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The earliest reference to Podblagaj dates from 1447. The settlement was located at the foot of the Blagaj fort, where the road runs down from the fort and intersects with the Nevesinje road. There was too little trade for a commercial centre to emerge. In an agricultural environment of this kind the circumstances were not such as to give rise to an urban settlement, let alone its subsequent development. The urbanization of the settlement of Blagaj as we now know it was defined in the Ottoman period, during the second half of the 15th century, and its structure took shape during the 16th century.
The mediaeval fortress of Blagaj (Stjepan grad) is constantly referred to in the sources as a distinct territorial entity. It was during the Ottoman period that building activity began to develop in the outskirts of the fortress, with the erection of houses and of public edifices, with the most important buildings located along the three watercourses: Suhi potok (brook) in Harman, Suhi potok in Galičići, and the river Buna, or more exactly the road above it. The centre was occupied by the čaršija, the trade and crafts centre of the settlement, the mosque complex with its harem and mekteb, and the han. The residential area took shape typologically as urban quarters or mahalas, with buildings facing inwards onto their courtyards, and rural areas with the buildings facing outwards. Residential complexes came into being, evidence of a high standard of living; the complex of the Velagić house is one of the most valuable groups of this type in Herzegovina.
With the formation of these mahalas, the area and lines of development of Blagaj town were laid down, with clearly defined residential areas, the mahalas, and the trade and crafts centre or čaršija. With the construction of mosques, the basic roads network was also laid out, running parallel and at right angles to the river and forming the shortest link to the town centre. The selection of areas to build residential quarters and their actual construction were based on topographical features, particularly access to water. The town developed along the river Buna, running right down to the river banks. The left bank is somewhat steeper and less suitable for building, as a result of which most of the residential quarters are on the right bank of the Buna.
Public buildings were sited very deliberately in the urban structure as a whole. Among the first to be built was the Careva (Imperial) mosque in 1520/21, with which the settlement acquired the status of kasaba, followed by the Karađoz-beg bridge in 1570 and the Leho bridge prior to 1664. The hamam was built between 1570 and 1664, the han before 1664, and a number of shops and more solidly-built storerooms and residential buildings.
The use of bold structural solutions also played an important part in Blagaj's architecture: the use of pillars and vaults, along with other structural elements, is plain to see. Barrel vaults are common (in mosques, the tekke and the hammam), taken to a high degree of perfection and thereby making possible an entirely free ground plan. The synchronization of development between artisanals crafts and building techniques on the one hand and the development of the settlement on the other has left its mark on the unique image of Blagaj as a distinctive urban centre in BiH. Harmony of proportions, form and details dominates the recognizable image of Blagaj, together with natural features.During the Austro-Hungarian period, Blagaj still retained its character as an oriental-type settlement, both in its overall appearance and in its architectural and compositional details, though there was obvious deterioration of the urban fabric.
Public buildings were built to be substantial: fortresses, mosques (Friday mosques and masjids alike), bridges, hans, hammams and the tekke.
ENSEMBLE OF THE FORTIFICATIONS
Mali grad. The remains of Mali grad (Mala gradina) - meaning respectively small fort or small hillfort - are located on a small plateau about 1 km from Herceg Stjepan's fort.
Stjepan grad. Unlike other fortifications serving as residences in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Blagaj fortress is located on a natural level area above steep cliffs to the south, west and north. In layout, the fort is an irregular polygon, adapted to the configuration of the terrain, with seven square towers, a projecting angle, and the entrance to the east.
The Sultan Suleyman (Careva, Imperial) mosque was one of the first buildings to be erected in Blagaj township, in 1520/21. It is very close to the right bank of the river Buna in the centre of Blagaj, and is one of the oldest domed mosques in this region, with the features of a single-space domed mosque.
The architectural ensemble of the Blagaj Tekke stands by the source of the river Buna, not far from the centre of Blagaj. The musafirhana and turbe are tucked into the natural surroundings, constituting a single entity with the cliffs, source of the Buna and mills. The musafirhana of the Blagaj tekke and the turbe have been preserved to this day. The musafirhana was built before 1664, and rebuilt in 1851; its original appearance is not known. The building was subsequently repaired on several occasions. The ensemble of the Blagaj Tekke was presumably built very soon after Ottoman rule was established in Herzegovina, around 1520 at the latest.
