The necropolis at Boljuni is a lush carpet of yellow, blue and mauve. The uncut grass and wildflowers are overhung in places with the low branches of trees laden with blossom. The air in this quiet valley in southern Herzegovina is filled with the soft hum of bees.
The village of Boljuni, and even more so Radimlja a few kilometres away to the north, are among the best sites in the Balkan region for learning about stećci. These are distinctive, mediaeval tombstones, mostly from the 14th or 15th centuries, though some may date back as far as the 12th century.
Stećci of various kinds are found throughout the lands of the former Kingdom of Bosnia, which reached its maximum extent under King Tvrtko I in the late 14th century. That kingdom extended south to the Bay of Kotor, west to the Adriatic coast at Šibenik and well east of the River Drina into modern-day Serbia. Stećci are thus a feature of the cultural landscapes of Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and — above all — Bosnia and Herzegovina.
These enigmatic tombstones come in various shapes. There are horizontal monoliths, commonly shaped like chests, while others are gable-roofed sarcophagi. Yet others are more simple slabs or upright stelae or pillars, with the occasional massive cross or other form. Often carved in bas-relief with a plethora of decoration, and with epitaphs or gnomic inscriptions recorded in the Bosnian Cyrillic alphabet, they are one of the region’s most distinctive art forms from the mediaeval or indeed any other historical period.
These ambassadors of history have powerfully influenced the Balkan imagination — most particularly in modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, where literature and art from recent decades have often been inspired by or alluded to these silent sleepers which grace the landscapes of the region.
Encounters with history
The stećci are a puzzle which invites us to rethink the relationship between history and the present. But it is in the nature of riddles that they do not admit of any easy solution — as the quote from Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar above shows. So these peculiar tombstones are a respite from the contested geographies of identity which are all too prevalent in modern Bosnia and which were rehearsed in issue 43 of hidden europe magazine.
The decoration on stećci is frequently astonishing — stylized floral motifs, spirals and crosses, fleurs-de-lis and bunches of grapes alternate with more ancient symbols including stars, suns and crescent moons. Look more closely and you’ll find arcades, stylized anchors, swords, shields and bow-and-arrow motifs interspersed with animals, battles, scenes of hunting and dancing. Especially distinctive are the large human figures, often described as ‘ducal’ — somewhat top-heavy, dressed in tunics, with (usually) one arm raised, palm open. Fascinating things.