Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

What Links Sarajevo to Kabul? Impressions from the western end of the Persianate world

Thomas Ruttig 15 min

Sarajevo and Kabul lie over 4,000 kilometres apart. One feature that connects the two cities, however, is that both were destroyed during civil wars in the last decade of the twentieth century. Earlier this year, when AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig visited Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia during a vacation, he came across some haunting images. At the same time, in an Ottoman mosque in Sarajevo as well as a former Sufi monastery near Mostar, he also found a bridge between them. Both regions, the Balkans and ‘Khorasan’, used to be at opposite poles of what was, over many centuries, the ‘Persianate world’ – that vast area that was shaped by both Persian language and culture. An AAN read for the Christmas and New Year holiday season (with input from Obaid Ali on Rumi’s verses and Jelena Bjelica on Balkan history).

At first glance, the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina looks abandoned. There is a spray-painted wooden fence around it. Weeds grow on its external staircase. The façade of the whitish, modernist, concrete cuboid has been riddled with bullets. No wonder – it is not far from where many civilians were shot dead in Sarajevo’s so-called Sniper Alley during the four-year Serbian siege of the city, between 1992 and 1995. During this time, virtually all of the city’s infrastructure and much of its rich cultural heritage was destroyed.

We almost missed the museum itself, as well as the exhibition about the siege of Sarajevo on the its second floor. And that would have been a shame.

Sarajevo’s National History Museum. All photos in the text: Thomas Ruttig.

Three bicycles: not so distant wars

The Sarajevo museum’s exhibition speaks for itself. It is heart-wrenching in its simplicity, ­with leaflets and faded newspaper cut-outs, some with horrific photos of victims of the war as well as makeshift equipment used by its inhabitants during the siege (when water, electricity, transportation and other services had mostly been cut off and food only sporadically reached the city.) There’s an arrangement of how it would have looked in a small, bombed-out apartment, with laundry drying over a wood fire stove. (1)

There was a photo of a man, who, according to the caption, regularly cycled to visit the grave of a relative in one of the many makeshift graveyards that had to be dug in the besieged city between apartment blocks. It showed him standing in grief in the snow, his bicycle beside him. The original bike featured in the exhibition: the owner had donated it. Many other Sarajevans had also donated to the museum every day items used during the war.

We emerged from the museum in shock, as it had evoked so many flashbacks to Kabul, the city at the eastern end of the Persianate world (more about this below), from where we had just returned. But our thoughts were not only about Kabul. Images of our own, destroyed city of Berlin in World War II also came to mind, from stories told by my parents. Of my grandmother, for example, pushing her bicycle back home through the ruins, with potatoes or turnips in a bag she had bartered against her silver cutlery in the rural outskirts. She did not know when her husband would be back; he was a prisoner of war and worked in a coalmine in Belgium (he did return, but only four years after the war had ended. His fellow miners had treated him as one of theirs and had fed him.) Of my mother, nine years old in the last year of that war, and her mother, in a trek of refugees, cowering in a ditch in a field while low-flying planes fired shots at them. My father, the same age and always hungry in the last year of the war, crawling out of a basement shelter in Berlin in the middle of street-fighting with his grandfather, both with cobbler knives, to a horse dying in the street, in order to snatch a piece of meat. I later grew up in that same street.

After leaving the exhibition, I could not help but think: how could something like this have happened in Europe at the end of the twentieth century? But, as both authors and readers of AAN know, it can and does still happen in many places. It really does not matter whether it is in Sarajevo or in Kabul or Kunduz. It does not matter whether the people who are forced to live in abject conditions due to war (often without the most basic of services), who face the daily threat of being maimed or killed, are from Europe, Asia or elsewhere.

The picture of the bicycle would come back to us once more in Sarajevo, in another exhibition in a small gallery as part of a local festival (2). It was entitled “After Enduring Freedom” and exhibited works of Kabul-based Australian photographer Andrew Quilty. When we found out about it, we knew we did not want to miss it, either.

Andrew Quilty’s photo exhibition in Sarajevo.

