2.1 Sonic Iconography


I use the term “religious sonic iconography” (Zećo 2019) to denote religious voicing in public spaces, such as the peal of church bells and the Muslim call to prayer. These sounds are charged with meaning in the post-conflict space of Sarajevo. The term sonic iconography indicates the carrying of potent connotations; their power lies in the realm of belief and myth, with religious institutions playing a central role in the determination of their meaning. Many residents are proud that the city is still home to communities of Muslim, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Jews, whose main places of worship are only a few hundred meters apart in the city center. The sound of multiple religious calls voicing together is a soundmark of Sarajevo, “a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community” (Schafer 1994: 10). 


Traditionally, the sonic range of the church bell would circumscribe the area of an individual parish, and Schafer points out that Christian missionaries used the sound of the bell for “acoustically demarking the civilization of the parish from the wilderness beyond its earshot” (Schafer 1994: 55). This indicates a colonial place-making connotation of the bell, the symbolism which, according to Schafer, “has diminished or ceased” in many societies today in relation to Christianity. However, the role of a bell in marking both the time and religious rituals in multireligious and post-conflict spaces has its own contemporary significance. 


The visual and sonic presence of Islam in Western Europe through the sonic and visual presence of mosques is a contested issue. In the UK, mosques are rarely allowed to play a call to prayer, and when they do, it is “often only for the midday and afternoon prayer, this makes for a further ‘acoustic’ claim on the non-material spaces of a locality” (Gilliat-Ray and Birt 2010: 144). 


In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the connotations of both churches and mosques are combined and complicated depending the area in which they are voiced. Similar to churches, each mosque has a community of worshippers who usually live close enough to hear its call to prayer. This call permeates the public sphere five times a day, from sunrise to sunset. The times of the calls change with the seasons, and occasionally they chant on the hour, coinciding with church bells. During these moments, both voice their presence in unison.


I made this recording unplanned on a Sunday morning in my neighborhood. It is from the area where my father was wounded several times at the beginning of the war in 1992. The incidents took place not far from a then improvised war hospital, where he was treated. During that time, the neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the city, and my mum, sister and I stranded in another part of the city, did not hear a word from him for months. Dogs often bark during morning call to prayer.


Mosques in Bosnia and Herzegovina often use amplification systems that increase the volume of the Ezan (call to prayer). Although churches might use amplification as well, the loudness of the Ezan also depends on the vocal performance of the mujezin (muezzin), who, prior to widespread use of amplification, was visible on the balcony of the minaret.


The use of amplification in public spaces is generally reserved for protests, advertising in shopping districts of large cities, and various alarms and bells used for schools and security systems. The sound of church bells and the call to prayer could be perceived as evidence of multireligious communities coexisting. This can also be considered a key example of the instrumentalization of sound for the territorial demarcation of public space.


According to the architectural historian Azra Akšamija, during the Bosnian War, approximately 72 percent of mosques were destroyed or severely damaged, and 70 percent were rebuilt after the war (2010: 321). The reconstructions of mosques and the sound of their call to prayer were symbolic of healing and recovery. However, the actual number of new mosques and, to a lesser extent, churches that have been (re)built in Sarajevo is often debated. Most of Sarajevo’s mosques were located in the old town, while socialist-era neighborhoods did not contain places of worship. Following the war, a case was made for building mosques in these neighborhoods (Akšamija 2010). 


One of the most criticized mosque construction projects after the war in Sarajevo was the Ciglane Mosque. Ciglane, a neighborhood built in the 1980s and home to about 5000 inhabitants in 2010, had not contained a single religious building prior to this mosque, which was considered to be “a sign of the intensification of Islam in post-war and an example of an ethno-national demarcation of territories” (Akšamija 2010: 333).


The other example mentioned by Akšamija is the largest mosque in the Balkans – the King Fahd mosque and Islamic Cultural Center, built with the aim of promoting “intercultural exchange between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Bosnia and Herzegovina” (2010: 342). The mosque and cultural center have been either heavily criticized or promoted by groups with opposing views. In these discussions, taking place in the media and within communities, the presence of the call of prayer and the degree of its amplification was debated.


