Sephardic travels through former Yugoslavia

It's more than ten years since the end of the bloody series of wars that broke apart the former Yugoslavia and made much of the Balkan peninsula a strictly no-go area for tourists.

Happily by now, most parts of the region are once again wide open to visitors. The stunningly beautiful Dalmatian coast of Croatia in particular has again become a summer playground for hundreds of thousands of foreign holiday-makers, many of them from Israel, and even Bosnia-Hercegovina has upgraded its tourism infrastructure in a bid to welcome guests.

This is all good news for people interested in exploring the rich heritage of Jews in the region, and particularly that of the Sephardic Jews who settled in the Balkans following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago.

Some of Europe's most precious examples of Sephardic culture and heritage, in fact, are located in some of the most popular and fascinating tourist destinations in the region. These include the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and the ancient and glorious Croatian ports of Split and Dubrovnik.

The following gives a brief guide to the Jewish sites in each of these cities.



Cupped in the middle of mountains, the Bosnian capital is an extraordinary urban complex where the confrontation between East and West is apparent everywhere you look. Long ruled by the Ottoman Empire, it came under Austrian control in 1878. Centuries-old mosques and a Turkish-style old town stand a few steps away from Austrian-style, late 19th-century buildings that look straight out of Mitteleuropa. And Sarajevo may be the only major city in Europe where you can find a synagogue, a mosque, and catholic and orthodox churches virtually on the same street.

The Jewish community here for centuries was one of the most important in the Balkans. Before World War II, the city's 12,000 Jews made up nearly one-fifth of the local population. About 85 percent of Sarajevo's Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and the Jewish community today numbers about 700.

Since the end of World War II, Jewish communal activities have been centered in the Ashkenazic synagogue, a grand, Moorish style temple with four massive corner towers that was built in 1902 on the bank of the Miljacka River. It was converted in the 1960s to include community offices and function rooms as well as a sanctuary. In the process, the grandiose original sanctuary was divided horizontally into two levels, and today, the present prayer hall, still decorated with elaborate arabesques and colorful geometric patterns, occupies just the top half of the original space.

The historic Jewish quarter of Sarajevo lies across the river, in the Old Town area near the colorful Bas Carsija market, a sprawling complex of little stores, artisans' workshops, cafes, and graceful mosques.

Here stands the Old Synagogue, an austere stone building originally constructed in 1581, when the ruling pasha created a special quarter for Jews, called El Cortio. The synagogue was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1879 and in the 1960s was converted into a city-run Jewish Museum. When the Bosnian War broke out in 1992, the Jewish Museum was closed and became a storage place for collections from other museums in the city.

In the summer of 2004 it was reopened as a museum, under new management that includes Jewish community as well as city representatives.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana a few months later, the buil ding was reconsecrated as a house of worship. A Mezuzah was nailed to its door and, during services, the traditional melodies of the Sephardic Jewish liturgy were sung there for the first ti xt/javascript"> // --> me in more than 60 years.

The synagogue will remain a Jewish museum but will also be used for worship on special occasions. Next door to it is a newer synagogue - founded in 1746, and now used as an art gallery.

Sarajevo's fabled Jewish Cemetery is located high on the slope of Mt. Trebevic overlooking the city and is one of the most famous Sephardic cemeteries in the world. Founded in 1630, it is renowned for its distinctive tombstones, shaped like massive, slightly rounded blocks of stone with Hebrew inscriptions on their one flat face.

During the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the cemetery was on the frontline of fighting in the siege of Sarajevo, used by Bosnian Serbs as an artillery position to fire on the city. The ceremonial hall and many of the tombs suffered extensive damage, mainly from return fire from below, and the Serbs heavily mined the area before they finally withdrew. After the end of the war, an international effort cleared the mines and cleaned up and repaired the war damage.

The most famous Jewish relic in Sarajevo is undoubtedly the Sarajevo Hagaddah, a 14th century manuscript brought to Sarajevo by Jews fleeing Spain. Owned by the Sarajevo National Museum since 1894, the 109-page manuscript, lavishly illustrated with exquisite illuminated paintings, has long been the symbol of Jewish presence in the Balkans. It is now displayed in a special room at the Museum.


The heart of this ancient Adriatic port is virtually an open-air museum, dominated by the remains of the enormous Palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century.

