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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mostar to Start Restoring Ancient, Symbolic Bridge

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Intent on resurrecting the grace of their brutalized town, municipal leaders, preservationists and ordinary citizens gathered Monday to celebrate the first step in restoring Mostar's shattered Ottoman-era bridge.

Mostar, a trading center of the far-flung empire of Ottoman Turks, came of age with the 16th-century bridge, and the delicate span became the town's greatest symbol. The 17th-century Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi likened the bridge thrown high across the steep Neretva River canyon to "a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies.''

Buttressed by fortified stone towers, the ivory-colored limestone bridge was almost as high as it was long: Its 28.7-meter span peaked about 20 meters above the deep, emerald-green river. It became an irresistible target for Serb and then Croat gunners trying to erase Mostar's Turkish influence.

Bosnian Serb forces started shelling the bridge in April 1992, just after the war broke out, and Bosnian Croats took over in May 1993, when they turned against their erstwhile Moslem allies. The fractured bridge finally succumbed to Croat shelling Nov. 9, 1993, and lay in pieces on the river bottom until now.

"Maybe the bridge was destroyed because it's a symbol of one period of history of one nation,'' said Mario Vrankic, a documentary editor for Croatian radio in Mostar.

The preservationists and leaders of Moslem-controlled east Mostar who organized Monday's celebration insist that the bridge stood for more than Turkish or Moslem culture.

"The Old Bridge symbolized Mostar's multi-ethnic character, because it linked not just the left and right banks, but also east and west,'' said Zijad Demirovic, an architect who is director of Mostar's Institute for Preservation.

"And it will be reconstructed by the three peoples -- Moslems, Serbs and Croats -- called the Bosnians.''

But few if any Serbs or Croats were expected to attend the ceremonial lifting of the first stones. Mostar is split into the Moslem-controlled east and Croat-controlled west, and few residents dare to cross the ethnic divide blasted through the town during the bitter, year-long Moslem-Croat war.

Both sides of the bridge are in Moslem-ruled territory, and the single-arched span was the center of Bosnia's most important Ottoman-era architectural ensemble before it and the surrounding neighborhood were blasted to rubble.

Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, has donated $1 million to the reconstruction of Mostar's old town, including the bridge. Other countries and international organizations are expected to contribute to the cost of restoring the bridge, estimated at more than $7 million. Restoration of the rest of old Mostar, on UNESCO's world heritage list, will cost about $35 million.

Hungarian engineers serving with the NATO-led peace force are raising the bridge piece by piece, beginning Monday.