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Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo

Date of Submission: 03/04/2018
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Coordinates: N43.85 E18.38
Ref.: 6334

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Jews began to settle in Sarajevo in the early 16th century, at a time when the city was beginning to experience a rapid development (Zlatar, p. 57). The earliest documentary source referring to their presence is a document in the sijill of the Sarajevo court dating from 1557.  Another surviving Sarajevo sijill dating from the 16th century,  more precisely from 1565, refers to Jews as traders in fine cloth and fine leather (sahtijan). In the late 16th century, the Grand Vizier Sijavush Pashabuilt a large caravanserai known as Sijavush Pasha’s Daira, which Jews called Kortiž. Somewhat later the Old Jewish Synagogue was built alongside itas the first sacral edifice of Sarajevo Sephardic Jews. Its architectural style echoes that of their temples in the faraway Spain.

Travelling through Sarajevo in 1659, the famous travel chronicler Evliya Çelebi noted that the Jews lived in two neighbourhoods (mahalas) in Sarajevo (Čelebi, 1954, p.117). At the end of the 17th century in Sarajevo there were over 50 Jewish households (Istanbul, Maliyeden mudewer defter No 1439). Following the Austro-Hungarian occupation, Ashkenazi Jews moved into Sarajevo too, and a year later, in 1879, they already decided to set up their own community and build a synagogue (Zlatar, pr. 62). 

Historiographical information suggests that the Sephardim settled in Sarajevo in several stages during the 16th century, and that the first Jewish community was established by around 1550.  Shortly after this, in 1558, the Hevra kadiša burial society was set up.

There is no sound documentary evidence of the origins and development of the cemetery prior to the 16th century, but it may be safely deduced from information derived from the records of the Jewish community that it was founded in 1630.

At the conference in Berlin in April 2011, the Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo was recognized as important cultural property which could be included in the serial nomination together with other possible partner countries.

An initiative for a serial transnational nomination of Jewish cemeteries was proposed by ICOMOS Germany and the Jewish Community of Germany. At the conference in Berlin in April 2011, the initiative and examples of Jewish cemeteries in European countries (Poland, Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, etc.) and the cemetery in Berlin were presented with the methodology of recording the cemetery. The methodology was proposed as an example of work which could be used for other cemeteries, since the serial nomination should be based on common principles and methodologies.

The burial complex lies on a steep site and covers a total area of 31,160 sq.m.  There are more than 3,850 tombstones in a total of seven plots, along with four memorials erected to the victims of Fascist terrorand several cenotaphs.[1] The complex also includes a big Ashkenazi ossuary built in 1962 after the exhumation of the old and the new Ashkenazigraveyards. In 1966, the cemetery was closed for burials.

It is typical of the Jews to "bury" damaged books and records in a separate vault known as a Geniza, as is also the case with this cemetery.  It is supposed that "Geniza" (the grave for damaged books) is located in the southeastern part of the cemetery. The first burial took place on 3 July 1916. It is known that 14 crates of holy books were buried in the second burial ceremony. The exhumation of Geniza to determine its content is under way (Tauber, PP for the Commission).

The Complex of Jewish Cemetery comprises the following:

Entrance gates

The cemetery has three entrance gates.  The main, monumental gate is in the North wall, facing the city, and a smaller one on the opposite, South side of the cemetery. The third gate is at the South West corner of the cemetery.


Traditional Sephardi tombstones are simple horizontal slabs or empty sarcophagi in shape, with incised epitaphs.  These tombstones follow the model of Spanish tombstones, and have nothing in common with those of Sarajevo.  The care lavished by the Sephardim on their tombstones, even when living in exile, is evidenced by their cemeteries in Amsterdam, London, Altona and elsewhere. These tombstones often take the form of a slab as large as the grave itself.  More highly finished examples consist of sarcophagi with gabled roof and stepped plinth.  These large, heavy pieces of stone were intended to prevent anyone from moving or desecrating the grave. During the baroque period, tombstones were decorated in a similar style to the memorial plaques set in church walls. The symbols present are universal sepulchral designs: a felled tree, a broken rose, a skull, hair, a torch on its side, an hourglass, the genius of mourning, Biblical scenes and so on.  The head end of the tombstone bore the coat of arms of the Sephardi family.