Masjids. All Blagaj's masjids have been demolished or are no longer in use. They were built of stone, with hipped roofs clad with stone slabs.
The Ćejvan Čehaja masjid in Bunsko mahala was commissioned by the Mostar legator Ćejvan Čehaja before 1554, as can be learned from his deed of endowment. All that now survives is parts of two walls. It was built on a level site near a brook, a few metres to the left of the road. A well was built by the masjid, and was used by the inhabitants of Bunsko mahala, as was a mekteb, about which nothing is known. It is known only that it was endowed by Ćejvan Čehaja and maintained by his vakuf.
The Hasan-aga masjid in Donja mahala was built not far from the right bank of the river Buna and the stone bridge. It has been known by various names: as the Leho mosque, after the Lehos who served there as imams; and as the Efičina mosque, after hajji Jusuf-aga Efica of Mostar, who repaired it in 1919.
The Masjid of hajji-Jusuf ef. Bašba in mahala Do was built before 1664. It was an endowment of hajji Husein ef. Bašba, whose tomb with a large nišan tombstone is outside the masjid. The remains of a wall can still be seen.
The Hajji-Murat spaho masjid in Galičići was built in the first half of the 18th century. This was in fact the second masjid on this site; the first was demolished after the earthquake in early 1762. It was built not far from the source of the river Buna, on the left bank. It was demolished in 1934, and all that is now to be seen is parts of the wall and the small mihrab.
The Masjid of Ali-paša Rizvanbegović was built by Ali-paša Rizvanbegović in about 1841, outside the tekke and turbe by the source of the river Buna. It was destroyed by a large rock in 1885. Parts of the walls and foundations are still visible.
The Church of St Basil of Ostrog was built during the Austro-Hungarian period. Work began in 1892 and was completed in 1893; the church was dedicated to the Assumption. The church was built in the neo-Romanesque style.
Burial grounds or harems form part of the mahala complexes. The memorial monuments of Blagaj are located on five sites, four of which are still in use:
The specific feature of these burial grounds are their nišan tombstones, which reveal the indigenous influence of the stećak tombstones and of the orient. The decoration is diverse, based again on both the local tradition and oriental designs; the epitaphs are in Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
The Mekteb by the Careva mosque was built before 1664, and is first referred to in Evliya Çelebi's travelogue. The mekteb is a single-storey building of rectangular ground plan, with two rooms. The mekteb building underwent complete adaptation in 1264 AH (1847/48), as recorded on the inscription incised on a plaque in the south-east façade wall of the mekteb.
The Karađoz-beg hammam is on the right bank of the river Buna, very close to the Careva mosque and Karađoz-beg bridge. It was endowed by Mehmed-beg Karađoz, and built between 1570 and 1664. It is of small size, and in layout is a single hammam, built of stone and brick and consisting of a šadrvan, kapaluk, halvat, hazna and ćulhan (apodyterium, tepidarium, caldarium, boiler room and hypocaustum). This is one of the few hammams built by a river, from which the water was drawn by means of a special channel.
The Haseći Ali-aga han was built before 1664 very close to the Careva mosque. By 1700 it was already dilapidated. It was stone built, with two storeys. The ground floor housed the stables, storeroom and inn, and the first floor the rooms. The remains of three fireplaces are visible on the south courtyard wall, typical of such simple buildings, along the wall on a raised platform. The original appearance of the han was changed by various alterations and additions, as can be seen from walled-up windows, new construction, and new windows.
There were four bridges over the 8 km of the river Buna, two in Blagaj, one in Kosor and one in Buna. Blagaj's bridges, the Karađoz-beg and Leho bridges, differ in certain features from the typological form of 16th century Ottoman architecture.
The Karađoz-beg bridge was endowed by Zaim hajji Mehmed-beg, known as Karađoz, and was built before 1570. The road to Stolac led over the bridge, which has five arches, of increasing span towards the centre. It has twice been repaired, following World War II bombing and following a major flood in 1960. The Karađoz-beg bridge is in use, and is in good structural condition.
