war (Hall, 2014). Between 1991 and 1998, the number of Muslims in Sarajevo has increased from 252 thousand to 304 thousand people, the number of Croats decreased from 35 thousand to 21 thousand, the Serbs fell from 157 thousand to 18 thousand (Hall, 2014). The city was restored in subsequent years.

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Present Sarajevo

In February 2014, there were riots in Sarajevo that ended with clashes with police due to the difficult economic situation in the country (Dzidic, 2014). At the present time, the city is safe and sound. However, as The Guardian’s journalist and photographer Chris Leslie pointed out that “The capital puts on a brave and bold cosmopolitan face for the international community and tourists – but beneath the surface nationalism, corruption and mismanagement plague civic life, while people from all backgrounds struggle to make a basic living” (Leslie, 2015).


Sarajevo has a long history full of dramatic events. For most of its recorded history, Sarajevo was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Then, Sarajevo was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century and Yugoslavia in the 20th century. At the end of the 20th century, the Bosnian War broke out between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosnians. The siege of Sarajevo was the beginning of the brutal civil war. Today, 20 years after that deadliest conflict, the streets of Sarajevo are calm and peaceful, but the city is nevertheless in adverse economic condition.

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