The tombstones in this cemetery may be divided into several types based on style, shape and certain symbols:

-   horizontal monolithic slabs and chests, with or without epitaphs. These shapes are directly descended from the shape of stećak tombstones and the thread linking the Sephardi tradition of simple forms with the indigenous transitional style in the sepulchral art of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the turn of the mediaeval and Ottoman periods;

-  monolithic ridge-shaped and composite (empty) sarcophagi.  These tombstones invariably have epitaphs, which also derive from the stećak tradition and that of the ancient sarcophagal forms;

-  there are also variations on the chest shape and on the sarcophagus, the upper side of which may be flat, rounded, stepped-rounded, ridged, or with a typical foreshortening in height and width from the front to the rear of the tombstone.

On the old tombstones, the decorative designs are executed rustically and schematically, intended to emphasize the status and occupation of individual members of the Jewish community.  An outstretched hand is associated with the graves of Cohens, symbolizing blessing and sanctity, a book suggests a scholarly person, a staff denotes a priestly figure, and a kid or lamb symbolize the Jewish people, the Lord's chosen, redeemed people, with other items or animals standing for the various peoples with whom the Jews came into contact (more common in the case of the Ashkenazim).  An egg is a symbol of life and death, of rebirth.  Astral symbols – circle, rosette, semicircle or semi-ellipse, crescent moon – use the vocabulary of those times relating to the eternal themes of cyclical universal movement to the soul's final destination.  In some views, light is the symbol of the soul, with its association with human immortality, while the path to understanding these symbols leads through the religious and eschatological spheres and through deciphering the epitaphs themselves on the tombstones.

Several possible sources must be borne in mind when identifying the origins of these designs:

  • Mediaeval
  • Islamic, and
  • Sephardic

but an elucidation of them must certainly be given in relation to local syncretic elements, the sepulchral cult itself, and their purely decorative role on the tombstone.

Cemetery chapel (Ciduk Adin)

The chapel is on the NorthWest side of the cemetery.  It was built in 1923-1924 and is the work of the engineer Scheiding. Architecturally, the chapel is typical of buildings in the spirit of historicism, as seen in the blend of disparate stylistic elements, particularly the decorative features with their roots in the tradition of the Jewish people.

There is also a fountain and a perimeter wall.

[1]Cenotaph, an empty memorial tomb with the names of people who died elsewhere and the location of whose graves, as a rule, is not known.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Criterion (ii): Old Jewish Cemetery is an authentic graveyard complex that developed following the settling of Sephardic Jews in the city of Sarajevounder Ottoman rule (1463-1878), when the First Jewish Community was founded in 1550, and the Hevra Kadiša burial society in 1558. Expelled from Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews developed a specific sepulchral culture with unique tombstones that differed from those found in autochthonous graveyards of those Jews who settled in other parts of the Ottoman Empire, Italy or Africa as well as from Ashkenazi Jews’ tombstones.

It is assumed that the first tombstones were located alongside the Borak necropolis of stećak tombstones. Their similarity with these tombstones that date back to the medieval Bosnia is astonishing. The size of stone blocks is similar to that of stećak, while their position on the steep terrain echoes the residential culture of the city, where it was an unwritten rule to make sure that one’s neighbour has ”the right to a view”, with houses arranged in a seemingly disorderly manner, but in such way not to obstruct the view of one’s neighbour. The tombstones arranged in such a disorderly manner, along with the flora and atmosphere, resemble local Muslim cemeteries.

The sepulchral culture of Sephardic Jews in Sarajevo, whose tombstones resemble the medieval stećak, are made of local stone and are characterised by exceptionally valuable epigraphy and specific landscape, which is a proof of assimilation of Jews with local population under the Ottoman rule. Due to all the aforementioned specific features, the great number of tombstones, and the fact that the Jewish tradition and culture continues to be cherished in Bosnia and Herzegovina to our days makes this heritage site unique in the world.

Criterion (iii): Old Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo is an exceptionally valuable graveyard complex and represents the heritage of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. The artistic and aesthetic value of tombstones, built to keepthe memory of the dead, is very extraordinary.

The tombstones were made of local stone modelled after the shape and size the medieval stećak tombstones the Jews found when they settled in the area of Sarajevo, such ashorizontal slabs and various shapes of sarcophagi: flat, rounded, stepped-rounded, ridged, or with a typical foreshortening in height and width from the front to the rear of the tombstone.

