The Amazing Life of the Ottoman Bosnian Ahdname

A 15th-century Ottoman document presented to Bosnian Franciscans is part of a much larger story of the encounter between Christianity and Islam and how it evolved over centuries

The Amazing Life of the Ottoman Bosnian Ahdname
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Sarajevo’s Franciscan Theological Seminary is a modern place with an art collection containing traces of the fascinating history of the ahdnames, documents from the Ottoman era setting out rules for living that find echoes in the conflicts of modern Bosnia.

I visited the seminary one Sunday afternoon this past June. It wasn’t my first time in a Franciscan space in Bosnia. As a historian of Ottoman-ruled Bosnia and Franciscans, I had frequented their monasteries in search of documents for nearly a decade. But unlike ancient monasteries with foundations laid in centuries past, this seminary, built in the 1960s, is a sprawling, airy complex mimicking a modern convent. Its inner courtyard used to host chickens and rabbits, now only cats and a dog. Inside, stylized crucifixes and abstract canvases by some of the most renowned contemporary artists from the region hang along its long corridors and classroom walls.

I went there for the art. Or, rather, I was looking for traces of history in their artistic collection, curious how the legacies and memories of the Ottoman past shaped the Bosnian and Franciscan present. I was already well-acquainted with Franciscan history under Ottoman rule and have written about multiple ways that the Ottoman Empire shaped this Catholic institution. The Franciscans usually tell a very specific story about their Bosnian history, based on a particular Ottoman document, known as the ahdname. The ahdnames generally signify a pledge or treaty granting protection and jurisdictional or commercial rights to various foreign communities. In this case, Sultan Mehmed II presented the ahdname to the friar Andjeo Zvizdovic upon the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia in 1463, pledging to protect Franciscan “souls, property and churches,” an oft-cited phrase. The friars and the wider Bosnian Croat community regard the ahdname as a foundation of their history in the land, as well as the main vehicle of their survival under Ottoman Muslim rule.

Yet in the seminary that day, I came across a contemporary and more complicated version of the story of this document. I found it not in the archive but on the imposing canvas painted by the late Croatian artist Djuro Seder in 1998. Called simply “Ahdnama,” the painting featured two men locked in a stern gaze, the scroll tucked between them, like a bone of contention. The sultan and the friar, the main protagonists of the historical narrative, resembled each other. Were it not for the turban and the tonsure, it would be difficult to tell them apart. Rather than a representation of a historical event, the painting is a vivid metaphor for how two communities of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnians of Muslim heritage (known as Bosniaks) and Bosnian Croats, strive to define the meaning of the country’s past and their own place in its present. The deliberate strokes of earthy colors trace both tensions and intimacy at the core of competing interpretations of the ahdname’s historical role.

Strange and even exotic to a modern reader, ahdnames were a fixture of Ottoman chanceries. Ottomans issued numerous ahdnames to various conquered and vassal communities as well as to European trading nations. These were usually detailed stipulations concerning taxation, modes of legal representation and various other rights and obligations concerning communal governance. They vanished from the diplomatic practice and parlance together with the empire, becoming of interest to historians rather than diplomats.

Yet the ahdname to the Bosnian Franciscans is something of an outlier even for historians and, as such, it has never captured the attention of mainstream Ottoman scholarship. Compared to the other known ahdnames, its content is short, abstract and somewhat vague. Its dating is curious, too. The copy of the Bosnian ahdname as we know it today does not have a year, only a date — May 28 — recorded in the Gregorian rather than Hijri calendar, which the Ottomans normally used. Because of these and a number of other conundrums related to its script and vocabulary, the ahdname’s authenticity came under the scrutiny of professional historians at the turn of the 20th century. However, the consensus is that, although the copy now displayed in the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Fojnica is likely a 16th- or 17th-century fabrication, the ahdname was indeed issued and its text is authentic.

The friars never doubted the ahdname’s authenticity. Still, they must have felt some anxiety about it; the first time I visited Fojnica in 2015, they pointed out that they were in possession of physical evidence that it was real. I didn’t make much of this until I stumbled upon an article published in the journal “Radiocarbon” in 2017, in which a team of Croatian scientists submitted the ahdname to isotope testing and found with 95.4% certainty that the paper on which the ahdname is written dates back to the mid-15th century. The paper could be an interesting case study of challenges when hard science seeks to supplant historical methods, but the friars nevertheless had the proof they needed.

Under the friars’ aegis, the document evolved into a powerful cultural reference for articulating modes of belonging to Bosnia’s colorful past and challenging present. It also became an easily recognizable object. Its script and awkward sultanic signature, known as the tugra, in red and black ink, are now a familiar symbol of Bosnian Catholic history. Copies of the document can be spotted on a wall of a family home as well as on the covers of a history book.

In Catholic representations, both pictorial and textual, the ahdname routinely appears in tandem with Zvizdovic. Pairing the document with the friar who met the sultan carries a specific message: The ahdname exists not because it was common for the Ottomans to issue them but because of Zvizdovic’s courage in negotiating with the sultan and his commitment to remain in Bosnia despite its incorporation into the Muslim polity. In the words of the prominent Bosnian Croat author Ivan Lovrenovic, Zvizdovic’s actions ensured “civilizational, political, and ethnic rights” for the Catholics.

One of the latest examples of that conviction is the construction of a 98-foot-high bronze statue of Zvizdovic in Fojnica in 2019. There, together with the life-size sculptures of Christ and the apostles at the Last Supper, Zvizdovic guards the monastery that holds the ahdname. He also towers over the town and its minarets. The symbolism is layered and, perhaps, not so subtle.

In the modern Croat Catholic intellectual milieu, the ahdname is thus bound to the historical memory of the Franciscan sacrifice in the aftermath of the Ottoman conquest. Instead of fleeing westward, they stayed in their homeland at the price of becoming protected but ultimately unequal subjects of the Ottoman state.

Historically, though, the modern version of the ahdname’s significance is not entirely in line with its pre-modern function. Before the 19th century, the ahdname was mostly a bureaucratic instrument. It was a document that specifically regulated the status of the Franciscan order, not of the Catholic community as a whole. The friars used the ahdname to negotiate their own tax exemptions, among other things, rather than to claim a larger communal, let alone national identity.

Likewise, Zvizdovic himself was not explicitly associated with the ahdname prior to the 19th century. He does appear in the pre-modern Franciscan historical writings that recount his encounter with the “Turk.” But these narratives do not invoke the ahdname; rather, they emphasize Zvizdovic’s spiritual purity and miracles. They are primarily hagiographic, aiming to link Bosnian friars with the Franciscan tradition and to draw parallels between Zvizdovic and St. Francis. Only in the 19th century did the Franciscan authors explicitly articulate the relationship between this Ottoman document and the divinely-inspired actions of the friar.

This timing is not surprising. By the end of Ottoman rule in Bosnia in 1878, the ahdname lost its legal significance. The friars thus redirected its discursive potential away from the courts toward the increasingly important and contested cultural arena.

The end of the century was also a time when competing nationalist projects poured into Bosnia from neighboring Croatia and Serbia. With them came different versions of belonging that sought to place the roots of the new nations into the distant past. The ahdname anchored the Franciscans in important historical periods. The fact that the sultan deemed them worthy of the ahdname upon their conquest was meant to testify to their importance in pre-Ottoman Bosnian society.

The arrival in 1878 of the Habsburgs, a Catholic dynasty, did not automatically favor the Franciscans. On the contrary, it challenged their accumulated privileges. Under the Ottomans, the friars worked without the oversight of the bishop and had carved out extensive pockets of power within the Catholic community. But already in 1881, the order was placed under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Sarajevo. Fearing a loss of authority, the friars invoked the ahdname to deflect accusations of the abuse of power and emphasize their historical merits. The ahdname was concrete proof of their willing submission to Ottoman tyranny in order to preserve Catholicism in the land.

This Franciscan cultural project proved successful. To this day, they are strongly associated with the Bosnian Croats and seen as one of the major cultural institutions in the country. As Lovrenovic put it, “there’s no other example in Europe or in the world of such a special relationship and such a symbiosis between the land, its history and culture, on the one hand and the Franciscans on the other, as is the case with the Franciscans in Bosnia.” It is the ahdname, the Ottoman legacy, which played a key role in solidifying that symbiosis by gluing together notions of history and homeland, suffering and redemption.

The consolidation of the Catholic narrative within Bosnian history also entailed the proliferation of the ahdname and Zvizdovic in visual form, turning the document into part of modern Croat Catholic iconography. Long before Seder, it was Gabrijel Jurkic (d. 1974), one of the most prominent Bosnian artists of the 20th century, who translated the Franciscan idea of the ahdname into a recognizable visual form by depicting the document in Zvizdovic’s hands. In his rendition, the aura of deep spirituality dominates the scene. Other than the faint tugra visible on the ahdname in the painting, there is nothing to indicate the Ottoman presence. Zvizdovic is alone in a monastic cell, facing a crucifix, as if in prayer. The image that readily turns up in a Google search conveys a Franciscan historical interpretation in which the ahdname is not so much a product of the Ottoman chancery as it is a special pact between the friars and God himself.

Jurkic’s painting can now be seen in the Monastery in Fojnica, together with the framed ahdname and the reproduction of the 15th-century portrait of Mehmed II by the Venetian painter Gentille Bellini. It is as if this new arrangement seeks to counterbalance Jurkic’s interpretation by reintroducing the Ottomans into the story. Indeed, this change is a testimony to how Franciscan priorities and their monastic spaces have changed over the last half-century. Since the end of the 1990s war especially, Bosnian Franciscans have positioned themselves as a cultural and religious force dedicated to a united and multiethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. The monastery in Fojnica plays an active role in that endeavor. In 2014, the friars opened the door of the new museum, presenting its treasures as representative of Bosnian history and heritage as a whole, rather than of an exclusively Croatian Catholic one.

Although the ahdname permeates Catholic and Bosnian Croat collective consciousness, its meaning remains disputed and these disagreements tend to follow contemporary political fault lines. In some Catholic circles, especially those aligned with the Franciscan Herzegovinian province, the ahdname is a symbol of betrayal and collaboration with the enemy. The enemy, of course, varies. Already, at the turn of the 20th century, certain Catholic circles interpreted the ahdname as a sign of friars entering into an unholy pact with the Ottomans.

When some of the friars supported Josip Broz Tito’s partisan forces during World War II, they too were readily likened to Zvizdovic’s betrayal. Nowadays, the Franciscans nurturing good relationships with their Bosniak neighbors and officials evoke associations with the ahdname as subordination to Muslims. Such interpretations are often indicative of Bosnian Catholic political loyalties to Croatia, rather than to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In contrast, those gathered around Franciscans in Bosnia proper are the ones more generously predisposed to the ahdname and Zvizdovic, reflecting their dedication to Bosnian statehood as well as insistence on a separate Catholic Croat identity within that political community. As time passes, the ahdname becomes embroiled in ever-changing challenges as to how Catholic and Croatian identities in multiethnic Bosnia are to be defined and, more importantly, what that means for their relationships with the Bosniaks.

Ascinica Hadzibajric in Sarajevo is a famous spot to savor some of the classics of Bosnian home cooking. I go there for buttery noodles and juicy “yaprak sarma” (stuffed vine leaves) when I’m in town. I was thus surprised when, on my last visit, I noticed the Franciscan ahdname exhibited high on the wall, facing the image of Spanish King Juan Carlos I’s visit during the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984. Craning my neck to get a better look, I eventually understood why I missed it before. The aesthetics of its presentation were entirely different from the one I was used to in Franciscan circles. Zvizdovic was gone, his place taken by Mehmed II and the prominent display of the ahdname’s text in Bosnian, Turkish and English.

