Podcast episode 6: What’s in a name? How Herzegovina was named.

Culture, Featured, Podcast

It’s been eight months. I have finally uploaded a new podcast. This one is epic, long, dark — it’s the story of Herzegovina and how it got its name. I hope you enjoy it. The transcript is below. Have a great day!

Podcast transcript: what is Hercegovina

Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. 

The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.

“The Bosnia Project” is a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer. 

This is the second episode in a series that will attempt to answer several of the questions that people ask about Bosnia, Sarajevo, Mostar, and Eastern Europe in general. We are going to talk about Communism, America, Atheism, Religion — there’s going to be a lot of issues thrown together here. I hope you like it. Today’s episode is called “what’s in a name” it’s the story of Herzegovina and how it got its long interesting and confusing name. 

What’s in a name?

Why do we name things? All of us do it, we name our children, places that are memorable to us, period of our lives that we remember for one reason or another. If you have a place where you had a difficult experience you might refer to it as a terrible place. If you had a good experience somewhere, you might come up with a positive name for that particular place, and then in the future when you talk to your spouse about it you might just use the made up names you’ve assigned to these places instead of the band used by everyone else. It’s a way of asserting your point of view on the world, according to your experiences. 

I’ve done this before — there is a certain beach in Croatia that my wife and I refer to as “our beach”, rather than using its actual name. We’ve vacationed there for four years in a row and we enjoy it. The name denotes pleasure, ownership, experience. 

The ancient Romans called the Mediterranean Sea “our Sea”, because they had conquered the land all the way around it. The felt, obviously, that they were the owners of the entire thing, and that’s what they wanted to communicate with the naming of the sea — their accomplishment of taking dominion over the sea, not a small feat in their time. 

Other people had different names for the Mediterranean, calling it The Syrian Sea, the Sea of the Philistines, or just the Great Sea. The Arabs sometimes called it the White Sea. All of these names communicate something different about the sea, and also something different about how ppl viewed the world. A lot of the names imply ownership, which in turn implies that that group of people obviously viewed themselves as quite important. To call the sea, which most people call the “great Sea”, “ours”, means you want people in your country to know that you’ve reached a certain level of significance. 

Name of Bosnia

What’s in a name? A name denoted IDENTITY. 

In the country where I live, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, there is always this question ppl ask about the name. Why is it so long? And what is it, exactly? 

The way Bosnia got its name is interesting. Everyone just says that the region is named after the Bosna river. 

But actually, the word Bosnia comes from an old word that actually meant water. So, at some point far back in history, people saw the water flowing in the river, and began to  call the place around it “the water”, or, Bosna. And if you think about how life must have been thousands of years ago it is easy to understand how important water must have been to any growing settlement. It’s an incredibly important natural resource. 

So the land Bosna is named after the place where the water is, with a word that just means “the water”. 


Bosnia-Herzegovina – one of the hard things about the country is its long name. People are confused sometimes, and they inevitably ask, what is herzegovina. Well, superficially, you can think of North and South. I live in the south part, herzegovina, and it’s like a coastal area. Lots of mountains, but those mountains are rocky, bare, with little shrubs, and the climate is very hot, and the air is quite dry. 

But what about that name? Herzegovina? Why is it called that? Well that is a long story. 

And that’s what we are going to focus on today. 

The story of Herzegovina and how the area got its name goes back to a man named Stjepan. Because most of the listeners here are English, I’m going to call this guy Stephen. 

Story of Stjepan Herceg Kosaca

Stephen was born to Vukac, who was a Bosnian knez, or Duke, over 600 years ago. His mother was named Katarina, of noble origin herself. His dad was the Duke, and his dad had also been a Duke. Dukes back then were kind of like governors, so Stephen had a good upbringing. He was educated, well-traveled, knowledgable about the world. And as his young life went on, he was determined to make something of himself, and to make his little Dukedome into something big. 

He and his dad, and his dad’s dad, lived in the kingdom of Bosnia. Back then, the Kingdom of Bosnia was a relatively new thing — you didn’t just get to call yourself a kingdom, just because you wanted to. Today we think of countries — the country of Denmark, Croatia, Sweden, for example. But back then there were Fiefdoms and Dukedoms and Principalities and Empires and Kingdoms — all words meaning something slightly different. 

Basically, if you were a kingdom or an empire, then you were basically sovereign. You were a country who could do whatever it wanted. And in order to get sovereignty – in Europe – someone had to recognize you. That someone was either the Catholic Church, at that time. 

