Photo by Kiana Hayeri for Thrillist
Photo by Kiana Hayeri for Thrillist

In Sarajevo, Copper Souvenirs Have Been an Obsession for Centuries

Coppersmiths hammer in the city's heart.

If you were to get lost in Sarajevo’s Ottoman-era Old Town, amongst the sprawl of cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways, you might find a little garden or family-run restaurant. You could breathe in the smell of shisha from rows of outdoor cafes, or pop into a tiny bakery to buy a baklava or burek. Perhaps you’d hear a clanging sound and follow it—and trust me, that’s the right thing to do in Sarajevo—all the way to Kazandžiluk, better known as "Copper Street," where vendors have been hammering and selling handmade copper items since the time of the Ottomans.

The city's metalworking practices date back to the 1500s, pioneered by local artisan and goatherd Sagrakči Hajji Mahmud. The first coppersmiths of Sarajevo began their craft making kettles for the Turkish army, and their practice eventually expanded to creating hundreds of everyday household items out of metal and copper. The coppersmiths settled on Kazandžiluk Street in the 16th century, and have been there ever since.

Over 300 years later, a dozen or so families of coppersmiths remain in business. The Jabučar, Baščaušević, Huseinovic, Kobiljak, Hidić, and Brkanić family shops can be found here, just to name a few of the households that are part of keeping this art alive in Sarajevo. These shops have often been in the family for more than a century, the craftsmanship passed down between generations. Coppersmith Adnan Hidić, for instance, learned from his father, who also learned from his own father. And as the coppersmiths continue to create for local and international tourists, the plan is to get the next generation involved.

It’s worth perusing the shops, each filled to the brim with shiny, intricately engraved copper and metal souvenirs. During my last visit, I pore over etched copper plates, tea sets, dining trays, and rows upon rows of handmade džezvas (traditional long-handled coffee pots). Coppersmiths like Hidić also craft smaller items, including rings, bracelets, bookmarks, and magnets, for tourists to take home. But if you can find room in your suitcase for a larger item, you’ll be bringing home something truly special; a coppersmith tells me that a large plate takes seven days to craft.

While many things on Kazandžiluk Street are done the old way, some things have certainly changed. While mines in Bosnia and Herzegovina were active when the copper trade began in Sarajevo, a number of local mines have closed down over the last few decades. As of late, most of the copper used here comes from the Majdanpek mine across the border in Serbia, and some of it comes from Germany and Chile.

Kovaci Cemetery, Sarajevo
Kovaci Cemetery memorializes those who perished in the war from 1992 to 1995. | Photo by Kiana Hayeri for Thrillist

But obtaining copper hasn’t always been possible, and local coppersmiths have had to get creative to survive. With the 1994 war lingering in the not-so-distant past, physical evidence like military shells and bullets can still be found throughout the city and the surrounding countryside. And from discarded shells to bare grenades, coppersmiths have made use of the materials by turning them into beautiful objects. Even bullet casings are transformed, carved, and crafted into ballpoint pens.

“My favourite thing to make is the mortar shell vase,” says Hidić. “After the Siege of Sarajevo, we had approximately half a million shells all around the city, but we didn't have the money to buy and import copper. So in order to earn money to buy copper again, we collected these shells, made them into flower vases, and sold them.” As a result, he explains, “something that was once used for killing, was now giving life.”

In the shop, my guide Arna (who leads a walking tour with local agency Meet Bosnia) points out a row of shiny metal items on a shelf. You can hardly notice them, as they blend in with the other copper pieces that sit on either side, but she notes that we are looking at repurposed military shells. Now, they stand in this little shop, being sold as flower pots.

Pigeon Square, Sarajevo
Sarajevo's Pigeon Square | Photo by Kiana Hayeri for Thrillist

When I’ve finished exploring Kazandžiluk Street, I treat myself to a cone of Egyptian vanilla-flavored ice cream (Arna's recommendation) before heading up to the Yellow Fortress to catch the sunset. Along the way, I pass Pigeon Square, followed by Kovaci Cemetery, also known as the Martyrs' Memorial Cemetery for those who perished in the war from 1992 to 1995. I make it up to the Yellow Fortress for magic hour, and sit and take it all in.

Staring out at the stunning, sunny panorama of Sarajevo in front of me, I consider how it reflects its own lengthy and resilient history, weathering the ends of two major empires (Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, in that order), two World Wars, the birth and death of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the Siege of Sarajevo. A mortar shell vase or copper džezva might serve as a similar reminder of how this place has become the vibrant city it is today, a symbol of a much larger story. And throughout all of it, in the heart of Sarajevo, the coppersmiths have hammered on.

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Jennifer Richardson is a contributor for Thrillist.