Bosnia and Herzegovina still bears traces of the time when a persecuted heresy became an official state religion
Issue 43-44, April-May 2010
by Bozhidara Georgieva; photography by Anthony Georgieff
No matter where you are, be it in a city, a village or the middle of the countryside, the landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be described in just four words: mountains, rivers, bridges, cemeteries.
The mountains and rivers have a wild splendour, the bridges an Ottoman grace and the newer cemeteries stand out for their sheer number and the recurring dates of death – between 1992 and 1995.
Some of the cemeteries in Bosnia are much older, however. The people buried in them lived in the 12th-15th centuries. Back then, the small yet stubbornly independent Bosnia managed to survive despite the constant attempts by both East and West to conquer it.
There is hardly a settlement in the country that lacks a mediaeval cemetery. Some are small, while others have over a hundred graves. Wherever you stumble across them, the scattered tombstones and stelae produced of the local grey stone, jointly referred to as stećci, are a sight you will never forget.
The surface of each stele is covered with strange reliefs. Decorative suns, moons and stars shine from the stone, while spirals and triangles merge into complex figures. Horsemen gallop by, while men and women dance the horo. Many feature the same motif; a man with a long moustache and long arms raises his hand in greeting.
Sometimes the sculptors chiselled only a cross with or without grapes growing from it, but in other cases they covered the stelae with sumptuous images. Historians believe that a particularly ornate sarcophagus from Zgošća near Kakanj belonged to King Stjepan II Kotromanić of Bosnia, though it bears no inscription.
The crosses show that Bosnia's mediaeval cemeteries were Christian, though the inscriptions on the stećci might lead you to think otherwise. They bemoan the loss of life and only rarely express a faith in the soul's immortality. "I lived a peaceful life, I prayed to God and did no harm, but on this very spot where my tomb stands, I was struck by lightning. Why, oh God?" asks the stećak (singular of stećci) in Humsko, Foča on behalf of its owner. "May this hand make you think about yours," says a man buried near Radimlja, in the area of Stolac, one of the best-known Mediaeval cemeteries in Bosnia. "Mother, why did you bear me into this world?" a young man bemoans his untimely death in the same cemetery.
The people buried under and in the stećci were Christians and they called themselves krstjani, too. But they were neither Eastern Orthodox nor Roman Catholics. Their doctrine was so eccentric that the Orthodox denominations regarded it as heretical and the great powers of the age, from Byzantium to Rome, took on the task of uprooting it. There were even crusades organised against this heresy, but nobody managed to stamp out the Bosnian Church. The local rulers soon realised that their peculiar religion was a political instrument in their struggle for independence, and so what everyone else considered a heresy became the official state religion in Bosnia.
A strange decision. What is known about the Bosnian Church is limited mainly to what its enemies, amongst whom was the Inquisition, thought about it. According to the prevailing opinion, the church was the offspring of a teaching that rejected any form of earthly authority: Bogomilism.
The Bogomils appeared in the Bulgarian lands of the mid-10th Century. Christianity had been the country's official religion for about a hundred years, but in this short time the church had become so corrupt that many had lost faith in it and turned to other manifestations of religious devotion. One of them was eremitism. It became very popular and a hermit in the Rila Mountains became so famous that today the Bulgarians venerate him as their national saint: St Ivan Rilski of the eponymous Rila Monastery.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers