Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: Saving Illuminated Manuscripts During the War

This is the seventh part in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.


An historic diplomatic house in the central Bosnian town of Travnik, where the Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić was born and where he set The Days of the Consuls, which contributed to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

In Sarajevo, I spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the Gazi Husrev-beg Library which dates to the sixteenth century, if not before. It is the oldest library in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and at this point the richest, as in recent years the government of Qatar has granted millions to its governing foundation so that it could build a modern library where before there were simply shelves in a madrasa.

Sadly, the National and University Library (which I love) is housed in a building that might, in many cities, be considered run-down public housing. Nor in the battle for hearts and minds are any Western European countries or the United States interested in giving Bosnia-Herzegovina a state-of-the-art library.

By contrast, the Gazi Husrev-beg Library sparkles with modern shelving, new rooms for scholars and conferences, computerized stacks, and a museum gallery space off the lobby where some of the illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages—many pre-dating Gutenberg—are on display.

In the last five hundred years numerous invaluable manuscripts—many done by hand on gold-embossed paper and hand-sewn into ornate leather bindings—ended up at the madrasa library, which now has one of the great collections of Islamic manuscripts in the world.

A Traveling Exhibition of Illuminated Manuscripts

I began my visit in the office of the library’s director, Mr. Osman Lavić, who assembled his senior staff to welcome me and tell me more about the library’s operations.

We drank tea and coffee, spoke about books and libraries, and then I was taken on tour, which included a visit to the restoration department, where the staff was laboring over pages and bindings that were more than five hundred years old.

On the walk, Director Lavić told me about the plans underway to take some of the illuminated manuscripts on a world tour—to Spain, the Middle East, Europe, and North America—and as we walked amongst the shelves and the glass cabinets, I tried to think of libraries in the United States and elsewhere that might welcome such a temporary exhibition.

I thought of the Morgan Library in New York and the Boston Public Library, if not the Library of Congress, but then I wondered if such a roving exhibition might suffer from anti-Islamic sentiments in our reactionary times.

Saving Books From the Civil Wars

During much of the walk-around with the director and his staff, we talked about how the Gazi Husrev-beg had survived the war years, as it is not far from where the National Library had burned, incinerating some two million volumes.

The new library has several outdoor terraces for conferences and receptions, and from several of these perches I was shown where, during the siege of Sarajevo, members of the library staff stored some of their most valuable manuscripts.

At first the books were taken to lower floors in the library, and later across the river to a madrasa school. Finally, some of the rarest books were locked into the vaults of a local bank. In this way, nearly every book from the library’s priceless collection was saved.

The Brave Librarians of Sarajevo

In the library museum, which has glass cabinets full of illuminated books from the Ottoman Empire and the Caucasus, as well as many from Bosnia’s medieval kingdom, I was told about a film that Al Jazeera produced about the saving of the Gazi Husrev-beg collection, entitled: “The Love of Books: The Brave Librarians of Sarajevo.” Director Lavić (then a young librarian on the staff) is one of the stars.

I watched the full film when I got home. Using both original footage from war-torn Sarajevo and some re-created scenes with actors, it tells how the library staff managed to save the collection. Middle-aged librarians are shown hunched over with books in hand, dodging bullets and bombs as they painstakingly carry thousands of books out of Sarajevo’s cauldron.

The film ends with all but one book accounted for—and it was found in the apartment of a scholar who fled her home and research during the war and who came back to find her apartment ransacked.

At the end of the film we see her sifting through the rubble as she comes upon an early history of Bosnia that the library had allowed her take home just before the war started. That history of Bosnia became the last piece in the Gazi Husrev-beg puzzle to be put back in place.

Ivo Andrić Comes of Age

On the walk through the Gazi Husrev-beg Library, I spoke with one of the librarians about my affection for the novels of Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslav writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.

Today, he’s best known for his novel The Bridge on the Drina, which I had in mind when my narrow-gauge train crossed eastern Bosnia and passed close to the arches of the bridge at Visegrad. The bridge had been a symbol of multiculturalism in Bosnia until it crashed into the river after the Austrians invaded Serbia in 1914.

I asked the librarian whether she thought of Andrić as a Serb, Croat, or Bosnian, and her answer—that he is best considered as a Yugoslav—matched my own impressions.

Andrić was born in the Bosnian town of Travnik in 1892 (making him ten years younger than my grandfather). His parents were Croatian Catholics, but they sent him to high school at the gymnasium in Sarajevo (an Austrian structure that was near to my Airbnb).

One of his classmates was the future assassin, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb who was also born and grew up in rural Bosnia, in Obljaj, not far from Knin.

The best recent account of Princip is Tim Butcher’s The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, in which Butcher literally walks from Princip’s village across Bosnia to Sarajevo, to make the point that the assassin was more a Yugoslav than a Serb nationalist.

An Early Yugoslav

Like Princip, Andrić was an early believer in the union of the South Slavs (Yugoslavia means just that—the land of the South Slavs), and after the 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke, he was briefly detained but never charged with any crime. It is doubtful that he knew Princip well, if at all. It was a large school, and they were not in the same year.

For university and eventually his Ph.D., Andrić studied in Zagreb and then the Austrian city of Graz, both indicators that at that time he self-identified as Croatian.

In the 1920s and 30s, while hoping to earn his living as a writer, Andrić served in the diplomatic corps of what was first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1929 it became Yugoslavia. His diplomatic postings included Graz (where he was finishing his thesis), Marseille, Madrid, and Paris.

