“While some are thinking of walls, we will continue building bridges of understanding.”-Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum
By Nat Krieger
Even though the American Society of Civil Engineers has rated 60,000 U.S. bridges structurally deficient, Donald Trump’s top infrastructure priority is building a wall.
Bridges and walls. Both learned from nature. The walls of the Alps that have protected and/or isolated Switzerland for millennia. The now flooded earthen bridge linking Asia to the Americas that brought the first immigrants to these lands.
When it comes to the imitations built by humans it may be surprising to discover that the most ancient surviving bridges are over a thousand years older than the oldest still above ground frontier walls. Surprising because Homo sapiens sapiens—the species so wise we have to say it twice—have raised a genetic propensity for group raiding that we share with chimpanzees, to the heights of planned, civilized slaughter. If the great walls that gird cities and frontiers are built on assumptions of endless war, bridges are bets on peace, exposed connective tissue born from the confidence that there other people and places worth checking out.
Except as temporary military roads thrown across the enemy’s rivers and bays fascists haven’t had much use for bridges. The Nazis may hold the record for most bridges destroyed in a single night, remembered in Lucian Marquis’ Italian Journey:
There was not a sound, not a footstep, on the road leading down to Florence. But we sat up, waiting. And then we heard, not so distant, the dull boom of the explosions. Concetta said, “Madonnna, they are blowing up the bridges.” And my grandmother put her hands over face and called out the names of the bridges: “Ponte alla Carraia, Ponte Trinitá, Ponte Vecchio, Ponte alle Grazie,” as if she were calling the names of her children. That was the only time I saw my grandmother cry.
The nearly half century of peace that settled over that part of the world following the defeat of Fascism became too much for such a wise wise species to bear. Just across the Adriatic Sea in Yugoslavia cynical demagogues with no economic answers welcomed the last decade of the twentieth century by raising the ghosts of religious and ethnic hatred back to bone breaking life. Around the Adriatic port city of Dubrovnik the medieval walls shrugged off flirting backpackers to resume the job they had been built for. Hammered for seven months by the guns of Federal Yugoslav warships in the harbor, the walls and the city they protected held out until Croatian forces were able to break the siege.
Fifty miles in and up from Dubrovnik, among the limestone mountains of western Herzegovina a single stone arch, “thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky” in the words of a 17th Century travel writer, still soared high above the wild Neretva River gorge and still connected the predominantly Muslim east side of the city of Mostar to the Christian west side.
By the time I saw the Old Bridge nearly two years into the Yugoslav Civil War it was the only way left to cross the Neretva. All the other, newer bridges had been blown. In a homemade attempt to protect the city’s number one treasure from shrapnel damage, the locals had transformed the thin white arch into a covered bridge. Supported on both sides by a web of metal scaffolding dark wooden boards made a ceiling that followed the curve of the arch. The bridge was smaller and steeper than in photos.
Centuries of feet and hoofs had left the going slippery and smooth. The improvised bonnet could not hide an elegance found only in the most refined palaces and houses of worship, yet the single arch also had something organic about it. From the east bank it looked like a geologic formation, translucent white stone sprung from the white stone mountains around it.
Opened in 1566 after nine years of building, Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin’s creation replaced the low slung rickety wooden bridges periodically swept away by the Neretva. Local lore says Hayruddin had so little confidence in the mortar he used—a mixture of horse-hair, sand, and egg whites—that he prepared for his own execution, or made himself scarce (depending on the version) the day the scaffolding was removed.
In addition to connecting us, the greatest bridges invariably solve an engineering challenge with both imagination and beauty—two qualities little prized by the wall builders. As with the bridge at Mostar, Ponte Santa Trinitá, one of the five Florentine bridges destroyed by the Germans during the night of August 3, 1944, was originally built to replace a succession of spans that had been swallowed by the river they crossed.
Bartolomeo Ammannati began construction in 1567 just 10 years after the Arno River had overwhelmed the third iteration, an elegant five arched affair that was supposed to last forever. Ammannati’s solution, with a little help from Michelangelo, was a form never tried before: three flattened elliptical arches the Arno would wear like a triple crown. The curve the arches describe is said to come from the shape a chain naturally assumes when supported only at the two ends.
