Some people are good at spotting celebrities; others are good at spotting bargains. Me? I can spot a cemetery from miles away. And in a city I’ve never been to, wandering through a local cemetery is high of my list of things to do. Walking alongside the Miljacka River in Sarajevo, surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, I happened to glance up and spot the Alifakovac Cemetery high on the hillside, nestled amidst the houses of Stari Grad. When I tried to find out more about it, I discovered that the neighbouring houses, built long after the cemetery itself first opened its grounds, were built in a way that wouldn’t block each other’s view and sunlight. Those city planners should clone themselves and outsource their talent to the rest of the world.
This Moslem cemetery dates back to the 15th century and is known for its Ottoman Turbe (or dome-like tombstones posted on four pillars). Here, many respected citizens lie beside travellers. The cemetery is also a Musafirsko cemetery (from the Turkish word Musafir or traveller) where visitors who die while visiting the city are buried. There’s no such thing as shipping bodies home. Because of the rules about a quick burial, it’s traditional to bury a Muslim where they die.
The stark white tombstones brought to mind a military graveyard, like the one at St Avold in France. The clean lines and lack of ornamentation that is so visible in Christian and Jewish cemeteries I’ve visited gave this cemetery a different feel. Cars drive through but yet as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to wander and I wondered briefly how much clambering would have to be done to get to a particular grave. And do people actually ever visit?
There was a marked absence of flowers and candles and the other accoutrements that adorn Christian burial sites. I found this strangely relaxing. Unlike the cemetery in Zagreb, where many of Croatia’s famous sculptors have their work still on show, Alifakovac Cemetery has few monuments of note. Simple inscriptions mark narrow white pillars. Bodies are interred on their right side, facing Mecca, preferably not inside a coffin. I was curious to know more, so I Googled and found this:
There is some debate about whether women can visit the grave of a loved one to remember him. While some Muslims say that this is forbidden, others think it’s OK to occasionally visit the grave site to remember the deceased and meditate on mortality.
There was no one at the cemetery the day I visited. No one but me.
Down in the old town, nestled between cafés and restaurants lies another cemetery. It seemed strange to sit and drink a coffee within reach of a headstone but I was the only one who appeared to be remotely bothered. I found this juxtapositioning of life and death a little disturbing and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was a lack of reverence for the dead. Or the complete, unquestioned acceptance of the role of death in life. Or simply the incongruity of the tombstones and the canopies.
In the grounds of the Vekil Harč Mustafa mosque are more tombstones. A few weeks ago, during a visit to Ráckeve in Hungary, I came across Prince Eugene of Savoy. And here, in Sarajevo, I found him again. Following his campaign in 1679, a great fire swept through Sarajevo and this mosque was damaged, but quickly repaired. The tombstones we see here are known as nišan tombstones.
Sarajevo seems to be at home with death. Perhaps its tumultuous history has a lot to do with this acceptance. As for me – I’m torn between the Muslim simplicity and the monuments favoured by Christians and Jews.