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February 8, 2013

Bosnian Culture Heritage Survived the War but will it Survive the Nation's Peace?

by Lynda Albertson, ARCA's CEO

Bosnia's shuttered national museum in Sarajevo and the Bosnian Commission for Historic Monuments say they cannot loan The Metropolitan Museum of Art its Sarajevo Haggadah, a rare medieval illuminated manuscript that contains the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah, read during the Jewish Passover Seder.

They say the manuscript cannot be loaned because of the unresolved status of its home.  The 125-year old institution, The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Zemaljski Muzej), has been left without funding as a result of the 1995 Bosnian peace agreement.  The signing of the Dayton Accord may have brought an end to the region’s conflict but it also effectively fractured the country into two parts: the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina linked by a weakened central government. 

In the war’s aftermath, the crucial priorities of the country’s postwar leadership were rebuilding the economy, resettling an estimated one million refugees and establishing a working government amongst the ethnically mixed populace.  While the accord heralded a much-needed peace, it also created a constitutional vacuum, open to conflicting interpretations over the maintenance of the country’s cultural legacy. 

Within Bosnia and Herzegovina there are those who insist that the situation should be resolved giving responsibility for key cultural institutions to the state.   Others argue that since nothing is mentioned in the country’s constitution, the administration should remain with lower levels of government and its expenses should not fall on the common budget.
Many in Sarajevo hope that by rejecting the Met’s lending request, the situation will put pressure on the government to try to step in to resolve the issue, saving the museum and other key cultural institutions facing potential closure due to lack of funding and oversight.

Like with the more recently publicized Arabic manuscripts in Mali, this Sarajevo Haggadah’s preservation history is a testament to the lengths citizens from various countries have gone to protect their cultural heritage during times of conflict.

Handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold, the manuscript is believed to have originated in Catalonia in the mid 14th century.  Splashed among the pages are droplets of red wine, a testament to its use, most likely by a Sephardic family.  Historians believe that the manuscript was spirited out of Spain after King Ferdinand decreed that Jews should be expelled in 1492.

During this exodus, many Sephardic Jews relocated first to Provence and later to Venice. The Sarajevo Haggadah surfaced in Venice in 1609, during a period when Jews were prohibited from printing books and restricted to the islet of Cannaregio.  Subject to inspection during the inquisition, where texts perceived as dangerous to the Church were burned, the book was ultimately spared, as witnessed by the handwritten notation on its pages which was signed by the Dominican inquisitor of Giovanni Vistorini, censor of Hebrew texts.

The manuscript made its way eventually to Sarajevo, where it was housed but not displayed publically at the Archaeological Museum, now National Museum in Sarajevo.

During the Second World War the manuscript was hidden from Nazi forces through the ingenuity of the museum’s director, Jozo Petrovic, and Dervis Korkut, an ethnic Albanian Muslim who served as the museum’s chief librarian.  With the help of a Muslim imim in Zenica the Sarajevo Haggadah was hidden in a mosque’s library until after the war.

During the 1992-1995 Bosnian war the manuscript was again subject to great risk. Sarajevo was on the front line and constantly under siege by Bosnian Serb forces.  To keep the text safe from harm or potential looting the director of the Museum, Enver Imamovic under armed guardsequestered the manuscript in an underground vault at the National Bank. Despite being safe, several newspaper articles around the world speculated that the Sarajevo Haggadah  had been secretly sold and used to buy arms to support the ongoing conflict.  This rumor was proved false when the newly instated president of Bosnia presented the manuscript publicly at a community Seder in 1995.

In 2001 Jacques Klein, the head of the U.N. mission in Bosnia along with two international experts examined the Haggadah at the invitation of UNESCO. Through the joint efforts of the UN Mission, which donated $50,000,  Klein himself, the German Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the World Bank and Bosnia's Jewish community minor repairs were undertaken on the Haggadah, primarily working to conserve its binding.   A space to permanently exhibit the Haggadah was also established and the manuscript at last went on public display in December 2002.

In the last ten years Sarajevo's National Art Gallery, its National Library and the Historical Museum, have joined the National Museum in slow decline due to lack of funding.  Resourceful staffers first tried to squirrel away resources by cutting their heating, then staff salaries or in some cases, opening their doors to the public only a few days per week.  Eventually, failing to find alternative funding solutions, the National Museum was forced to lock its doors.

According to, February 4, 2013 marked the National Museum in Sarajevo’s 125th anniversary.  Wooden planks were nailed over entrance last October despite pleas for civic intervention to save the museum and its collection. At this birthday celebration all well-wishers could do was light 125 candles and lay 125 roses.

The museum's deputy director, Marica Filipovic, said that the institution had survived two world wars and the Bosnian conflict: "But it seems it will not survive the peace.”

Here's a link to a report from Radio Free Europe last April on the Sarajevo Haggadah.