Episode 25

From Spain to Sarajevo: Tracing the Sarajevo Haggadah's Remarkable Odyssey

Published on: 8th October, 2023

In this special episode, I delve into the captivating world of the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the world's rarest and most significant historical documents. Join me as i unravel the mysteries and stories surrounding this ancient manuscript, which resides in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

My guest for this episode is Aleksandra Bunčić, a passionate scholar and art historian who has dedicated her life to studying the Sarajevo Haggadah. Together, we embark on a fascinating exploration of this unique manuscript, shedding light on its origins, significance, and the journey it took from medieval Spain to Sarajevo.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is not just a religious text; it's a visual masterpiece. Aleksandra reveals the intricate illustrations and illuminations within the manuscript, some of which have no parallels in medieval art. We learn about its connection to the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Sephardic Jews who arrived in the region in the 16th century.

But how did this remarkable artifact survive the turbulent history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including periods of occupation and conflict? Aleksandra shares the heartwarming story of how the Haggadah was protected during the Bosnian war and used for its intended purpose during the most challenging times.

As we delve deeper into the production process of medieval manuscripts, we gain insight into the collaboration between Jewish scribes and Christian illuminators. Aleksandra discusses the elaborate and painstaking process involved in creating such manuscripts, shedding light on the craftsmanship that has allowed these documents to endure for centuries.

Throughout this episode, we discover the universal messages and themes found in the Sarajevo Haggadah—messages of separation and unity, darkness and light, and the journey from slavery to freedom. Aleksandra's dedication to preserving the Haggadah's legacy and sharing its story with the world is truly inspiring.

As we conclude our conversation, we reflect on the future of the Sarajevo Haggadah. Aleksandra's hope is that more scholars and individuals worldwide will recognise its value and come together to ensure its preservation. The manuscript is currently on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, open to the public twice a week, allowing visitors to witness its beauty and history.

So, if you're eager to learn more about this extraordinary manuscript, plan a visit to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, explore their official website, and seek out scholarly resources and artistic interpretations inspired by the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Thank you for joining us on this enlightening journey into the world of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It's a testament to the power of art and history to transcend time and bring people together.

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It's an Englishman in the Balkans podcast. And today is a very, very special episode of the podcast because it's about something that I feel not many people know about, especially when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina. There's a lot of history involved in what we're going to be talking today. And sometimes when you research things online...


you don't actually get the real answer. And I'm going to qualify what I've just said.


because, yeah, it depends on what you read. So the best person to tell a story about something is somebody that works with it all the time.


Now I'm joined today by Alexandra Bunčić. Alexandra is a scholar and an expert.


when it comes to one of the most rarest documents in the world.


And that document resides in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.


anyway, but I think it's from:


As normal, the question goes, to start the podcast, who is Alexandra Bunčić? Thank you so much for the invitation and for the interest in this manuscript. And we did not reveal yet what we will be talking about and what is the manuscript in question. You said it correctly. It is housed at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.


When it comes to me and the question who I am, I'm an art historian and a scholar, and I'm very passionate about the art history and the mysteries that are connected with this, I dare to say, very important and significant manuscript. Alexandra, what is the Sarajevo Haggadah?


And why is it considered so significant? So in general, the Haggadah is a book read on Pesach, or Passover, that is a Jewish holiday commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from a 400-year captivity in Egypt as described in the book of Exodus. Haggadot, which is a plural of Haggadah, emerged as a separate volumes.


at the beginning of 14th century, following the expunge expansion and influence of Christian book production. The Sarajevo Haggadah belongs to a group of Iberian Haggadot of which only 15 are known to survive and you put it so correctly that it's a rare manuscript if we consider its historical, artistic and cultural value.


The Sarajevo Haggadah contains the most extensive cycle of illustrations depicting both the book of Genesis and the book of Exodus, which is to some extent unusual because the story of the Haggadah itself is connected with the events described in the book of Exodus.


The Sarajevo Haggadah is significant not only because of the story that it contains, the biblical story that it illustrates, but also the history that it tells, and that is the journey from Spain, medieval Spain, where the manuscript was produced, to the Sarajevo, to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So how did it actually end up?


in Sarajevo? Well, that is the question that historians or art historians don't know the actuality or the precise list of the events that led the Sarajevo Haggadah to end up in the Sarajevo are of course not known and we are seeking the scholarly ways and studies to give the


possible options and arguments of how this could happen. So although we don't know the exact date or place of its productions, there are some clues within the manuscript that enable us to peek, so to speak, into its history. For example, we have a page, Chalachmanya, which has three


coat of arms, one of which is connected to the county of Barcelona. And of course we have some other features, for example the style and the art, how the certain figures are executed that would put this Haggadah into a certain region within the medieval Spain of course. We do know that


anuscript was produced around:


since back in the Middle Ages, book production was a very elaborate process and only a wealthy person could commission such a richly illustrated manuscript. It was due to a fact of watching a Turkish television series on Netflix called The Club and it opened up to me the story


of Jewish people who had left Spain during the Inquisition and arrived in Turkey, and that they spoke a very unique language called Ladino.