The Leho bridge or Lehina ćuprija in Donja Mahala was built before 1664. It is assumed to have been commission by Haseći Ali-aga Kolaković. It had three arches, considerably wider than those of the Karađoz-beg bridige. The slightly pointed barrels were of finely-cut stone. On the upstream side, the piers had triangular breakwaters. The bridge was damaged in the 19th century (prior to 1890), and in about 1930 the piers were replaced in an unsatisfactory manner; only one arch now survives. The bridge has lost most of its original features, with its original appearance radically altered.
The mills by the Tekke. Very close to the source of the river Buna, channels branch off leading water to power the mills. Several mills, stamping mills and two fulling mills were built. There was one mill on each bank of the river. Part of the mill on the right bank of the river has been converted into a souvenir shop; all that remains of the rest of the mill is the stone walls. As a rule mill buildings are simple stone-built structures with gabled roofs clad with stone slabs, and with one or more mills.
The mills in the Velagić complex. Part of the mill is on the bank and the greater part on the branch of the river Buna that flows beneath the Velagić residential complex. The mill is to the west of the houses, not far from them but right by the stables and stamping mill, which is slightly upstreamfrom the mill. Stamping mills were used for washing wool and fulling cloth. The mill building consists of two parts, one built on dry land with a ground and an upper storey, and the other a single-storey structure built over the river spanning the two banks by means of a system of arches. The first part was the miller's living quarters, and the other contained seven mills arranged at regular intervals.
Residential architecture of the Ottoman period
With the economic prosperity of the čaršija, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, when Blagaj reached its peak of development, building in stone also reached its greatest extent. The first stone-built houses were erected by the wealthier classes, but later artisans' families also built sizeable stone houses and summer residences (the Velagić ensemble with ada [eyot], the Kolaković house, the Drljević house, the Kosić tower). The interior and exterior layout of these buildings indicates a wealth of equipment of a functional nature. There is particular emphasis on the decorative features of individual components in wood or stone. The layout of most of these complexes is very similar. Depending on the quality of the building, spacious, shady rooms were arranged around a partly open antechamber, with the same layout repeated on the first floor. The houses were built of local materials - stone and timber. The facades were plastered and whitewashed over quarry stone. Cut stone was used only for details.
The Kolaković house is one of the most striking examples of residential architecture in Herzegovina, and illustrates the evolution of the "Ottoman Bosnian" house. The original simple house with interior hall, dating from the 17th century, was considerably extended later to become a central-type house with central hajat. The residential complex of the Kolaković house consists of a selamluk (men's and "public" quarters) and haremluk (women's or private and family quarters), and is a genuine example of a "gentleman farmer's" house. The distinction between a town house and a gentleman farmer's house lies in the saračhana or courtyard with outbuildings (required for livestock) which, in the case of the Kolaković house, is right by the access road. The saračhana contained a musafirhana or overnight hostel, the mutvak of the musafirhana (hostel kitchen), ahar (stabling) and hayloft, and a house with a veranda. The exact date when the Kolaković house was built varies depending on the source being consulted, but it was probably built in the 17th century and enlarged and renovated in the 19th. It was destroyed during the war in 1993. The remaining walls are overgrown with vegetation.
The Velagić house was built before 1776. "The Velagićevina residential complex is a unique complex of the residential architecture of that time, with a large number of the functional components required for life. It is so sited as to be separated from the outside world, while its exuberant facades seem to disperse as they open to the natural environment and the river Buna. All the courtyards are interconnected and paved with river pebbles. The complex of the Velagić house is the most complete example of a family house complex with outbuildings, where the full scope of the residential lifestyle of Herzegovina in the past is revealed.
The Kosić tower, as an offshoot of mediaeval residential architecture, is a typical fortified house. It is stone-built and stands at the edge of the town, so it probably served some defence purpose, given that the Blagaj fort was on the other side.
The tower is square in ground plan, and has three storeys plus a basement, which was probably used as a dungeon. The top floor was covered over so that no one could fire into the tower. This floor was also fitted with loopholes in the walls, for defence purposes. Within the walls, the tower had all the features of a residential house - a row of cupboards with a hamamdžik (bathroom), and a mutvak (kitchen), so that life could proceed as normal even at times when the tower was being used for defensive purposes. It is now derelict. It was the rule for an odžak or manor house consisting of one or more houses used for residential purposes, with all the features of the developed type of house. This complex includes the remains of a building, probably used in part for residential purposes, but now derelict. Around the tower is a spacious courtyard surrounded by a high wall. The courtyard probably contained other buildings forming part of the complex, but these have not survived
It is impossible to discuss the cultural and historical heritage of Blagaj without also considering its natural values, since its distinctive quality lies in the coexistence of the natural and the man-made, in the integration of the physical structure into the landscape.