The staff seemed puzzled when I asked them about the story behind the ahdname, as if they forgot it was there. One of them eventually recalled that “a Turk” brought it some years ago. On closer inspection, I saw a note saying it was a gift from TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency.

The ahdname in the restaurant, a historic place owned by a prominent Bosniak family, points at the migration of the ahdname beyond Catholic Croat circles. In what appears to be a novel phenomenon in recent decades, Bosniak and sometimes Turkish institutions have turned to the ahdname to frame their historical narratives and political positions.

TIKA’s appropriation of the ahdname is an example of the document’s political potential. For TIKA, a branch of Turkey’s soft power across the Balkans, the ahdname offers a narrative of a benevolent and generous sultan, a useful historical precedent to TIKA’s investments. To date, the agency has implemented hundreds of development projects, from architectural restorations to agricultural subventions. They pride themselves on supporting all members of the Bosnian society. TIKA even participated in the restoration of the monastery’s museum in Fojnica by donating a fire monitoring system.

In 2014, during Pope Francis’ visit to Ankara and Istanbul, the ahdname even turned out to be a useful diplomatic prop within Turkey itself. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented him with a facsimile of the Bosnian ahdname, a gesture pregnant with meaning. It allowed him to insert himself into the sultanic line of succession by reenacting the role of Mehmed II. The move was certainly significant, given the broader context of Erdogan’s and his party’s neo-Ottoman agenda. At the same time, the choice of the ahdname as a diplomatic gift was a way to confront the Pope with historical evidence of Ottoman benevolence toward Catholics, knowing perhaps that the Vatican could hardly come up with an equivalent.

Beyond political pragmatism, there is also a concrete history behind why Muslim political and cultural actors might look to the ahdname as a way of vindicating their historical role in Western eyes. From the 19th century onward, Balkan politics has associated the Muslim population with alien Ottomans and Turks. Moreover, the history of the Ottoman conquest and of Islam in general has been associated almost exclusively with brutality and backwardness. Ideas that permeate national histories define the Ottoman conquest as little more than a violent interruption of the political self-actualization of medieval Balkans states. Bosniaks especially, as the historian Edin Hajdarpasic puts it, “figured as a problematic legacy of the Ottoman rule, inextricably associated with ‘alien Islamic’ structures yet intimately integrated into the Serbo-Croatian political and social spaces because of the shared South Slavic language and ‘ethnic origin.’” Such conceptualizations of identity and history eventually supplied the ideological basis for the Bosnian genocide, with Serb nationalists murdering Bosniaks in the name of righting historical wrongs.

Some Bosniak politicians and intellectuals have thus embraced the ahdname to turn this narrative on its head. If you zoom in on the poster in Ascinica Hadzibajric, you’ll read that the ahdname is the “oldest Human Rights Declaration known in history, written in 1463, it was announced 326 years before 1789 French Revolution, 485 years before 1948 International Human Rights Declaration and 29 years before the discovery of America.”

This is a curious, if anachronistic, formulation of the ahdname as a forgotten precursor to modern discourses of political freedom and human rights, typically credited to the West. Even though I have not been able to trace it back to a particular source, it occasionally pops up in similar contexts. In 2006, for example, at the celebration of the 553rd anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul, an adviser to Erdogan praised the conquering Sultan Mehmed for a certain “firman” (edict) in which he granted protection to the people “485 years before International Human Rights Declaration, 326 years before the French Revolution and 29 years before the discovery of America.” The firman in question is clearly the Bosnian ahdname and the verbatim phrasing of the ahdname’s significance repackaged to cast the Ottoman conquest in a positive light.

Closer to home and along similar lines, the former grand mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mustafa Ceric, proposed to proclaim May 28 as the day of human rights. More recently, an edited volume called “Messages of the Ahdname” jointly prepared by the Institute for Bosniak Islamic Tradition and Turkey’s Yunus Emre Institute declared the ahdname a testament to the multicultural character of the Ottoman Empire as a whole. “The Ottoman Empire,” they write, “as an Islamic state is therefore an example of a political order in Europe which in the course of its rule built mosques, Orthodox churches, Catholic cathedrals, and Jewish synagogues. Sarajevo today, like a European Jerusalem, bears witness to this Ottoman heritage.”