At the same time, here in Banja Luka, at the Banja Luka Fest, a lady came to sing in Ladino. I then found out that there are three families in Banja Luka who are Sephardic Jews and the grandfather used to speak Ladino.


How many people came to what is now Bosnian Hezegovina from Spain back in those days when the Haggadah was created? Thank you for that question. It's actually an important one because we want to trace the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah from medieval Spain to Sarajevo. And there are many bumps on the way and we are trying as scholars to connect the dots along this journey. So


We do know that first families arrived in Sarajevo around or at the beginning of the 16th century and we have Ottoman records that mention some Sephardic families. However, we don't know and it's possible to claim that the Sarajevo Haggadah came with those families because within the manuscript we have some other spots on this journey including


early modern Italy, where the manuscript was at the beginning of the 17th century. So there is a historical journey connecting three dots in the history of the Sarajevo


by a Roman Catholic censor in:


records and also at the records of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have a mention of the manuscripts when a family member of Sephardic coin family sold the manuscript to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So this gap and how the manuscript reached from Italy to Sarajevo is something that we still explore.


and tried to figure out the possible ways, one of which is that the unfair circumstances for Jewish communities in Italy back in the, let's say around mid-19th century were circumstances that led owners of the Sarajevo Haggadah to move from Northern Italy to Sarajevo and to settle here. So what makes the illustrations in it?


and the illuminations in the Sarajevo Haggadah unique. So I believe that it's the visual interpretation of the certain biblical episodes that do not have any parallels in any form of art throughout the Middle Ages. For example, the first image in the creation cycle illustrating the pre-creation moment where the golden wavy lines represent God.


or facelessness angels ascending and descending from heavens in the episode of Jacob's letter. So the illuminator of the Sarajevo Haggadah had actually unique visual interpretation and understanding of the text of the Tanakh and used this visual interpretation to transform into very unique.


say subtle visual language. Bosnia and Herzegovina has had more than its fair share of crisis and chaos. From before the Turkish Ottomans came, then there was the time of the Austro-Hungarians, the First World War. Then the sad...


events of the Second World War, Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is occupied by three different nations. And then more recently, the tragic inter-ethnic conflict which Sarajevo really, really suffered under. So how has the Haggadah survived these historical challenges through wars and conflicts?


Thank you for that question. It's really important in addressing the circumstances and how as people we can safeguard and take care of our national artifacts or monuments that represent our mutual history.


I would say that it's a genuine admiration and acknowledgement of the beauty and importance of the Tsarevohogadah, a unique document that is nowadays recognised by institutions around the world, including UNESCO, and also by the first and nowadays also staff of the museum who is for


130 years taking care not only on the Sarajevo Haggadah, but also on other artifacts that are of value for the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my country, in my history, we learned through art as well. The last occupation of Britain was from the Normans and the story of that Norman invasion


is taught in all schools through the bio-tapestry. So this artwork is an amazing storytelling medium. What stories does the Haggadah tell us? I would say, for example, there are some key themes or stories depicted in the Sarajevo Haggadah that we can resonate with today.


There are two images or pages that I would like to bring your attention and attention of the listeners and people who will be watching the podcast. The first one is within the part of the Illuminations depicting Yom HaChad or the first day of creation as the Genesis story teaches us, when God separated the lights from


the darkness and this depiction is almost 21st century abstract art where you have a clear division of the two opposite poles, one depicting the light on the right hand side and the other executed in black depicting the darkness on the left hand side.


teaches us to distinguish what is important and what is not important in our life. So to speak, what brings us the darkness and what brings us life or light into our lives. The other image that I would like to mention here is within the text of the Haggadah in the Codex itself.


and it's richly decorated, ascending Hebrew letter, Lamed or El, that reminds us that we should give honour to the one who made all the miracles and took us from slavery to freedom, from servitude to redemption, from sorrow to happiness, from mourning to festivity.


and from deep darkness to great lights. Living in those unprecedented times, I believe that every individual can resonate with the messages that this quote brings. It's a great storytelling document. And like other medieval documents as well, people are still trying to work out how it was actually put together. How did the craftsmen and artists


use their skills to create something that lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years.


What is your understanding with your project about how this medieval manuscript was produced? First of all, there are several things that are important to mention here. First, in the middle ages, the book production moved from scriptorias in monasteries to urban workshops, leading to expansion of the titles that were covered and also


the titles that did not include only or exclusively secret text, but also track teases on astronomy, astrology, medicine, and so on. So, as I mentioned, manuscript production is a very elaborate process that involves several stages from skin production, from preparing animals, slaughtering them, and preparing...


their skin for parchment. That is the first one. Then the outlining of the pages and how the manuscript will actually look like. And that stage also involves scribes and oftentimes illuminators. Sometimes that would be the same person, but oftentimes that would be two different people working on production of single volume.


