The Limits of History


By Kacie Saxer-Taulbee

In 1984, the Olympic Stadium of Sarajevo stood newly erected, with young men and women vying for valor on the fields and courts of its compound. In 2015, the scene has shifted drastically. Today, the stadium has largely fallen into disrepair, and the players have been replaced by young boys from youth soccer teams. The trends of the structure and the players seem bound for opposite fates. The shift of Sarajevo’s Olympic icon over the past 31 years has been not unlike the path of a divergent mathematical limit – as the function of the player’s age shoots toward youth, the stadium’s function falls exponentially toward ruin.

Closest to the parking lot lies an expanse of rubble, beyond which stretches a graveyard, its headstones marking the final resting places of many who lost their lives in the 1992-1995 siege. Rising in the background of this scene are the surrounding hills, dotted with houses – evidence of Sarajevans reclaiming the land once dominated by the mortars, shells, and snipers that sought to destroy them. The boundaries between these three spaces seem as sequential as they are physical. Debris transitions into burial which itself shifts into recovery. This is perhaps one of the aspects which I find most intriguing about Sarajevo – the nature of its boundaries.

In Sarajevo, no clear physical distinctions exist to separate one category from another. Ancient religious institutions stand next to contemporary secular ones; cathedral bells ring as the call to prayer carries from Mosques’ minarets; suited business professionals join in a game with working class laborers at the oversized chessboard in Freedom Park. In this city, physical insularity exists only in myth. The culture of Muslim Bosniaks is inextricably tangled with that of Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats. Understanding the current state of one is impossible without knowledge of the other two.

Businessmen and laborers play an oversized game of chess in Sarajevo's Freedom Park (Saxer-Taulbee/TYG).
Businessmen and laborers play an oversized game of chess in Sarajevo’s Freedom Park (Saxer-Taulbee/TYG).

In a way, this is one of Bosnia’s greatest assets. The multiculturalism that marked this city for decades set it apart from the monocultures across much of the rest of Europe. The many groups that shared the boundaries of Sarajevo rendered it rich in its architecture, culture, and history. However, this same diversity was also one of the conditions that made possible one of the bloodiest European conflicts in recent memory, as the three larger groups turned against one another in the War of the 1990’s. It does not seem surprising that in Bosnia, a flaw and a forte are manifestations of the same quality. The Prenj Mountains, just an hour or so outside of Sarajevo, offer another prime example of this seemingly paradoxical characteristic. The lack of government regulation and development leaves Bosnia with beautiful swaths of forested mountainside untouched by human influence. At the same time, this lack of involvement leaves the gate open for illegal hunters and loggers to enter the mountain range unobstructed and pervert the wilderness for their own gain. Things here are not reducible to black and white. Bosnia resists simplicity.

To speak again of the more intangible notions of mathematics and science, in physics, the most uneven boundaries – such as the ones that lie between different groups in Sarajevo – are the ones that possess the most strength. The more jagged the edges in contact, the more microwelds that can form between them to hold the different entities together, until extracting one from the other becomes an almost impossible feat. The bonds uniting them will hold even in the face of extreme force. However, these are also the boundaries that generate the most friction, the most heat. Any action from one side is met with the equal and opposite reactions of the others.

Fractal geometry, a branch of mathematics dedicated to understanding the complex form of intradimensional shapes, is often the study of the roughness of edges. In this form of mathematics, the more uneven a boundary, the greater its dimension and, thus, its complexity. In this case, mathematics imitates humanity. The boundaries between groups in Bosnia, whether they be ethnic, religious, or historical, are far from linear, and they are nothing if not complex.

Kacie Saxer-Taulbee ’18 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at