Unravelling the secrets of stećci - Bosnian medieval tombstones

Ljiljana Krejic | Live the World

November 23, 2022

What Khachkars are for Armenia and Celtic crosses for Ireland, those are stećci for Bosnia & Herzegovina. Slightly different from its international equivalents, stećci are monumental medieval tombstones, as well as distinguishing artworks and historical trademarks of Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is estimated that 60,000 stećci are scattered across the country, usually in hardly reachable locations, such as forests on high altitudes, and often in poor condition. Due to its invaluable historical importance, these Bosnian medieval tombstones were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016. Stećci medieval tombstone graveyards are the third UNESCO site in Bosnia & Herzegovina, with two other ones being the Bridge on the Drina River in Višegrad and the Old Bridge in Mostar. So, let’s unravel the secrets of Bosnian stećci.

The origin of stećci

Located mainly in the southeastern part of Bosnia & Herzegovina, stećci appeared in the 12th century reaching their peak between the 14th and the 15th century, before disappearing under the Ottomans occupation. The word stećak (singular of stećci) is a contracted form of an old South Slavic word “stojećak”, that comes from a verb “stajati” (to stand). So, stećak would literally mean “a tall, standing thing”. However, some stećci are vertical tombstones, while others are horizontal. Either way, they were all cut in massive limestone blocks, designed in different shapes and decorated with religious and traditional symbols, as well as Cyrillic inscriptions. While the origin of stećci is still argued, it is sure that it was a common tradition in the Catholic, Orthodox and Bosnian Church, and not belonging to one particular religion.  

22 Bosnian necropolises – UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Picture © credits to Wikipedia/NordNordWest

These monolithic gravestones are typical for Bosnia & Herzegovina, but also its neighboring countries – Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. Altogether some 70,000 stećci are scattered all over these regions. However, only 4000 of them, spread over 28 necropolises, are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Even though shared with three other countries, stećci are mainly Bosnian cultural heritage, so no wonder that 22 necropolises out of 28 protected ones are situated in Bosnia & Herzegovina.  The best-preserved and largest necropolis is Radimlja site. 

The most important stećci site – Radimlja

Picture © credits to commons.wikimedia/Senad.sabovic

Radimlja necropolis is the most famous and most important stećci site in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is located near Stolac, the oldest town of Bosnia & Herzegovina and only a 30-minute ride from Mostar. Radimlja is one of the best-preserved necropolises and contains decorated tombstones dating back to the 1480s. The necropolis includes 133 stećci, where almost half of them are decorated with valuable ornaments of a high artistic quality of workmanship. Among the characteristic motives of stećci, we can see architectural ornaments on all four sides of tombstones, stylized crosses, human and animal figures, grapevine, hunting and weapon motives. The symbol of Radimlja necropolis is a male figure with a raised arm with a big hand and fingers, announcing to the visitors that they will be friendly welcomed. 

Other Bosnian necropolises 

Picture © credits to commons.wikimedia/Senad.sabovic

In the region of Stolac and the Stonehenge of Bosnia & Herzegovina – Daorson, there is another important stećci site – Boljuni necropolis. Perhaps less famous than Radimlja, Boljuni necropolis with its 274 stećci showcases cross-shaped tombstones, that create a particular atmosphere. Some 100 km towards the north, in the spectacular highlands of Blidinje Nature Park and an alpine Blidinje Lake, one can find another necropolis - Dugo polje. With its 150 tombstones, this medieval stećci site is placed in probably the most scenic setting. Standing as silent spectators, these stone sleepers witness of rich history and economic power of medieval Bosnia & Herzegovina. While unravelling the secrets of stećci, we have seen that Bosnian medieval tombstones belong to a truly unique and invaluable cultural heritage of this region. 

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