A stunning ode to the pain of devsirme

Travel Guide to Muslim Europe With travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

The first idea of the bridge, which was destined to be realised, flashed, at first naturally confused and foggy, across the imagination of a ten year old boy from the nearby village Sokolovici, one morning in 1516 when he was being taken along the road from his village to far-off, shining and terrible Stambul (Istanbul) … A little way behind the last horses in that strange convoy, straggled, dishevelled and exhausted, many parents and relatives of those children who were being carried away for ever to a foreign world, where they would be circumcised, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the ranks of the janissaries or in some other, higher, service of the Empire. They were for the most part women, mothers, grandmothers and sisters of the stolen children.”

“Here, at the Visegrad ferry, even the most enduring had to halt for they were not allowed on the ferry and were unable to cross the water. Now they could sit in peace on the bank and weep… until on the farther bank of the river they could see once more the long drawn out convoy of horses and riders as it moved onwards towards Dubrina, and tried once more to catch a last glimpse of the children who were disappearing from their sight.”

Thus imagined the Yugoslavian novelist Ivo Andric in his Nobel Prize-winning book about the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovici bridge in Visegrad called The Bridge on the Drina.

The little boy in Andric’s book is a young Bosnian-Serb called Bajica – then still known by his Christian name. At the tender age of ten, he was being taken to the Ottoman imperial capital as part of a child ‘harvest’ in the villages of eastern Bosnia – the Turkish empire’s cruel blood tribute known as ‘devsirme’. The practice involved stealing the ablest sons of Christian families across the empire and enlisting them in the janissary – an elite infantry unit in the Ottoman army.

Bajica would grow up with the name Mehmet Sokollu – to signify his village of origin – and become Mehmet Pasa Sokollu, the most powerful Grand Vizier in the history of the Ottoman empire – from 1566 until his controversial murder in 1579, it was Sokollu and not the lazy Sultans above him who was the de facto ruler of the world’s most powerful empire. In other words, for 13 years, little Bajica from Sokolovici was the most powerful man in the world.

For Andric, the Mehmed Pasa Sokolovici bridge on the river Drina – a masterpiece of Ottoman bridge building – is more than just another of the many stunning monuments this powerful Grand Vizier commissioned. Andric imagined it as Sokollu’s attempt to heal the pain and anguish he would’ve no doubt carried around his whole life as devsirme. Its building, as Andric puts it, was an attempt to “bridge the steep banks and the evil water between them (mother and son), join the two ends of the road which was broken by the Drina and thus link safely and forever Bosnia and the East, the place of his origin and the places of his life.”

The waters that pass beneath Sokollu’s bridge as it leads into the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad are of course not evil. Viewed on a sunny day from the road that winds its way down through the nearby mountains, the elegant work of masonry art seems to float on an unbroken canvas of blue, where the Drina and the sky become indistinguishable. The fact that Sokollu’s imagined dream was realised by a fellow devsirme, someone even more famous than the Grand Vizier himself, only adds to the bridge’s poignant significance. It was built by Yusuf Sinanuddin or Mimar Sinan Agha, the Chief of Royal Architects. Sinan was the devsirme to actually first imagine the eleven elegant arches stretching 179.5 metres across the Drina. It is the unmistakable artistry and engineering of this most famous of all Muslim architects that make this beautiful bridge look as if indeed it will last forever.

Built in 1577, Sokollu’s bridge was bombed and partially destroyed during World War I. However a faithful rebuild led to UNESCO recognising the bridge in 2007 as “a remarkable architectural testimony to the apogee of the classical age of the Ottoman Empire … erected by one of the most celebrated builders of the Ottoman Empire”. The inclusion of this stunning ode to the pains of devsirme on UNESCO’s World Heritage list means it is now protected for all future generations, so they too may reflect on the unimaginable horror endured by those Christian mothers halted on the banks of the Drina – and countless other rivers across the empire – unable to follow their stolen children as they were taken away from them forever. Built by two of their most famous sons, there is no greater tribute to the memory of those long-forgotten hapless women.


Where in the world: The Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic Bridge spans the River Drina leading into the town of Visegrad in east Bosnia and Herzegovina, close to the country’s border with Serbia.

In and out: The easiest and quickest way to get to Visegrad is to fly into Sarajevo and self-drive the two hour journey through the Bosnian countryside. There is also the option to board a bus from the eastern edge of Sarajevo to Visegrad which takes 3.5 hours.

Top tips: Why not jump on one of the Drina boat tours that pass under the stunning bridge and admire it from a different perspective? If you are interested in Andric beyond his connection to the bridge, be sure to visit nearby Andricgrad, a purpose-built tourist town dedicated to the works of the late Yugoslav novelist.


Tharik Hussain spends much of his time travelling
across Europe in search of the continent’s fourteen
centuries of Muslim history. You can follow his
work at”

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