That’s right – after you had taken over places and raided and conquered and set up a de facto government, your king would then go and pay homage to the Pope and the Pope would officially recognize your country as a country, with all the rights and everything that a country has. Except back then they didn’t have counts they had kingdoms and empires, and they still thought empires were ok. . 

Sometimes the Pope would actually come and crown your king for you. But that’s another story. Anyway I’m getting off topic. 


But then there were all these terrotories that didn’t quite achieve sovereignty. These were the Dukedoms and Principalities. They were kind of like a country, but they had to pay some nearby kingdom for protection. If they didn’t pay, they’d get punished by the kingdom. And if they weren’t protected, they’d probably get raided or conquered by some other kingdom. So it was really just a tribute system. Bosnia was like a place way out in the sticks, far from “civilization”, in the minds of the Hungarians. Most of the early records we have, from about the year 1000, are from Hungary.

So the Hungarians didn’t really care about “conquering” or “owning” Bosnia — they just wanted a buffer. They wanted Bosnia to pay them some money, and they would in return sort of promise to sort of defend Bosnia from attack. But really it was more like they just wanted to have Bosnia so they’d have kind of a big barrier land for attackers to run over before they got into Hungary.  Bosnia would be like a fiefdom for Hungarians, until it was taken over by the Turks, then the Serbs, then Hungarians, and Austrians — all the way up until the 1900s really. 

Kingdom of Bosnia

But there was this time in history, for a couple hundred years, Bosnia did become a “kingdom”. 

And the guy that was able to do it, to expand Bosnia, throw off his overlords and make Bosnia into a real kingdom was not Stephen. It was this guy called Tvrtko. He seems like a great ruler, but this story isn’t really about him — It’s about Stephen. 

Fight with the King

Tvrtko died and his son became king, and then he died. He didn’t have sons so he chose a cousin, Thomas. Thomas was a little younger than Stephen, and by the time Thomas came along, Stephen was the most important governor in Bosnia. It was kind of like the new President facing off with the governor of Texas or something. It was fierce. 

The Bosnian Church

The problem was religion. See, back then, there were Catholics, and there were Orthodox Christians. But the Bosnians had had a church that was neither Catholic nor Orthodox. There has been serious research into this religion to figure out just what it was. The best that we can tell is that it was a Christian church — something that we would recognize today as fairly close to our own practice of Christianity. They had elders and deacons, but no priests, and they worked together with royalty and nobility to elect their rulers and governors. 

The Bosnian Church had been allowed to exist because Bosnia was so remote. The Catholics and the Orthodox wanted to go find these Christians and bring them into their churches, but they just didn’t have the resources. Bosnia was really, really, mountainous, really remote, and a lot of these places were really hard to get to. That is, until King Thomas came along. 

Basically, Stephen considered himself a big-time defender of the Bosnian Church. He and Tomas fought, on again and off again. There were wars with each other, wars with neighboring countries, with the Muslims, disputes with Hungary, etc etc. And so Thomas came up with a plan that he thought would save the kingdom and give him control over Stephen. 

So, remember, we said that Bosnia wasn’t really that powerful. It was a kingdom, but it wasn’t England, or France. And as far as king Thomas goes, there were some, um, problems. 

One big one was that he was what some would call a love child. His dad was the king, and he had a mistress, and while they had their affair, she became pregnant with Thomas. We don’t even know Thomas’s mother’s name. The other big, big problem was that Thomas’s wife, was not really considered queen by the elders of the Bosnian kingdom, because she wasn’t royalty. 

In the midst of all this, there was a Catholic missionary that came to Bosnia and met with Thomas. Surely, there had been many such visitors, but for some reason, this one would break through. Thomas converted to Catholicism, under the influence of the Croatian bishop, Thomas of Hvar — so many Thomases! The king would be baptized into the Catholic church later, but from that moment, a new thought started to creep in — how to bring the kingdom of Bosnia officially into the realm of Catholic Christianity. 

Catholicism would bring stability, longevity, and security against the quickly advancing Muslims, he thought, who were basically knocking on the door at the southern border. And it was in this mindset that he began to make a plan. 

Now that he had been converted, he would go and seek an audience with the church. he would try to improve Bosnia’s standing with the Church by arranging to divorce his wife, who was not Catholic and was not royalty anyway. And he would marry someone that would be royalty, and would convert to Catholicism. Surely, a newly converted King, with a Catholic wife from a noble family would make the country more strategic and valuable in the eyes of the church, and then the Pope would direct the kingdoms around him to aid him in his squabbles with Stephen. And more importantly, they’d help defend the place against the Muslims. 