These tombstones are of a particular value for their epigraphy: relief and incised letters of the square Jewish alphabet, placed mostly on their North, front side.

Ornamental motives on tombstones bear a multiple symbolic meaning deriving from the medieval, Islamic and Sephardic tradition as a testimony that, while being loyal to their own cultural heritage, Jews embraced the culture they found in the city. They consist of traditional, sacral and profane elements with geometric and plant motifs.On the oldest tombstones motifs are simple, emphasizing the status and profession of individual members of local Jewish community.

The above-mentioned characteristics make the Jewish Cemetery a unique historical and architectural monument that bear witness to the existence of Jewish cultural tradition, their expulsion and history, religion, language, epigraphyand art, as well as their burial custom and other intangible forms of culture.

The old Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo is the second largest Jewish sepulchral complex in Europe, the one in Prague being the largest.  It is also one of the most significant memorial complexes in the world. It represents the eternal proof of coexistence of two or more different confessions under different administrations and rules, and the proof of mutual respect and tolerance.

Criterion (iv): Old Jewish Cemetery is an exceptionally valuable example of sepulchral culture that was based on the tradition found by Ashkenazi Jews when they settled in Sarajevo, and developed in parallel with the growth of the city through different stages and different political systems.

In Sarajevo, unlike in most of the European cities, in parallel with development of the city, the cult of neighbourhood and mutual respect of its citizens was cultivated. Such customs were reflected in the city’s architectural style, the way of living, and in the way urban houses and streets (mahalas) functioned. Houses, built on the slopes of surrounding hills, have simple geometric shape, without decoration, made of natural materials and organised in a seemingly disorderly manner, yet following the unwritten rule in the development of the residential culture of Sarajevo that every house, i.e. every family should enjoy the right to a view. Houses were connected by narrow alleys and the landscape is marked by an abundanceof vegetation.

Sephardic Jews settled in Sarajevo by mid 16th century and their life in the city was not limited to a ghetto. They fully embraced the local principles of life relating to the cult of neighbourhood and those good neighbourly relations have been kept to date. Tombstones in the oldest part of Jewish Cemetery are simple, made of stone and arranged in the same way as Bosnian houses, without an obvious strict order, yet with the right to a view secured to one’s neighbour. The cemetery developed along with the city and with the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews the way of marking the grave changed. The Ashkenazi Jews’ tombstones were made of more expensive stone, had more ornaments and were arranged in an orderly manner.

Criterion (vi): In the South East part of the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, there is a Geniza, the place where damaged books that could not be used any longer were buried. Books are buried because they contain the name of God. In addition to the books that were so old that they had to be buried there is one book that was carefully preserved: the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Thanks to the exceptional ingenuity and resourcefulness of individuals that stemmed from the feeling of respect for Jewish community and its culture, the Sarajevo Haggadah is still kept in the National Museumof Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Sarajevo Haggadah was produced in medieval Spain, in the province of the then Kingdom of Aragon, most probably in Barcelona, around 1350, as a wedding gift for members of Shoshan and Elzar families whose coats-of-arms can be found in the book next to the coat-of-arms of the city of Barcelona. Haggadah isa Jewish ritual book that contains Biblical tales, prayers and psalms linked to Passover, dedicated to the liberation of Jews from Egyptian slavery and represents the oldest and the most opulent example of this type of codes. It is interesting that this Haggadah was preserved both in the time of Inquisition and in the modern wars, when individuals sacrificed their own lives or posts to save this invaluable book.

Jewish Cemetery is also linked to, the preservation of Jewish intangible culture by way of preserving the Ladino language that is still spoken by several members of this community. Rabbis, the oldest of whom was Samuel Baruh, and distinguishedmembers of Jewish community who participated in the development of commerce, business, scientific activities, as well as arts and culture of the then Sarajevowere buried in Jewish Cemetery.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Fleeing from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1496), Sephardic Jewsstarted settling in Sarajevo at the beginning of the 16th century, while the Ashkenazi Jews started settling in the city after Austro-Hungarian occupation of the country, by the end of the 19th century.

The old Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo is the second largest Jewish sepulchral complex in Europe, the one in Prague being the largest. It is also one of the most significant memorial complexes in the world. It contains over 3,850 tombstones and it is a significant and unavoidable segment of the chronicle of the Jews starting from the mid 16th century until the cemetery was closed in 1966. The Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo is a document on certain aspects of life of Sephardic Jews and later of Ashkenazi Jews in the city.