One reason historians see Michelangelo’s hand is that the only place Ammannati could have actually seen this kind of arch was in the tomb Michelangelo designed for Giuliano de Medici, ten streets away. The middle arch of Ammannati’s ponte rested on two pillars shaped like ships’ prows, diverting the flood driven debris that had demolished previous bridges away from the supporting columns.
Completed just three years before Ammannati’s span opened, the Mostar Bridge was astonishing precisely because the Ottoman architect chose not to attempt a central support column whose base would have been under eternal siege by the crashing waters of the Neretva River. Instead Hayruddin built up limestone walls on each side of the gorge to which he anchored a humpback crescent, the largest single arch bridge in the world at that time.
Thanks to its revolutionary design the bridge immediately became an attraction unto itself. The flourishing town spreading out along the river banks even took its name from the famous pathway to wider markets: Most means bridge in the local languages, and stari means old.
Long before the Habsburg and Ottoman empires vanished the bridge had already become neutral ground where Muslims, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews, met, kibitzed, and watched the sunset.
The Yugoslav Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andric knew something about bridges. His most famous novel, The Bridge on the Drina, follows the fortunes of another 400 year old bridge, this one in Visegrad, another river town where the mix of peoples left in empires’ wake coexisted with varying degrees of success. As in Mostar, the Drina Bridge pulled against the lurking centrifugal forces that can rip nearly any human society apart. There was a spot mid-span that hosted
…the first stirrings of love, the first passing glances, flirtations and whisperings. There too were the first deals and bargains, quarrels and reconciliations, meeting and waitings. There, on the stone parapet of the bridge, were laid out for sale the first cherries and melons, the early morning salep and hot rolls.
Eighteen years after Andric’s death, after surviving more than four centuries and two World Wars, the echo of a heavy gun in the peaks above Mostar rolled over the bridge and its passengers. For residents of the blasted old quarter on the east bank the bridge had become the only path to a potable water pipe just west of the river and two women schlepping full buckets picked up their pace. A kid on a balloon tire bike flew by them…the bridge’s decades as a peaceful tourist attraction had become a barely remembered dream.
The Civil War that killed Yugoslavia was a blood spattered manifesto rejecting the very idea of different peoples living together and the Old Bridge was an affront to all those pursuing ethnic and religious purity. In the early days of the war it was actually the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina who desperately held onto the already forlorn idea of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia that well-armed nationalists from Catholic Croatia and Eastern Orthodox Serbia were already herding into unmarked graves.
Yet for all its ethereal beauty the bridge proved to be a tenacious foe: Just as the Nazis needed two additional dynamite charges to bring down the Ponte Santa Trinitá, it cost the Croatian Nationalists over sixty tank rounds to send the daring crescent into the Neretva, ‘cleansing the river of the last Turk.’
On November 9, 1993, ten months after I left Herzegovina, the anguished cries of Mostar natives joined those of the Florentine grandmother.
Mostar poet Džemal Humo remembered:
People who were hiding in cellars, incredulous and disregarding the danger, came out from shelters and went running to the bank, looking for the bridge. Hundreds of men, women, children stared stunned into the vacuum and the abyss. The Old One was gone. Shouting, crying, threatening, cursing, they raised their hands to the sky and wondered: why?
It was a crime foretold by Andric decades before. Towards the end of a three page reflection called Bridges he wrote:
…I suddenly saw a stone bridge, severed, the broken halves stretching painfully towards each other, demonstrating with one last effort the only possible line of the arch that had disappeared.
Today the Ponte Santa Trinitá and the Mostar Bridge live again, reminding us that the victories of hatred, like the victories of hope, are never final: both bridges have been rebuilt based on painstaking historical research accompanied by dredging efforts that salvaged as many original stones as possible.
The additional stones needed to complete the bridges were cut from the same quarries the two original architects used; even the tools used by 16th century stone masons were researched and then fabricated for the rebuilding. In Florence and Mostar the wonderfully accurate reconstruction efforts brought a deeper knowledge and even greater appreciation for the engineering genius that gave birth to the originals.