Blagaj is a rich natural area, with varied contours, morphologically fascinating, with a pleasant Mediterranean climate of mild winters. In a relatively small area one can find both pronounced karst forms with steep slopes (Blagaj hill, Stjepan grad) but also level or gently sloping vales and river banks. The river Buna, though short, with its outstandingly clear water of high quality, is the habitat of a great many rare and endemic species of world ranking (the soft-lipped trout, the nose carp, the marble trout). Eagles once soared above the ramparts of the Blagaj fort, emerging from the cliffs above the source. When he travelled through this remarkable kasaba in 1663, Evliya Çelebi marvelled at the beauties of nature there; in his Seyahatnama he describes it as a place where eagles do not shun men . . . to the south of the fortress were once entire forests of pomegranate trees that sprang up and then disappeared.
This region is specific for the diversity of its above-ground and underground hydrography. The source of the Buna is the finest example of an underground karst river (producing approx. 30 m3/sec), one of the largest and most beautiful in Europe. The region is also known for the diversity of its flora and a number of endemic species. At lower altitudes there are many evergreen plant and deciduous thicket species, while at higher altitudes in the hills there is sparse forest. Fertile cultivable land is suitable for the agriculture typical of the Mediterranean climate.
The natural and architectural ensemble of Blagaj forms a spatially and topographically self-contained ensemble. Blagaj is one of the most valuable urban-cum-rural structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, distinguished from other similar structures in:
- its much-ramified, disjunct urban layout, organically linked solely with the position of the čaršija as the central functional element;
- the presence of the fortress of Stjepan grad, to which two minor and one major road formerly led.
Blagaj's urban structure, spatial physiognomy and organization can be traced from the mediaeval outskirts of the fort, which were transformed in the Ottoman period into a kasaba (town), and then into an administrative centre. The Austro-Hungarian period brought no changes to Blagaj's urban development. The period between the two world wars was marked by stagnating urban development, lasting until 1961 when there was a sudden increase in the population and unplanned building of residential areas.
An analysis of Blagaj's architectural heritage and old urban quarters (mahalas) indicates that buildings of major monumental and townscape value occupy a relatively confined area along the river Buna: from the Leho bridge to the source of the Buna, and from Bunsko and Harmana mahalas to the Džamija or Carska (Imperial) mahala (by the Bunsko brook).
These constitute the boundaries of Blagaj's historic centre, with the oldest mahalas and the čaršija, the crafts and trade area. The other mahalas (with the exception of Do and Podgrađe) were much more sparsely populated, and their names were often derived merely from the toponyms of older residential areas.
Both oriental and Mediterranean features are to be seen in Blagaj's urban layout, while the settlement itself was the outcome of the influence of a number of different factors: the natural configuration of the terrain, and socio-economic relations. A perfect harmony between each house and its environs was achieved. Residential complexes took on a new relationship with the outside world. The expansiveness and openness of the čaršija streets was dictated by the need to build free-standing, and at times entirely isolated buildings, so that the courtyard became the most important area of the house. These residential complexes consisted of several different buildings serving different purposes, standing on a plot that was entirely open to the natural surroundings and forming a single unit with the architecture of the buildings. This is at its most striking in the case of the Velagić and Kolaković complexes.
According to the nomination for the list of national monuments in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the title Townscape ensemble of the town of Blagaj, drawn up by the Institute for the Protection of the Cultural, Historical and Natural Heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the source of the Buna with its cliffs constitutes a geomorphological natural monument, and the source of the Buna a hydrological natural monument.
Blagaj presents one of few urban ensembles in Bosnia and Herzegovina preserved in their integrity to the present time developed through the several phases of the history, beginning with the medieval period. Its important strategic role during the middle ages gave the power of its inhabitant to build up one of the most important, and best preserved ensembles within the city walls in this region.
Blagaj can be compared with some of the world heritage sites as: Natural and historical ensemble of Jajce (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Museum-City of Gjirokastra (Albania), Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), etc. The layout of Blagaj, its architecture and use of materials put it into the group of Ottoman Mediterranean types of small settlements.