The Bridge on the Drina

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Visegrad-bridge-1900.jpg
The bridge on the Drina (around 1890)

The Bridge on the Drina (orig. Na Drini Ćuprija or На Дрини Ћуприја in Serbian Cyrillic) is a novel written by Ivo Andrić, who was rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 1961.

This book describes the relations between Serbs and Muslims during the occupation by the Ottoman Empire.

The novel gives a historic overview of relations among people in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is recommended reading for anyone who would like to understand the former Yugoslavia.

The story lasts about four centuries and is in some sense a collection of short stories. What unites the book and becomes in a sense the main "character" is the bridge over the Drina in Višegrad, now eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska.

Almost at the beginning of the book Andrić focuses on a small boy taken from his mother as part of the levy from christian subjects of the Sultan. Andrić describes how the mothers of these children followed their sons wailing until they reach a river where the children are taken across by ferry and the mothers can no longer follow. That child, becomes a muslim and taking a Turkish name (Mehmed, later Mehmed pasha Sokolović) is promoted quickly and near the age of 60 he becomes the grand vizier. Yet that moment of separation still haunts him and he decides to order the building of bridge at point on the river where he was parted from his mother.

Already then, even before it has been built, Andrić is portraying the bridge as something with the power not merely to bridge a river but to heal divisions yet it is quickly to become clear that in this role it a flawed unifyer.

The construction works started in 1566 and 5 years later the bridge was completed (together with a caravanserai or han) which signified a very important connection of Sarajevo pashaluk (the territory of the present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina) with the rest of the Turkish empire and replaced unreliable boat transport across the river. Already at this phase a reader learns how serfs were forced to build it and how they tried to strike and sabotage the construction site because of poor working conditions.

The middle of the bridge, called "the gate" was wider and it quickly became a popular meeting place for people from Vishegrad and surroundings, a relaxed mood which is still typical for the present-day Turkey and most of Balkan peninsula. A reader also learns that there were no tensions between the Muslims (referred as the Turks during the whole novel), Christians (the Serbs), Sephardic Jews and the Roma. Rather, they stood in solidarity with one another during regular floods of the Drina.

About a century later Habsburg Austria conquered what is now Hungary and thus a crisis in Turkish empire began. Due to lack of state funds, the caravanserai was abandoned while the bridge was projected and constructed well enough to stand for centuries without maintenance.

The first nationalistic tensions started in the 19th century when the Serbian uprising in the neighbouring Belgrade pashaluk (now Serbia) begun. But a neighbour didn't raise a hand over a neighbour, instead the soldiers from all parts of the empire established a guarding point at the gate and were beheading suspicious Serbians and potential rebels.

After the Congress of Berlin Serbia and Montenegro became fully independent counties while the Austro-Hungarian Empire received a right to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina and thus turn it into a protectorate. Since the completion of the bridge the time seemed to stop, so the local people had several troubles to accept all new things that came with the Austrian rule. And there were many changes. First a barracks was built at the site of the caravanserai and suddenly the town experienced what would now be called globalisation. People from all parts of the Austrian - Hungarian kingdom came, opened their businesses and brought their local habits. A narrow gauge railway line was built to Sarajevo and the significance of the bridge was soon reduced, but not completely as it will turn out later.

The modernisation included among other things that children were started being educated in Sarajevo and later some of them continued their studies in Vienna. They brought home ideas from the rest of the world and along with newspapers that were available in Vishegrad, too, nationalistic ideas, esp. among Serbians emerged. Another "contribution" to this was year 1908 when a crisis in Turkey gave Austrians an excellent chance to formally annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. During this annexation crisis it got evident that Austria saw the Kingdom of Serbia and its royal dynasty Karađorđević (in 1904 it threw another dynasty Obrenović from the Serbian throne) as a serious obstacle to their further conquering of the Balkans. And the Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, when Turkey was almost completely pushed out of the Balkans, did not help to better relations between Serbians and Austrians as they undermined the middle column of the bridge. Many young Serbian men were passing it at nights and smuggled themselves across the border to Serbia. The reader does not know if the most famous of them, Gavrilo Princip, passed this bridge as he's not mentioned.

In 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which started World War I. The Kingdom of Austria and Hungary declared a war to Serbia and Austrians started to incite non Serbian people of Vishegrad against the Serbian population. The bridge with the old road to Sarajevo suddenly regained importance as the rail line was not sufficient to transport all war material and soldiers who soon invaded into Serbia. As the history teaches, the Serbian army defeated the Austrian one at their first invasion and started progressing towards Bosnia so the Austrians decided to establish the front line on the Drina. They evacuated Vishegrad and blew up the bridge.de:Die Brücke über die Drina it:Il ponte sulla Drina

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