This photo of a bicycle was rather unspectacular at first glance: the bike was muddied and leaning against a wall in a village just outside Kunduz. Quilty had taken the photo while he was documenting the US air attack that destroyed a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the city on 3 October 2015, during a two-week Taleban takeover of the city, visualising this event for many people around the world (AAN analysis of this episode here). The bicycle in the photo belonged to an Afghan man named Baynazar Muhammad Nazar, 43, who had worked as a security guard in Kunduz. He was killed on the operating table while undergoing surgery for a bullet wound in his leg that he had sustained during the attack. This attack has not yet been investigated satisfactorily and might still amount to a war crime.

Afterwards, Quilty had returned to Kunduz and Nazar’s family. He described this, and the story of Nazar’s death, in detail for Foreign Policy magazine. It ends with a scene where Nazar’s wife and children visit his grave, and one daughter’s heartbreaking remarks: “Father, we washed your bicycle — please wake up — you can come home now.” (Here is a photo of Nazar still alive, reproduced by Quilty.)

A mosque in Sarajevo

Fortunately, there are many older, more positive features that connect Sarajevo – and Bosnia as part of the western Balkans in general – to the region that now contains Kabul and Kunduz, sometimes referred to as “Khorasan.” (3) These are the Persian language and culture. At one time, and for many centuries, it was so influential throughout that vast stretch of land that University of Chicago historian Marshall Hodgson (in his 1974 book, The Venture of Islam: The expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods) coined the term “Persianate world.” The Persian (Farsi) language, he wrote (4):

(…) served to carry a new overall cultural orientation within Islamdom. … Most of the more local languages of high culture that later emerged among Muslims … depended upon Persian wholly or in part for their prime literary inspiration. We may call all these cultural traditions, carried in Persian or reflecting Persian inspiration, ‘Persianate’ by extension.

Sabaheta Gačanin, author in a Turkish academic magazine, calls the Persian language a “civilisation bridge … lasting to this very day.”

Careva Džamija, the Emperor’s Mosque.

Careva Džamija, the Emperor’s Mosque in Sarajevo.


Including to Sarajevo, for example, although there, the language has not been in use in everyday or even literary life for some 150 years. There, on the left bank of the River Miljacka, which divides the city, is Careva Džamija, the Emperor’s Mosque, or Bakrbaba Mosque in Turkish. (It is not far from Latinska ćuprija, the Latin Bridge, where, on 28 June 1914, the Bosnian nationalist student Gavrilo Princip killed Austro-Hungarian heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped trigger World War I.) In the mosque’s yard lies the türbe (the Turkish word for tomb, which, in Persian, would be turbat and in today’s Dari and Pashto, ziarat) of Hadži Hafiz Halid [Khaled] Effendi Hadžimulić (1915-2011) that has – to my surprise – a Persian-language inscription on its knee-high marble enclosure.

Part of the Persian inscription at Sarajevo’s Emperor Mosque.


ای دریغا پیش از این بودیم اجل

تاعذابم کم بدی اندر وجل


گوی آنجا خاک می بیختم

زین جهان پاک می بگریختم


چون از اینجا واری آنجا روی

در شکر خداوند شاکر شوی


The du’a:

رضینا بالله ربا” و بالاسلام دینا” و بمحمد صلی الله علیه و سلم رسولا” نبیا


Of Ottomans and Seljuqs: Speaking Persian in the Turkic empire

The mosque used to be in the heart of the city. At the beginning of the four hundred year-long Ottoman rule (1461-1878), this place was known as the At Maidan, or Hippodrome. Sarajevo itself was founded by the Ottomans, and its name derives from the Turkish word saray, as in caravan saray. The language the Ottomans used in much of their official business in those days, however, was Persian.

Persian was used because the Ottomans were the heirs of the Seljuqs. This Turkic tribal coalition from Central Asia had conquered Khorasan in the first half of the eleventh century, where they adopted the local Persian language spoken by a sedentary, partly well-educated Iranian population. (The Persian language is part of a larger family of Iranian languages to which many Afghan languages, such as Pashto, Dari, Balochi, Pashai and the Nuristani languages, also belong.) Thomas Barfield in Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton 2010) writes that the Seljuqs created

… states with dual organizations. Administration was placed in the hands of “men of the pen,” literate Persians speakers familiar with government, while military commands were allocated to “men of the swords,” tribal Turks and slave soldiers.