When I mentioned production process, I also have to mention that it's a very elaborate process, very expensive process back in the Middle Ages, and producing a single volume could take up for a year. And it would, as I mentioned, involve several individuals working together, including scribe, illuminator,


oftentimes a religious advisor and commissioner who would express his wishes on how he wants the manuscript to look like. It is also important to mention that back in the Middle Ages, Jews were not allowed to be members of guilt.


So we do have some understanding that Jewish scribes and Christian illuminators worked together in the production of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, but we do lack knowledge about where those manuscripts were and how the process itself was developing and was followed by.


In nowadays it's very important to mention modern technology that enables us to study medieval manuscripts, including Jewish illuminated manuscripts in ways that were not possible before. And some of those methodologies and technologies are non-invasive technologies, which means that minimum damage would be made


the manuscript or to desert an artifact by exploring its features that now we can study for example inks, we can study the production process how the manuscript was gathered in the medieval book workshop and also the different animals that were used for the production of the


For example, in the project that I'm lead scholar to it, nowadays we are able to distinguish different species that are used for the production of certain folios or pages, parchment leaves within the Sarajevo Haggadah. Back when the Jewish people were expelled from Spain as a result of the Inquisition.


The Roman Catholic faith at the time was the dominant Christian faith.


There hadn't been any protests, there hadn't been any Protestants at that time. And so they have expelled the Jewish community from Spain, and yet you've said that there is this multi-faith component to the Haggadah with Jewish scribes and Christian artists doing the artwork as it were.


How did that happen? How was that allowed to happen? Well, that's a very tricky question and as I mentioned, we don't have enough information. We do have more of the information about the encounter between Christian illuminators and Jewish scribes happened in the group of Haggadot that are connected with the central...


European region, that means Ashkenazi Haggadot. We do not have, unfortunately, enough information about the workshops in medieval Spain and how this encounter happened. However, we do not know, we know that those encounters happened on multiple fields, including art, but also on the marketplace, with very strict regulations,


one another of it could communicate and do their business. I know that the Jewish community shrank for various reasons which we all know about historically since the Second World War, but the small Jewish community now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what is their relationship to the Haggadah? So I think that


Generally speaking, not only for the Jewish community of Sarajevo, but I will mention that in the moment as well, but generally to Jewish communities around the world, the Sarajevo Haggadah is a manuscript idea to say we make pilgrimage to. And it serves us as a mirror that reflects both the times of prosperity and times of darkness.


It is a witness to different circumstances, challenges and changes that happened to Jewish communities back in medieval Catalonia, as I mentioned, and also in early modern Italy. The SarajevoHaggadah also reflects the life of Bosnian Sephardic community and, if you will, of Jewish community nowadays.


But to some extent, the manuscript itself locks its historical, religious and cultural value within its pages. And although the Sare Vohoghada is now in a different setting, which is museum setting as an artifact, and not in a family home to be read during the Pesach, during the holiday,


purpose remained almost the same, and that is to teach us and to transmit the story of the Exodus to the future generations. Dorvador, as the text of the Haggadah mentions, from generation to generation, as we are obliged to tell the story of the Exodus and salvation from the slavery in Egypt, every single Pesach.


My hope is that the Sarajevo Haggadah will outlive us all and that we are here to share the story and its uniqueness with the world. A lot of seriously important religious documents, books, etc., are now held in museums. But on certain occasions, they are removed from the...


from the museum and used as a reference for maybe a ceremony or something of great importance. Does the Haggadah still get removed from its resting place in the museum for use in any Jewish celebrations? I have to say that nowadays not. The Haggadah is on display at the museum twice a week.


on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to one o'clock. And it is pulled away only for the scholarly analysis, not for religious purposes. However, I know, although I was very small back then during the war, that the Sarajevo Haggadah was removed from the museum.


to serve as Haggadah within this purpose that it has and for purpose that it was produced during Pesach celebration in the war, in the recent Bosnian war. Alexander, how can people, you said it's open for viewing at certain times during the week.


And I think it's very important that people that visit Bosnia-Herzegovina, that visit Sarajevo should see this. As a scholar, do you think there's going to be the possibility for people to see it for longer periods of time, where it could be open to the public, or is it kept away for not only security, but the way that the environment treats manuscripts these days? Yes, it's a very important question.


question and it adds to the value of the manuscript and also sharing the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah with the world and with the visitors not only to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina but around the world and this podcast is one of the ways of sharing these stories, the story. However, as I mentioned, the Sarajevo Haggadah is open for public twice a week.


on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I believe first Saturday in the month from noon to one o'clock when visitors are invited to admire its beauty and the history that it tells. And there are also some other ways that people can learn about the Sarajevo Haggadah.


including this podcast and also some other information, including the information from the official website of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina and also the official web page of the UNESCO Memory of the World Heritage List. I think it's an absolutely fascinating thing that more people should know about. It certainly is part


of the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina pre-Turkish occupation. And for me that is the most unusual part of the history of the country because it seems that everything for a foreigner, for a tourist starts when the Turks arrive. But the country has so much more in the way of stories and history before that.