Yugoslavia died—for the first time—in 1941, when Nazi Germany bombed Belgrade on Easter Sunday (April 6) and invaded the country. Out of work as a diplomat and unable to publish his stories or novels, Andrić spent the war years living a subsistence life in a cold Belgrade apartment, where he completed early drafts of his great novels, The Bridge on the Drina and The Days of the Consuls, both of which are set in his native Bosnia.

During the war, he expressed sympathy with both Tito’s partisans and the followers (known as Chetniks) of Draža Mihailović, a Serb royalist, although he never served with either resistance army.

After the war, he was elected president of the Yugoslav writers union, served in Tito’s parliament, and won acclaim for his novels, which were translated into numerous languages. In many ways, he was the perfect ambassador for Yugoslavia’s multiculturalism, someone who had roots in Croatian, Muslim, and Serbian communities, and who felt comfortable in all three.

Andrić died in 1975, perhaps the high-water mark of Yugoslavia’s place in the world, when it was at the center of the non-aligned movement, neither East nor West, but a bridge between the two superpowers. That would change in the decade after Tito died in 1980, when the center did not hold, and things fell apart.

The Days of the Consuls

Walking around the library, I told the librarian that as much as I admire The Bridge on the Drina, my favorite Andrić novel is The Days of Consuls, which in some translated editions is called Bosnian Chronicle or Bosnian Story.

The novel is set in 1807-1814 Travnik (about 90 minutes by car from Sarajevo), where Andrić was born in 1892 and where during the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century the French and Austrians sent diplomats to an outpost of the Ottoman empire.

Andrić describes the origins of the title in this passage: “There was a saying among the people that ‘trade moved across Bosnia,’ and Napoleon himself was alleged to have said somewhere, ‘The time for diplomats is over, these are the Times of the Consuls.’”

Very little in terms of dramatic action takes place in The Days of Consuls, which follows the interlocking lives of several imperial diplomats posted to a Balkan backwater. At the same time—as in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain—Travnik becomes a perfect microcosm for understanding the European fault lines that are shifting because of Napoleon’s armies, Austrian imperialism, local nationalism, and Ottoman decline.

Andrić writes: “The consular era had brought ferment and unrest to this provincial capital. The immediate and indirect effects of it were that many men rose and many stumbled and fell; many would remember it for the better, others for the worse.”

The Shadow of Sarajevo

On my tour, the librarian was surprised that I was so familiar with the works of Ivo Andrić. She explained that during the civil war, he and some of his books came in for reproach, especially among Muslims in Bosnia, who associated him with some of the excessive views of Bosnian Serbs. But she was interested to hear how I had discovered him. It allowed me to tell the story of my father’s library in the house where I grew up outside New York City.

On the shelves, there were several Andrić’s novels and several collections of his short stories and essays. I am guessing now that over the years Yugoslav relatives had mailed the books to us. I think it’s also possible that my grandfather had purchased them and given them to my father (although my grandfather would have read Andrić in Serbo-Croatian).

In any case, the books were on our shelves, and whenever talk in our house turned to the Turkish occupation of the Balkans or something similar, one of my parents would gesture toward the Andrić books, as if to say that if I wanted to know more about the Austrian annexation of Bosnia or the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, I could do worse than to start there. But it was only after my 2019 trip to Sarajevo that I made it through The Days of the Consuls, in which I found this passage about the heavy-handedness of Turkish rule:

The Vizier’s talk, the aroma of coffee, and the smell of pipes were pleasant and soothing, even if they could not altogether erase the earlier sickening impressions. The Vizier tactfully alluded to the backwardness of the land and to the coarse and boorish manners of the people. It was a difficult country and the natives were a problem. What could one expect of women and children, creatures on whom God had not lavished much reason, in a country where even the men were irresponsible louts? Nothing these people did or said could have any significance or importance or any effect on the affairs of serious and enlightened persons. The dog barks but the caravan moves on, said the Vizier in conclusion…

If ever there was a sentence written to delight my parents, it would be: “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” Then there is this passage about Bosnia’s ungovernability:

Desfosses [the French consul] didn’t hide his amazement at the obstinate way in which not only the Moslems but the Bosnians of all faiths resisted every influence, even the best, every novelty and sign of progress that was eminently feasible in the present circumstances and which depended on them alone. He pointed out the laming effect of such Chinese rigidity, such withdrawal from life at large. “How could this land possibly settle down and evolve some kind of order,” he queried, “and become at least as civilized as its nearest neighbors, when its people are more divided than any in Europe? There are four different religions existing side by side on this narrow, mountainous, and barren strip of land. Each one is exclusive and rigidly separated from the other three. All of you live under one sky and by the same earth, yet each one of the four groups claims a spiritual home in the remote world outside, in Rome, in Moscow, in Istanbul, in Mecca, in Jerusalem, and God knows where else—but not in the place where they are born and die. And each one believes that its own progress and welfare cannot be achieved without harming and setting back the other three communities, and, conversely, that the other three can only advance at its own expense. And each one has made intolerance the highest virtue and looks for its salvation to the outside world, each from a different direction.”

These words might well have been written about Bosnia in 1807 – 1814, but they ring true today.

Next installment: Martin Bell’s Bosnian war.

Earlier pieces in this series can be read here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.