From there, they exported the practice of employing Persian speakers to other parts of the empire, including to Anatolia, which they conquered on their way westwards and which became known as the Sultanate of Rum (1037-1194). Henceforth they were called the Rum-Seljuqs. According to E J W Gibb, the author of the standard A Literary History of Ottoman Poetry, “Persian was the language of the court, while Persian literature and Persian culture reigned supreme.” Turkish remained the everyday language of the non-Iranian population of their empire, and Arabic the language of Islamic theology and law. The Persianate influence on Turkic intellectual life further increased during the thirteenth century, when, fleeing the Mongol invasion, many scholars, writers and poets from Persia came to the Seljuq empire.

The Ottomans, the Seljuqs’ successors, inherited the Persianate culture. They continued to patronise Persian literature for five and a half centuries, according to Ehsan Yarshater, director of the Centre for Iranian Studies at Columbia University, and extended the use of the Persian language to the areas of the Balkans they started conquering in the mid-fifteenth century. According to Austrian Bert Fragner, a leading Iranist, the Persianate world reached an “optimal state (…) in a rather constant spatial dimension” – namely, from the Balkans to Central Asia and India – from the fourteenth to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Ottoman graves in Sarajevo.

Hungarian scholar Iván Szántó has described how this worked in practice in the Ottoman Balkans:

The number of visitors and immigrants from Iran in the Ottoman Empire was considerable; it was also not uncommon to find people of Iranian origin in important positions in the Ottoman administration of Bosnia. In addition to that, Ottoman institutions often had a Persian imprint as a result of continuing contacts between Ottoman Anatolia and Safavid Iran. Recitations in Sufi dervish lodges of the Mevlevi and Bektashi orders, for instance, were often sung in Persian. Many well-educated Bosnians were proficient in the Persian language, as was reported with much admiration by the seventeenth-century Ottoman traveller, Evliya Çelebi (whose own mastery of Persian is testified by an autograph graffiti he left inside the now-destroyed Aladža Mosque of Foča [also in Bosnia]). So high was the prestige of this language that many local intellectuals felt compelled to study and compose Persian poetry or to write commentaries on Persian literature […]. It should be noted, however, that Iranian-born migrants were not necessarily ethnic Persians; more often they were Turkic-speaking Azeris […].

The passion for the Persian language among the Ottoman Turks and their local subjects in the Balkans is also reflected in their names. One of Sarajevo’s most famous historical personalities, the first native Muslim governor of Ottoman Bosnia (between 1521 and his death in 1541), had a Persian name: Gazi Husrev Beg (1480-1541); this is the Turkic spelling of Ghazi Khosraw Beg, Khosraw being the name of many famous ancient Persian emperors. He was the founder of Sarajevo’s most beautiful mosque, which is still named after him, the Gazi Husrev Beg Mosque. Similarly, the local waqf comprises a madrassa, a famous clock tower, an important library and a hospital. Together, they make up the most formidable complex of Ottoman architecture in Bosnia, if not the whole of the Balkans. The name of Husrev/ Khosraw Beg’s mother, a daughter of the Ottoman Caliph Bayezid II (who ruled from 1481 to 1512), was Seljuka. (5)

At the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque, Sarajevo

Rumi in Bosnia

In the Emperor’s Mosque in Sarajevo, on that quiet Ramadan day during our visit, the few worshippers present, as well as the janitor, thought the inscription on Hadži Hadžimulić’s tomb was Arabic. They did not know what it meant. But only one of the four verses was Arabic, a prayer (du’a): “we accept that Allah is our Lord, Islam is our religion and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his messenger.”

As it turned out, the other three verses were in Persian, from Mawlana Jalaluddin Muhammad (1207-73)’s famous oeuvre, the 25,600 verses Mathnawi-ye Manawi (online here). Mawlana Jalaluddin is one of the most important poets in the Persian language and his Mathnawi, which teaches Sufis the path to God through true love of Him, is one of the most influential book, and not only for Muslims. Pointing to his place of birth in what is today Afghanistan, Jalaluddin is often given the takhallos Balkhi. However, he is also known as “Rumi“ (a reference to his grandfather, who, according to some sources, was called Hussain Rumi and, given this takhallos, might have been from further west, ie Anatolia, which is “Rum” in Arabic), or simply as “Mawlana.” As a young man, Mawlana went to Turkey with his father, who was a preacher, mystic and poet himself, and settled in Konya, then the capital of the Rum-Seljuq Turkish empire. There, he founded the Mawlawi (Turkish: Mevlevi) Sufi order, also known as the so-called Whirling Dervishes. (6)