This person — this woman of royal blood — had to be the perfect person. It had to be someone that would help him abroad, and at home. And so, he convinced Stephen himself to give him his daughter in marriage. Stephen would give his only daughter, Catherine, to Thomas, and become the king’s father-in-law. Catherine would convert to Catholicism, and the country would be in better standing with he Church, and Stephen and Thomas would quit fighting. 

Back to Stephen

So, let’s put a pin in that story for a minute, and get back to our main character, Stephen. 

Stephen was a Bosnian Christian, but he was sneaky. He was a deal-maker. And the deals changed and overlapped so many times that it gets hard to keep track of who was aligned with who, and who was really an enemy. Stephen had no problem with making deals with the Muslims, who were trying to come up from Turkey and take over in Southern Europe. When they came up and started attacking and raiding, he paid them to leave him alone. He paid them again and again.

Of course, the last thing he wants to do is to be taken over by the Muslims. And so he knows that he has got to make peace with Thomas. He is approached by Thomas with this crazy deal — he doesn’t like the idea that Thomas is Catholic, but he knows that if he doesn’t do something, he’ll just keep fighting with him, and then they’ll both get taken over by the Turks. And so he decides to do the deal, he gives his daughter to thomas, and becomes the father-in-law of the king. 

Naming Herzegovina

All this time, his title — the office he had held — was like a Duke. He sort of was in the royal family, but he never had a realistic chance of becoming king. He was like Keifer Sutherland in designated survivor —  if like 25 people in front of him died, he might somehow have a claim to the throne. The names for these offices are tricky — Duke is the best that we can do. he wasn’t a prince, he wasn’t a Lord, kind of like a governor. Grand Duke is a good translation. But in German, it was called Herzog. By the way — anyone you know with the surname Herzog or Herzig — well, that comes from this German word. Somewhere in their past, their great great grand relative was a Duke somewhere in Germany or Prussia or Austria. 

So, anyway, why is German important? It’s important because nobody knew Bosnian, and we don’t have many Bosnian writings from that time, so German may have been the lingua Franca at that time in that part of the world. And so Herzog was his title, when he went to meet with diplomats from other countries. It was what people called him abroad. 

The people at home just referred to Stephen as the Duke. And the Duke was the greatest ruler that had ever been in this Dukedom. He, his father, and his grandfather, had succeeded in uniting all the area in the south of Bosnia, securing the border, and setting up a kind of identity for the region. The Herzog was really identified with the region. 

Herzog, in the Bosnian accent, sounded a little different. It was Herceg, or Erceg. And in the language spoken in Bosnia, anything that belonged to the Herceg was called Hercegov. So, the family was Hercegov, the house was Hercegov, the horses were Hercegov, and so on. and as a proper name, the land became called Hercegovina. It was like calling it Dukelandia. Dukelandia. Herzegovina. And so, inside the kingdoms in the Bosnian region, this area in the south began to have its own distinct culture, identity, and name. Herzegovina. 

Fall of Bosnia

The fall of Bosnia was coming. Stephen could feel it, others could feel it – there wasn’t much that was going to prevent it. The Islamic forces were advancing on the region like a huge black cloud, and nothing was going to hold them back. The only thing you could do was make deals, and hope that somehow you made yourself indispensable to them when they finally decided they wanted your little fiefdom for their own. 

Back in that day, expanding and conquering was how you ensured security for your ppl. The problem was that you always need to take and conquer more. Once you expanded, then your border needed protecting, so you’d try to expand more, then that border needed protecting so you’d expand more, and so on. The Muslims were knocking on the door and would frequently conduct raids where they would come and steal and kill in the Bosnian lands. This was like the precursor to real war and it was getting to much to handle. 

Stephen had been paying tributes to the Muslims for years to leave him alone but they clearly had the upper hand and started demanding more. 

So Herceg Stephen came up with another plan that would guarantee Herzegovina’s peace. He would give them his son. 

Story of sons

Stephen got married at 20, to a Jelena, a daughter of a noble family from Montenegro. They had four children — Katarina, Vlado, Vlatko, and Stephen Jr. They were all born within six years go each other — a real young family.  