Beyond symposia, there are also organizations that have publicly championed the ahdname as a harbinger of a multiethnic and united Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the most dedicated is Bosfor, the Society for the Bosniak-Turkish Friendship. The society, whose aim is to nurture friendly relations with Turkey as well as to celebrate Bosnia as a “multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious” space, awards a prize called the Golden Ahdname (“Zlatna ahdnama”) to individuals and groups who contribute to these values. Among its many recipients are organizations like Mothers of Srebrenica and political activists such as Dervo Sejdic. The latter is an activist for Roma rights and a co-plaintiff in the landmark Sejdic-Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina case at the European Court of Human Rights. Together with Jakob Finci, a member of the Jewish community, Sejdic sued the state for its discriminatory rule preventing anyone outside of the three constitutive national groups — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs — from running for the highest political offices. The rule is the result of the Dayton peace negotiations that ended the international armed conflict between 1992 and 1995 but imposed a system of political representation based on strict ethnic quotas. The ahdname’s appeal as a means of bridging religious and ethnic boundaries has thus become implicated in some of the most burning questions of modern Bosnia, including genocide and contentious electoral politics.

In Fojnica, the ahdname has become a blueprint for not only telling history but also for framing proper moral conduct. I spent a week in the town this summer. On my daily wanderings through its neighborhoods, people from all walks of life shared with me their thoughts, many of which went back to the violent period of war. In 1993, Fojnica’s Bosnian Croat and Bosniak population witnessed the military confrontation between the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), the military organization of the Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, an unrecognized entity pursuing secessionist politics encouraged by the Croatian government. The conflict, part of what is otherwise also known as the Bosniak-Croat War, split the town into two warring encampments and resulted in the killing of two friars by Bosniak soldiers, a deeply traumatic event for the Catholic community. It was during one such conversation that one of the Bosniak religious leaders recalled his own role in the conflict, when he wrote letters to Bosniak army commanders urging restraint and protection for the monastery. In telling his story, he embraced the narrative of the ahdname and likened his advocacy for peace in tense intercommunal moments to Mehmed’s protection of the friars.

Despite the fact the ahdname has become a common cultural and political reference, Croat and Bosniak interpretations of the ahdname diverge in one consistent way. The Bosniak understanding of the ahdname tends to emphasize the positive legacy of Ottoman rule; the one that built, rather than destroyed, a peaceful multicultural society. The Croat narratives make Zvizdovic the main actor of the ahdname, with the sultan acting as a backdrop against which Catholic suffering comes to the fore. The opposite is the case in the Bosniak telling: Here, it is the sultan who plays the main role, while Zvizdovic morphs from a charismatic religious leader to an anonymous non-Muslim upon whom imperial benevolence is exercised.

The differences in interpretation sometimes lead to public confrontations. In 2013 — the 550th anniversary of the ahdname that occasioned a flurry of activities across Bosnia — the Franciscan leadership issued a statement criticizing some of the ways in which Bosniaks celebrated the document. The statement said that, for Catholics, the ahdname is not a cause for celebration but for mourning. Its anniversary was a time to remember the Catholic “national tragedy,” by which they meant the fall of the Bosnian Kingdom. They then implied the Ottoman period was a time of darkness, in which the ahdname was perhaps “a small spark of light,” but mostly a “dead letter” often disregarded by the authorities.

The Franciscan reaction lays bare the central impasse of the ahdname and its modern role. For Bosnian Catholics today, the ahdname requires constant straddling of different ideas. They rely on the ahdname to emphasize their rootedness in Bosnian political and cultural life, their readiness to share the land with others, namely with Muslims, but also — and this is what those outside of the community seem to miss — to claim the role of a historical survivor. They espouse seemingly-opposing notions of pride and hope, as well as sorrow and sacrifice; the ahdname becomes both a blessing and a curse. The ambivalence of historical meaning and memory lies at the core of Bosnian Croat identity politics: how to square the past, rooted in imperial society, with the demands of modern nationalist politics? This is further compounded by interference in Bosnian politics by neighboring countries, in this case Croatia.