Struggling with the chaos and infrastructure destruction left by the war, the Italian Government initially wanted a functional, concrete replacement flung across the Arno as quickly as possible. Supported by officers attached to the Allied Armies’ Monuments Men, architect Riccardo Gizdulich insisted on an authentic reconstruction (a stance shared by Giannetto Mannucci, a young sculptor who spent weeks diving in the waters, dodging debris and human heads.
Using a homemade raft Mannucci rescued nearly a fifth of the original stones.) Gizdulich’s obsession forced him to search for the architectural and geometric secrets that produced those one of a kind arches. In this pre-internet age help came Lt. Colonel Ernest DeWald, an American Monuments Man who sent Gizdulich copies of a rare 18th century work on the bridge that included detailed measurements of the arches.
Officially the 345 Monuments men and women were in the MFAA—Monuments, Fine Arts, And Archives. From today’s vantage point it seems almost incredible that there was once a U.S. Government, led by Franklin Roosevelt that understood the importance of bridges, and even art and beauty in the contest for the hearts and minds of another country’s citizens. And Archives—those primary written sources, documents of a nation’s past written when that past was happening, these too were worth saving. The memory is both heartening and sad.
Ponte Trinitá reopened in 1958, following three years of construction. Mostar Bridge reappeared in 2004, also after a three year effort. So far the Italian story is the happier one. Florence endures as a breathtaking homage to beauty and renewing the search for knowledge—the Renaissance—that is the city’s gift to the world. And the resurrected Ponte Santa Trinitá stands again, in the words of the antifascist Florentine writer Piero Calamandrei:
…a miraculous bridge…that seemed to summarize in the harmony of its lines the apex of a civilization.
In Mostar the act of destruction laid bare the reasons for that span’s enduring strength. Legends aside, Mimar Hayruddin had relied on a little more than horse hair and egg whites to hold his bridge together: Hungarian divers bringing up shattered sections from the river bottom discovered hand forged iron connecting rods fitted into precisely measured pre-drilled holes in the stones.
The iron clamps flowered out into swallow tail shaped heads that were twisted 90 degrees and fixed in place with liquid lead. In addition to this medieval rebar, the divers also discovered that the upper portions of the bridge were hollow, reducing the weight borne by the support stones some 40%. Yet a much newer myth was confirmed: locals insisted that the Old One was gushing blood when it plunged into the water and researchers discovered that Hayruddin had used a pink mortar made from bauxite and a reddish brown alumina to seal the bridge’s flooring, a mortar found nowhere else in the world.
The new Old One is again attracting tourists but restoring the stone and mortar link has proven easier than rebuilding the connections between the people who share this mountain river town. Nearly a generation after the Yugoslav Civil Wars ended the largest city in Herzegovina remains physically and emotionally scarred.
Functionally there are two Mostars—one Croatian Catholic, the other Bosnian Muslim, where lives, schools, and municipal services rarely meet. The dividing line is actually several blocks west of the bridge, along a broad boulevard where the contending armies fought to a standstill.
How far and fast can once thriving multi-ethnic societies fall? In just one decade Yugoslavia, the union of South Slavs, went from nearly joining the European Union to mass slaughter not seen on the continent since World War II. And the lessons are more than historical: there are disquieting links and admiring nods between central European Nationalist and Neo-Fascist movements and the Trumpists.
As in the 1930s, the Nationalist Right is Internationalist in its ambitions. Among these echoes from the past on this side of the Atlantic is America First, originally an anti-Semitic, isolationist movement dedicated to keeping the U.S. out of the war against Fascism. America Firsters found allies among the followers of Father Charles Coughlin, a popular radio preacher who mixed hatred of Jews with a far right version of Catholicism and xenophobic nationalism. Coughlin’s Christian Front opened their meetings with a pledge of allegiance “for Christ and country”, and offered enthusiastic support for Fascist movements across Europe.
Fear driven flights into mythical pasts, monochrome landscapes of blasted bridges and towering walls. Ivo Andric recognized that before they are dressed in wood, stone, or steel, bridges and walls grow within and between us:
Everywhere there is something to overcome or to bridge: disorder, death, meaninglessness. Everything is a transition, a bridge whose ends are lost in infinity, besides which all the bridges of this earth are only children’s toys, pale symbols. And all our hope lies on the other side.
bob dorn says
A good bridge makes you want to cross it. So does a good piece of writing about bridges.