It was the Sufi orders that, to a large extent, kept the Persian language alive throughout the Balkans for centuries. Apart from the Mawlawi Sufis, there was the Naqshbandiya, also prominent in Afghanistan. Its first members came to the Balkans in the fifteenth century, according to this 1975 study. In 1463, the first Sufi tekije (or lodge), that of Sheikh Musafer, was established in Sarajevo. Following a decline, the order was revitalised in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by murids of its Mujaddedi branch (see this 2008 MA thesis on the subject) – also known from Afghanistan. After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, many Sufis in Yugoslavia migrated to Turkey. In 1952, the communist regime in Yugoslavia banned Sufi orders, but Sufism continued to be practiced underground. In the late 1990s, a revival followed. The Naqshbandiya is still the largest Sufi order active in today’s Bosnia.

Blagaj: Sufi poets and warrior-dervishes in the Balkans

An Iranian shop-owner whom we encountered in Sarajevo’s bazaar quarter of Bašcaršija, and who fetched his nai and tambourine to sing Rumi verses for us one evening, told us to visit the Sufi tekije (monastery) in Blagaj. This is a small town near the city of Mostar, where the famous Ottoman-era Old Bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian war (1992-95), and rebuilt afterwards. He also mentioned the name of one Fawzi Mostari (or Fevzi Mostarac in Bosnian, born between 1670 and 1677, died 1747), who, he said, had still been writing poetry in “pure Persian.” We found a 2011 bilingual (Bosnian/Persian) version of his major work, Bulbulistan, published by the Cultural Centre of the Iranian Embassy to Bosnia. Bulbulistan means “The Book of Nightingales.” (This bird features prominently in Persian-language literature, not only because of its sweet song, but also because its Persian name, bulbul, rhymes with gul, flower.)

Following the Iranian shopkeeper’s advice, we went to Blagaj, where the local Buna River springs from a cave in a 200 metre-high cliff, which reminded me of the Silk Gorge (Tangi-ye Abrishom) between Kabul and Sarobi. The monastery in Blagaj was built by the Sufis of the Bektashi order around 1470. The lover of bulbuls, Mostari (who was born there), was inspired by the classical Persian literature of Rumi, Saadi, Jami and others that constitute a central part of the Sufi philosophy.

Former sufi monastery of Blagaj.

Former sufi monastery of Blagaj.


Mostari studied Persian in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. There he joined the Sufi order of the Mawlawis founded by Rumi/Balkhi and, at its Dar ul-Masnawi (“House of Masnawi”), wrote his own masterpiece, the Bulbulistan, in 1739, according to Džemal Ćehajić, a Bosnian scholar, who contributed a short biography of Mostari to a 2011 reprint of the Bulbulistan funded by Iran.

Both the title and form of Bulbulistan are reminiscent of, and indeed may have been a conscious reference to, Sa’adi’s famous collection, the Gulistan (The Rose Garden), from thirteenth century Iran. Cultural historian Amila Buturovic describes compares Mostari’s work as a “comprehensive, didactic medley of poetry and prose animated by the rich heritage of Persian poetry (…), but with a distinct touch by his Bosnian author” (here, p 29). Gačanin (quoted above) points out that “many authors in Bosnia and Herzegovina wrote poetry and fiction in the Ottoman, Arabic and Persian languages [who] had their models among the Persian classic poets.” But, he adds, Mostari with his Bulbulistan was “the only Bosniak who wrote an independent literary work (…) in Persian.”

In a shrine on the monastery compound in Blagaj, there are two wooden coffins covered with flags, containing the remains of two holy men.(7) In the case of the first, Shaikh Ačik Paša, a Bektashi also known as Muhammad Hindi, his name speaks for itself. He was either from India, or had spent time there. As for his companion, the plaque outside the room where the graves lie, says: Sari Saltuk, also known as Muhammad Bu[k]hari, from the “Turkistan region [of] [K]Horasan (…), one of the bravest Alperen [an old Turkish word for “hero”, similar to Ghazi] dervish” who “left his country with 700 followers” and took part in the Ottoman conquest of Anatolia and Rumelia (today’s Balkan peninsula). He was buried in Blagaj aged 93. It appears that he came all the way to Bosnia from the Holy City of Bukhara, in Khorasan.