Sarajevo has never opened up a public discussion about the sources of funding for these new religious buildings, which did not exist before the war. The fear is that foreign investments in religious buildings and cultural centers might result in radicalization within communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and threaten the zajednički život (common life) of the different religious communities and identities living together. Religious identities are closely intertwined with ethnic and national identities in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country of three constitutive peoples, Bošnjaks (Bosniacs), Serbs and Croats. The debate around places of worship is closely linked to national identities and representation in governance. The project of re-affirming identities in which religious and national factors play defining roles is at the heart of the country’s political problems. As historian Robert Donia puts it, “Sarajevans have yet to discover or invent a full spectrum of cultural, political, and educational institutions that are free from both communist and nationalist authoritarianism” (Donia 2006: 352).


Sonic iconography presents one of the most potent examples of the use of sound (daily) as an ideological vehicle in public space. In the post-conflict society, the sounds of church bells and Ezan permeate the spaces surrounding spires and minarets. The sound waves meet, interweave, and infiltrate public and private spaces. Against the backdrop of the city’s turbulent history in the last century, one might wonder as to the purpose of such a distinctive sonic presence of religion in the city.


The following quotation – written in 1920, shortly after the end of the First World War – reveals the complexity of resident’s perspectives on religious voicing in the city:


Whoever lies awake at night in Sarajevo hears the voices of the Sarajevo night. The clock on the Catholic cathedral strikes the hour with weighty confidence: 2 am. More than a minute passes (to be exact, seventy-five seconds – I counted) and only then with a rather weaker, but piercing sound does the Orthodox church announce the hour, and chime its own 2 am. A moment after it the tower clock on the Beys' mosque strikes the hour in a hoarse, faraway voice, and that strikes 11, the ghostly Turkish hour, by the strange calculation of distant and alien parts of the world. The Jews have no clock to sound their hour, so God alone knows what time it is for them by the Sephardic reckoning or the Ashkenazy. Thus at night, while everyone is sleeping, division keeps vigil in the counting of the late, small hours, and separates these sleeping people who, awake, rejoice and mourn, feast and fast by four different and antagonistic calendars, and send all their prayers and wishes to one heaven in four different ecclesiastical languages. And this difference, sometimes visible and open, sometimes invisible and hidden, is always similar to hatred, and often completely identical with it. (Andric 1920/1992: 117-118)


The soundmarks of Sarajevo, described above by Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Ivo Andrić, enact territorial demarcation through sound. The multiethnic tensions that Andrić writes about worked as a catalyst for the First World War and would tear the country apart again toward the end of the 20th century. The turmoil and pain experienced during the recent war will be felt for many years, leading to social isolation and economic hardship. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and its health care system is corrupt and inadequate. 


At the same place that Andrić describes in his text, I recorded the plea of an unknown young man who is seeking help for another boy named Ivo Andrić: Naš dragi Ivo Andrić je dječak iz Sarajeva koji je nažalost obolio od metaboličkog oboljenja. Pomozite dragi građani našem dragom Ivi Andriću da ovaj dječak nastavi sa svojim liječenjem. (Our dear Ivo Andrić is a boy from Sarajevo who unfortunately became ill with a metabolic condition. Dear citizens, help our dear Ivo Andrić so that this boy can continue his medical treatment.) This young man repeated this plea incessantly for several days while collecting money for his sick family member or a friend in front of the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sarajevo. The site is a well-known meeting place and is packed with cafés and street vendors. 


Due to the state of the health care system in Bosnia and Herzegovina, children are often sent abroad for treatment, which is financed solely through charities. It is common for relatives to collect money for their loved ones and solicit for donations in public. Cases of fraud and fake appeals are also common.


This appeal for help is just one example of how listening to a particular sound can lead to a wealth of contextual information. Listening that embraces the contexts of the site can generate knowledge that links sensory stimuli, autobiographical memories, and broader histories of place in intimate ways.


Sound File 6: Dobrinja Neighborhood – Religious Calls


Sound File 7: Appeal for Help for Ivo Andric in Front of Sacred Heart Cathedral