Yes, I agree, but I just want to correct you in the terms of when the Haggadah came to Sarajevo, and that is definitely after the Turkish occupation or the Ottoman occupation. So, the first records that we have of the Sarajevo Haggadah, although, as I mentioned, we don't know the exact time or who brought the manuscript, we know that it came


th century, to be precise,:


So although it is nowadays part of Bosnian and Herzegovinian cultural heritage, the manuscript was produced back in medieval Spain, and it was brought to Sarajevo, to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was back then ruled by Austro-Hungarian Empire. How many people in the Jewish community that still remains in Sarajevo, and maybe the one or two, three people that


live outside in rural Bosnia and Herzegovina. Aleksandra, how many people still speak Ladino? Well, it's unfortunately not many. I would say that people rather sing in Ladino than speak in Ladino. There are some attempts not only within the Jewish community of


Bosnia and Herzegovina but around the university, but at the universities around the world to preserve the language and to bring new speakers that are able to speak and communicate in Ladino. Some of the initiatives are connected with the University of Washington and also there is the language project that...


enforces the investigation of the Ladino language and its preservation. Two years or three years back, I believe it was pandemic. I would say last speaking, last person speaking Ladino language passed away and I would recommend, highly recommend documentary based on


Alteratz, Morris Alteratz individual and the movie that describes his life and also portrays well the importance of preservation of Ladino language within the Jewish community, but as I mentioned also in a world setting.


and an expert who is so passionately involved with this project.


What would you like to see as the end result of all your work? Is it a museum that is built around the Haggadah as its own subject? Do you think it should stay in a national museum? What would you like to see the final result for the Haggadah, for people in the world to know about it?


Well, as a scholar, we also always try to escape the finality of the things, leaving the place for future discoveries and a study of these important manuscripts. So, what I hope and believe that will happen is that the more scholars and people around the world will recognise its value and


They will unite to help the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina to preserve not only the Haggadah, but also other artifacts that are of equal importance and that stand along with, proudly, I would say, with the Sarajevo Haggadah. For people that are watching or listening to this and have been enthused by it,


What can they do to find out more for their own education, for their own satisfaction? First of all, they can visit the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And as you mentioned, this is the purpose of promoting or inviting people to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina. So, I encourage those who are able to travel to visit the National Museum and to see the Haggadah.


in its showcase in the room and to listen to the curators explaining more about its cultural and religious significance. The second thing is people can visit the official page of the National Museum and read a little bit more about the manuscript, also involving the official record of the UNESCO.


a heritage list where the Sarajevo Haggadah is inscribed as a unique monument to the humankind. They can of course listen to this podcast and read more about the Sarajevo Haggadah in different venues. So you would have scholarly venue that describes the art and history of


to depictions or images illustrating biblical events or history in Italy and so on. Then you have venues or artworks that are inspired by the Sarajevo Haggadah but do not necessarily have the foundation or the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah in their core. For example, there is a music play.


inspired by the Sarah of a hugger die and also a fiction book inspired by the Sarah of a hugger die. So there are plenty of options and nowadays that we live in virtual world we can easily use google and search for the options that we are interested in. Alexandra thank you so so much for giving me your time today.


I'm thoroughly intrigued now for the next time that I go to Sarajevo. I've got to be there on that day between midday and 1 to go and see it. And with a bit of luck, Tamara and I can catch up with you for a coffee and find out a lot more. Alexander Buncic from the Haggadah Project in Sarajevo Bosnia and Herzegovina, thank you very, very much for an exceedingly...


exciting podcast. Thank you so much for your time and your interest in sharing the Sarajevo Haggadah story and the positive stories from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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An Englishman in the Balkans
Find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina
Encouraging people to find out more about Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"Welcome to "An Englishman in the Balkans" podcast, hosted by David Pejčinović-Bailey.
In this podcast, you'll get a unique look at life in Bosnia and Herzegovina through the eyes of an immigrant. Each episode, David shares his experiences living in this often misunderstood country, and introduces you to some of the interesting people he's met along the way.
From exploring the rich culture and history, to discussing the challenges and joys of immigrating to a new country, this podcast offers a thoughtful and engaging look at life in the Balkans.
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David Pejčinović-Bailey

I am a podcaster, living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and sharing my experiences of living in this often misunderstood country.