The oldest part of the cemetery is thought to be the part that took shape by the mediaeval necropolis of stećak tombstones, nearby an old quarry from which stone was extorted both for medieval stećak tombstones, as well as for Jewish tombstones.

Based on the information derived from the records of the Jewish Community, the burial society Hevra Kadiša was formed in 1558, and it may be safely deduced that the cemetery was established in 1630. The Sephardic Jews in this part of the world created unique tombstones, whose specific shapes and symbolic motives, cannot be found on Jewish tombstones elsewhere in the world.Uniquely designed Sephardic tombstones in Sarajevo can be best interpreted by the characteristics of merging of Sephardic tradition, that contains the sediments of Judaism, Ancient Roma, medieval European and Spanish civilisations with the tradition of Sarajevo and of the country as the whole.

Thanks to its centuries long presence, Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo, as part of urban spatial culture, which reflects tradition and culture,acquired the status of sepulchral art monument that represents complex spiritual symbols of the past and longevity.

Since 1951, when Jewish Cemetery was placedunder the protection of the state, research, conservation and restoration works have been continuously conducted. In 1991, Jewish Cemetery was added to the list of the 1st Category Monuments, which was confirmed in the 2002 Spatial and Zoning Plan of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2004, Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo was designated as a National Monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Comparison with other similar properties

Expulsion from Spain and Portugal, by mid 16thcenturyand the rule of the then Ottoman Empire in the Balkan region represent the beginning of the development of Judaism in the Balkan Peninsula. The settling of Jews in the Ottoman Empire was supported by sultans since they knew that Jews were literate and educated people knowledgeable of the basics of Medicine and Pharmacology, were good craftsmen and merchants who would contribute to a better life in the occupied territories. Given this benevolent stance of sultans, Jews were not limited to living in ghettoes.

Expelled from Spain and Portugal, the Sephardic Jews developed a specific sepulchral culture with unique tombstones and their position different from autochthonous graveyards of the Jews that settled to other parts of Ottoman Empire, Italy or Africa and different from those of Ashkenazi Jews. They fully embraced the local principles of life relating the cult of neighbourhood and those good neighbourly relations have been kept to our time. It is assumed that the first tombstones were located alongside the Borak necropolis of stećak tombstones. Their similarity with those tombstones that date back to the medieval Bosnia is astonishing. The size of stone blocks is similar to that that of stećak, while their position on the steep terrain echoes the residential culture where it was an unwritten rule to make sure that one’s neighbour has ”the right to a view”, with houses arranged in a seemingly disorderly manner, but in such a way as not to obstruct the view of one’s neighbour.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are several Jewish cemeteries, i.e. in Visoko, Travnik, Zvornik, Banja Luka and elsewhere, but since these are smaller towns, there is no cemetery that is bigger and more valuable than the one in Sarajevo.

The oldest Jewish cemetery in the Republic of Croatia is in Split; it was established in 1573 and has 700 tombstones, the oldest of which dates back to 1717. The shape, size and landscape of this cemetery are totally different from the Jewish Cemetery in Sarajevo.

Given the shared origin of Sephardic Jews and different countries where they settled, any comparison with European cemeteries indicate different conditions in which they were founded and, consequently, in their differences. There are two Sephardi Jews cemeteries in London. The Velho Cemetery was founded in 1657 and closed in 1737, when the New Sephardi Cemetery was opened. This cemetery has tombstones with characteristic horizontal slabs laid on the ground in a very orderly manner and clear pathways between the rows of graves. According to all their features, none of these cemeteries bear any similarity with the Sarajevo Jewish Cemetery. The Jewish Cemetery Altona Königstrasse in Hamburg was founded in 1611 and is the oldest cemetery in this city. It occupies 1,9 hectares, with  tent-shaped tombstones that are laid horizontally. These tombstones are lavishly ornamented with floral motives, rosettes with geometric motives and with pilasters.

The burial complex occupies the total area of 31,160 sq. meters and has more than 3,850 tombstones, which ranks it as the second largest cemetery, after the one in Prague. The period when it was established, specific historic and political circumstances, the features of its location, and its exceptionally valuable tombstones make this cemetery the invaluable monument of world significance.