In Roman times, Jews lived in Salona, once an important Roman port and now a suburb of Split called Solin. A Jewish tombstone and oil lamps engraved with menorahs were found there during archeological excavations.

Salona was destroyed by invaders in the seventh century, and, along with other people, local Jews presumably took refuge inside the nearby Palace. This new settlement grew into the city of Split. On some of the interior walls of the Palace, archaeologists have discovered carvings of menorahs dating from the 12th century and concentrated in an area believed to have been where Jews first lived.

The first documentary evidence of a Jewish community in Split dates from the mid-14th century, when episcopal records mention a "great synagogue" within the walls of the Palace. Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal swelled the community in the late 15th and early 16th century.

Today, only about 100 Jews live in Split. But the synagogue and other remnants of the medieval Jewish quarter, located in the northwestern part of the Palace and still called the ghetto, still exist.

The synagogue is located on a narrow alley called Zidovski prolaz (Jewish passage). Another alley nearby is called "Jews' Place" and the northwestern tower of the Palace is known as "Jews' Gate."

Believed to date from about 1500, the synagogue has been rebuilt and renovated many times. From the outside, it looks like a simple residential building. During the Italian occupation in 1942, Italian fascists devastated the tiny sanctuary and destroyed most of the ritual objects, Torah scrolls, books and ancient archives in a public bonfire in the main town square.

The synagogue was restored after the war, and it under went a further fullscale renovation in the mid-1990s. Today, the sanctuary is a rectangular room with windows set into arches and a stone Ark flanked by columns set under a decorative arch delineating the eastern wall.

Split's fascinating old Jewish cemetery spreads out on the eastern slope of Mt. Marjan, overlooking the city. Jews obtained the site as a cemetery in 1573, after the influx of Jewish exiles from Iberia, but the earliest extant tombstone is from 1717.

The cemetery is one of the oldest in this part of Europe and, with some 700 tombstones, one of the largest. There are two types of tomb markers, both of them horizontal in the Sephardic fashion: one is in the shape of a sarcophagus roof, and the other is a flat slab. Both types have inscriptions in Hebrew, carved in often elaborate calligraphy.

Strikingly located on a rocky spur thrusting into the sea, the historic fortress city of Dubrovnik deserves its nickname, the Pearl of the Adriatic. Its picturesque Old Town centers on a wide, pedestrians-only promenade called the Stradun.

A Jewish presence was recorded in Dubrovnik in the 14th century, but the community began to flourish after the arrival of refugees from Spain and Portugal. Today, fewer than 40 Jews live in the city.


A Jewish ghetto was set up in the mid-16th century on a single street, Zudioska ulica (Jewish St.), a steep, narrow alley just off the Stradun. The ghetto comprised 11 houses and a synagogue, and it was closed by gates at either end. The houses were connected with each other and also with the synagogue by interior passageways.

The synagogue was established in the 15th century on the upper floor of a narrow, two-story stone building at Zudioska 5. From the outside, it looks like most other buildings on the street, except for its windows framed by pointed Saracen arches. Inside, the sanctuary was rebuilt in the baroque style in the mid-17th century and features a delicately carved wooden bimah, or reading platform, and a wooden Ark flanked by Corinthian columns with twisted shafts.

The synagogue survived a major earthquake of 1667 and also World War II. When Dubrovnik was attacked by Serb forces in 1991 and 1992, two shells hit its roof and caused serious damage, but the building underwent full restoration and was rededicated in 1997.

On the floor beneath the sanctuary, two rooms have been refurbished as exhibition halls for the synagogue's precious collection of ritual objects. These include valuable silver and textiles, as well as Torah scrolls written in the 13th and 14th centuries that were brought to Dubrovnik by Jews expelled from Spain. All were smuggled out of the synagogue and hidden from the Nazis during World War II.

The Jewish cemetery, in the Boninovo district just outside of town, was founded a century ago and has about 200 tombstones, including 30 or so centuries-old stones transferred there from an earlier cemetery that was closed in the 19th century.

As a whole, the tombs provide a textbook illustration of different types of Jewish grave markers. Some are traditional Sephardic-style horizontal slabs with ornamental carving and Hebrew inscriptions. Others, as in Split, are horizontal tombs sharped like sarcophagi with peaked or gabled roofs and Hebrew inscriptions on their sides. Others still are the upright tombstones typical of Ashkenazic Jews, who originated in central Europe.