I am honored to be here today at Stari Grad Fortress to mark the opening of a year-long conservation and restoration project supported by a $75,000 grant from the United States’ Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.
The United States is proud to partner with the Regional Museum of Travnik to support this project, which will repair damage caused by earthquakes in Petrinja, Croatia in 2020 and in Stolac in 2022. I applaud the museum’s commitment to preserving Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cultural, historic, and natural heritage, including its longstanding efforts to restore this national monument and preserve it for future generations.
The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation was established 22 years ago to support projects that preserve a wide range of cultural heritage, including historic buildings, archaeological sites, ethnographic objects, paintings, manuscripts, indigenous languages, and other forms of traditional cultural expression.
Since the fund’s inception, the United States has supported more than 1,000 cultural preservation projects worldwide. Here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States has provided more than $2.4 million in funding to support 23 projects dedicated to preserving cultural heritage, including the reconstruction of the structural foundation of the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka; the restoration of an Orthodox and a Catholic Church near Mostar; the restoration of part of the historic Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo; conservation and reconstruction work at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina; the reconstruction of part of the historic building that houses the Museum of Contemporary Art of Republika Srpska, and now, the project here at Stari Grad Fortress.
There is still some debate over who built this impressive fortress or exactly when, but most historians believe it was constructed at the end of the 14th or beginning of the 15th century. Some of its architectural and decorative elements suggest it may have even belonged to someone of noble origin – possibly even royalty – a theory supported by the presence of a stone plate that used to hang above the fortress entrance that mentioned the name of Bosnian King Tvrtko II Kotromanić – though, unfortunately, it was too damaged to decipher the entire text.
From where we are standing today, it is easy to understand why someone within the medieval Bosnian Kingdom ordered the fortress’ construction. It occupies a commanding place along the Lasva river valley, which served as an important thoroughfare to the Bosna River valley and the heart of medieval Bosnia. The Ottomans, too, recognized Travnik’s importance making it the capital of the Eyalet of Bosnia in 1553, again from 1697 to 1833, and finally from 1839 to 1851. Over the years, the Ottomans expanded and enhanced the medieval fortress, creating what we see here today.
This site and other cultural heritage sites across the country are powerful examples of the long and rich history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a history shaped by the interactions of different peoples and different cultures that produced something unique in the heart of the Western Balkans and in Europe. That, I think, should be a source of pride for all of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history, despite what certain politicians want you to believe, belongs to all its citizens whatever their ethnic heritage and however they identify themselves.
Now, to be clear, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history, like the history of any country, including my own, is complicated and messy. It contains both tragedy and greatness. This can be a source of friction in a multiethnic society, but Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history does not need to be a source of permanent division or a cause to separate. In fact, preserving cultural heritage can help people connect with the past, promote dialogue and shared understanding, and build opportunities for a better future. It is an inescapable fact that the history and culture of a place are shared by the descendants of all those who shaped them, and they remain forever entwined.
When I was young, our family holidays often involved visiting America’s historic sites: President Washington’s home at Mount Vernon; the Gettysburg Battlefield; Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the United States’ Women’s Rights movement; and Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglas’ home. They set fire to my imagination. What was it like to live here without the conveniences of modern life? How did the men who fought here find the courage to go into battle, and what were they fighting over? Was their cause just? These trips laid the foundation for a lifelong interest in history and a passion for learning.
Historic and cultural preservation of sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina, like Travnik’s Stari Grad Fortress, are important because they provide the young people of this country a gateway to another world, just as Gettysburg did for me. It is a gateway to a world in which imagination and intellectual exploration are encouraged and rewarded. This, in turn, helps young people develop skills that are essential to living a productive life in a common civic space: most importantly the capacity for critical thinking. This is essential for spotting attempts to distort and abuse history, which occurs in every country, but is particularly prevalent here in the Western Balkans. Of course, there is another benefit. Studying history is fun, and walking through history and touching it, like you can here at the Stari Grad Fortress, is particularly exciting.
I look forward to learning more about the history of Stari Grad Fortress and seeing some of the specific areas this project will address when we tour the site this morning. I hope that our investment here is an inspiration to the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to invest more in protecting and preserving the country’s shared historic and cultural heritage, not just in Travnik, but in Kulen Vakuf, in Pocitelj, in Zvornik, in Bocac, and in the many other locations around the country where your heritage is found.