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Islamic architecture and Orientalizing style in Habsburg Bosnia, 1878-1918

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Illuminating ‘the Kaiser’s Mosques’

The analysis of a distinctly orientalising style of architecture in Bosnia uncovers power imbalances on 19th-century Europe’s Balkan border.

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Between 1878 and 1918, Bosnia-Herzegovina fell under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. Decision-makers in Vienna and Budapest faced the challenge of governing a diverse society previously dominated by Muslim elites. “Somewhat paradoxically, this rule was accompanied by an unprecedented renewal of Muslim infrastructure,” explains Maximilian Hartmuth, an art historian at the University of Vienna and THEKAISERSMOSQUES project coordinator. A significant body of buildings designed by central European architects during this period drew on an Islamic architectural typology that included mosques and madrasas. An orientalising style was developed in order for form, function and modernising vision to match. The THEKAISERSMOSQUES project, which was funded by the European Research Council, investigated this little-known experimental intersection between European and Islamic architectures in this region around 1900. The main goal of the project was to validate the argument that such buildings should be considered a distinct group of architectural monuments, one which should be studied as such.

Documenting a distinct architectural style

Many of the buildings in this unique architectural style typically show bands in alternating colours and horseshoe-arched windows. While some have been documented, many have not, so the researchers undertook fieldwork in Bosnian towns to find them. Investigations also took place in archives and libraries. “Fundamental to the expansion of the inquiry were analyses of the existing scholarship on the subject and of primary sources – mostly the languages of Bosnia and German, but also Ottoman Turkish, which continued to be relevant among Bosnia’s Muslim elite.”

Devising a new chronology

The project established that architecture in an orientalising style was once more widespread and visible than today. The team identified over 100 relevant buildings in this style in various parts of the country. The researchers also proposed a new chronology focused on several key turning points. A first was the decision, in 1884, to renovate Sarajevo’s most prominent mosque in a style that drew upon elements of historic Islamic buildings in the wider Mediterranean – as opposed to restoring its Western-influenced late Ottoman phase. Another turning point followed in 1891: The Orientalising style ‘graduated’ from a ‘Muslim style’ to a ‘territorial style’, when it was deemed appropriate style for not only religious but also administrative buildings. This style spread to almost all corners of the country with the help of central Europe-trained architects and engineers. A third turning point came on the death in 1903 of Benjámin Kállay, the ‘colonial administrator’ associated with an untamed eclecticism which then became the object of criticism. Many later projects feature reduced ornamentation and a simplified colour palette.

A steady stream of publications

The team have already published two edited volumes and a monograph based on their findings, with another volume and a single-author monography currently under review. Two monographies focused on visual documentation of little-known major works are to follow in 2024. “The publications will be the project’s most lasting legacy,” says Hartmuth. The team will then publish more findings about Bosnia, especially in smaller towns, which will hopefully boost understanding of this region’s architectural history, and perhaps also cultural tourism to the area. “We hope international travellers and locals will visit destinations such as Travnik and Banja Luka, and even lesser-known ones in the region,” adds Harmuth. “Many buildings’ fascinating stories must be reconstructed before they can be spread.”


THEKAISERSMOSQUES, Habsburg, empire, Bosnia-Herzegovina, oriental, style, Ottoman, mosques

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