There is a tendency in both journalistic and academic publications to focus on one particular thing when telling the story of the ahdname: the “famous speech of Friar Andjeo with the Sultan.” This oration and the conversation between the two are casually referred to as a fact. The recently published “The Messages of the Ahdname” even quotes the purported speech, without offering a citation or source. There is, in other words, a fixation on the enactment of the famous meeting, so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget that there is no contemporary evidence of what might have transpired between the friar and the sultan back in 1463. We have no idea whatsoever what the two men might have said to each other, if they had, in fact, ever come face to face at all.

Perhaps it is precisely the uncertainty, the silence at the core of the encounter, that is central to the ahdname’s enduring appeal. This piece of paper is the only palpable testament to the encounter and most, if not all, of its interpretation has been preoccupied with giving voice — to the actors involved as well as to their own political agendas. Whether “real” or not, the memory of that event is of enormous significance because it ultimately stands for the meeting of the perceived opposites — of Islam and Christianity, of the powerful and the weak. It is the confrontation of multiple dichotomies and tropes around which both global and local conflicts have been structured and with which members of Bosnian society contend every day.

One result of the urge to voice the ahdname is numerous attempts to turn the encounter into a drama. Already in 1933, the friar Leonardo Cuturic, guardian of the monastery in Fojnica, penned a three-act play about Mehmed’s conquest and Zvizdovic’s resistance. Still unpublished, the play stages scenes based on the anti-Ottoman/Muslim Franciscan accounts, abounding in Orientalist tropes and prejudices toward non-Catholics.

More than half a century later, in 1998, another play appeared, this time by the author Dzevad Karahasan. “Temptations of Friar Andjeo” is a monodrama featuring Zvizdovic battling his inner demons — fear, doubt, anger and hopelessness — as he considers confronting the sultan. Karahasan wrote the play just three years after a devastating war. In his rendition, the encounter of the two members of different faiths about sharing the same living space had a concrete urgency. His is certainly one of the more original takes on Zvizdovic and Mehmed because it examines personal responsibilities and commitment to living in a multireligious space.

Some of these attempts to dramatize and give voice are reminiscent of Edin Hajdarpasic’s observation that drama was a go-to genre to express nationalistic concerns with “unresolved questions, complicating delays, and [an] answer that reveals the truth and restores clarity.” It is as if the relationship between the friar and the sultan, between the Catholics and the Muslims, is constantly put to a test, demanding resolutions that, nevertheless, remain elusive and uneasy. Defining identities in a plural society under constant demands of nationalism seems to be a never-ending project.

Yet the very persistence in giving voice to historical actors surrounding the ahdname offers hope. This is perhaps best articulated in another drama of the sultan and the friar from the pen of the Bosnian Croatian author Nikola Sop (d. 1982). The play “Bosnian Trilogy” focuses on the fall of the Bosnian Kingdom and the Ottoman conquest. It is a somewhat delirious, poetic piece, where viziers travel on flying carpets and the papal envoys leave the Christian king in the lurch. Zvizdovic, too, is one of the main protagonists, though he speaks only at the very end of the play. Nonetheless, his wisdom and saintly reputation are the backbone of the play; they enchant the conquering sultan who becomes anxious to meet him and, indeed, presents him with a silken robe as a sign of great respect. Fear then arises among the sultan’s retinue that Zvizdovic could now overthrow the new ruler. In the midst of anxious deliberations, an astrologer (“zvjezdoznanac,” a deliberate turn of phrase that harkens back to Zvizdovic and the word “zvijezda,” a star) speaks up and assuages the sultan’s doubts by saying there would be no sudden coup because the destinies of the sultan and the friar are now — and forever — firmly bound to one another. It’s a prescient vision that captures exactly what the ahdname’s history has meant to Bosnia and what the two communities are to each other.

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