The Sufi graves in the Blagaj monastery.

Libraries under fire

Over the last centuries of the existence of the Ottoman empire, which collapsed at the end of World War I, the Persian language had gradually lost its importance there. The Persianate world became a lot smaller. In the Balkans, much of its cultural heritage was destroyed during the wars of the 1990s – as was the case in Afghanistan, at the other end of the Persianate world.

During the 1992-95 siege of the Bosnian capital, with its destruction and tens of thousands killed, the Sarajevo Oriental Institute was also shelled. Its large collection went almost completely up in smoke after Serbian artillery hit it during the night of 17 May 1992, only two months after the war and the siege started. Of its 5,263 works – with handwritten manuscripts in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and alhamijado (Bosnian Slavic in Arabic script), including Qurans and collections of Hadiths, of Sufi and other poetry, covering the eleventh to the early twentieth centuries – as few as 53 manuscripts survived. The former Ottoman provincial archives met the same fate. (More background on the destruction in this article.)

Yet the Persianate legacy, spiritual, written and architectural, can still be found. Another collection of manuscripts survived, sheltered in the stone vaults of the library in Husrev/Khosraw Beg’s sixteenth century madrassa. Sufi Islam is reported to be the main form of Islam practiced in many parts of the Balkans. In Sarajevo, a new tekije was inaugurated in 2013, and Persian is studied in academic circles, still providing a “civilisation bridge.” While much of Afghanistan is increasingly out of reach to visitors due to the deteriorating security situation, anyone travelling to the Balkans can still see its legacy.



(1) A similarly heart-wrenching rendering of the siege in prose form can be found in Miljenko Jergović, Sarajevo Marlboro, Penguin 1997.

(2) The festival also featured the well-known film ”Frame By Frame“ by Alexandria Bombach & Mo Scarpelli and ”Watani – My Homeland“ by Marcel Mettelsiefen, a German photographer who documented, together with then- Stern reporter and occasional AAN contributor, Christoph Reuter, the German bombing of two oil tankers, also in Kunduz province, in 2009, that killed almost a hundred civilians (more about this here).

(3) Khorasan, originally, refers to the region which is now northeastern Iran, Afghanistan north of the Hindukush mountains and parts of Central Asia, up to the Iaxartes River (Syr Darya), also known as Mawara an-Nahr, or Transoxiana, the Oxus being the historical Greek name for the Amu Darya. The use of the term has frequently been extended to all of Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan, as they are known today.

(4) Quoted via Wikipedia.

(5) There was also another Ottoman governor of Sarajevo with a Persian-sounding name, Siyavus[h] Pasha, who, in his time, around one and a half centuries after Ghazi Khosraw, endowed a waqf in 1580-81 to erect a large guesthouse (han). This was for the poorer members of Sarajevo’s Jewish community. He was also granted permission for the construction of the city’s first synagogue.

(6) There is a heated controversy about who ‘owns’ Balkhi/Rumi/Mawlana. Turkey (he is buried in Konya) and Iran have jointly – without Afghanistan – applied to register his work as their joint heritage with the UN’s “Memory of the World.”  This sparked outrage in Afghanistan. The governor of Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Nur, urged the Afghan ambassador to the UN to protest against this “imperialistic” step. Atta had already erected a monument in the poet’s honour in his capital Mazar-e Sharif. The city’s recently upgraded airport also carries the poet’s name: Mawlana Jalaluddin Balkhi International Airport.

On the other hand, Balkhi/Rumi’s assumed birthplace in Afghanistan – the khanaqa of his father – lies in a dilapidated state and is poorly protected by a simple fence (a photo in this article).

(7) As so often is the case, there are several locations that claim the authentic grave of the Sufi is theirs (see here, p 50). An Afghan example is the rauza, the Grand Mosque, of Mazar-e Sharif.







Kabul Kunduz Ottomans Persian language Persianate world Sarajevo Sufis War