You already know that his daughter Katarina he gave in marriage to the king. The point was to keep the kingdom at peace so that they could fight off invaders. That worked out for a little while. Katarina converted to Catholicism in order to marry the king Thomas, but soon after their marriage the Catholic church started putting more pressure on the new royal couple to bring the rest of bosnia into the fold. Thomas had thought changing a little bit — converting to Catholicism — would be enough to appease the church. And so he did it. And then he remarried, and his new wife converted. But then the church continued to come with more and more requests — and ultimately not giving them the protection they desired for the country. 

Thomas was pressured to force people to convert to Catholicism, and even though Bosnia had a long tradition of Christianity, he gave in — which again started to affect his relationship with Stephen, his new wife’s father, and his most powerful Duke. Several priests and leaders of the Bosnian Church fled to Herzegovina to escape the new persecution from Thomas in the north, and Stephen again threatened to take action. Unfortunately, the persecution would be bad news for the Bosnian Church, and it would nearly disappear over the next few decades. 

But Stephen also had three sons, and this is where we see the importance of names again. 

Vslav & Ahmed

A few years after the marriage of Katarina and King Thomas, Bosnia was conquered by the Muslims. The Islamic Ottoman Empire was fast advancing on Europe and they were taking in more and more land every year. Serbia had already been attacked on all sides, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro — everything was going to the Muslims. And now Bosnia really had no chance of defending itself, especially as King Thomas had been persecuting his own people for their religion, or really for their denomination. 

But amazingly, the little Dukedom of Herzegovina was able to cut a deal with the Muslims. Stephen worked it out so that Herzegovines could have their freedom. All he had to do was pay tribute — which was expensive — and give the Muslims one of his own sons. He decided to part with his youngest son, Stephen Jr., who would have been about 13 years old by then. It was a tough position to be in. The most powerful army in the world had come knocking, and said you had to give them your child. He couldn’t give up Vlado, who by that time was ready to take over the kingdom. So he gave up Junior, and the Muslims promised to educate him, train him, and give him all he needed. It was a common practice for the Ottoman Empire — to take noble children from conquered lands and send them to Islamic education programs and enlist them in their armies. 

Except, they probably didn’t really that, in Junior, they would get someone with immense talent and ability. How could they have known when the kid was only 13? The first thing they did was to change his names. Just like Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Stjepan Hercegović became Hersekli Ahmed Pasha, a name that meant, Ahmed, son of the Herceg. They would send little Ahmed to school, and then to military school, where he would complete the officer training program with flying colors. 

Eventually, everyone saw that Ahmed was no normal kid — this kid was going to be a general. It didn’t matter where he came from. He was a great soldier. And so he grew in stature and fame throughout the Ottoman army as they campaigned into the north, into Bosnia, into Serbia. 

The deal had been made — the deal that kept Herzegovina free — in the year 1463. Stephen Sr had suffered great losses to the Muslims and negotiated his peoples’ freedom, at the cost of his son. But his son did not go quietly into the night. Stephen Junior, now Ahmed Pasha, had always had a chip on his shoulders because of the deal made by his father. And he said in his heart of hearts, “one day, no matter what I have to do, I’m going to come back — I’m going to come back to my Herzegovina.”

Come back, Ahmed did. It took him 20 years, but he finally made it back. Only this time, he was the great soldier, the leader of the Muslim army, come to lead his new countrymen in a campaign against his old country. He had the history, he had the desire, and he had the skill — now he just had to step out and take it. As the leader of the world’s greatest army, he came back to Herzegovina, now  about 30 years old, ready for a fight. 

Vladislav, the new Herceg, was poorly prepared. And so, unlike his father, he would barely put up a fight. There was really no way that this tiny country could hope to defend itself. And so Vladislav ran. Over the next 2 years, all of Herzegovina would fall to the Ottomans. The son, who was given away, would come back and take the prize from his brother. 

Vladislav disappeared, though — he wasn’t killed. He left his fortress and ran away to a coastal town called Herceg Novi. Just like the rest of Herzegovina, this small town bore the name of the Duke, the Herceg. Herceg Novi literally means “New Duke”, and this is where Vlado would stay until the conquest of Herzegovina was complete. When the Muslims did finally take over all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vlado would retreat to the Venetian island of Rab, where he would spend the rest of his life. 

Naming Hersek, Turkey

Ahmed would retreat, too. He eventually went back to Istanbul, and became the Grand Admiral of the Navy. He was a great soldier, military leader, and statesman. The Hercegovine would eventually become Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, an office he held five times. This was amazing success — the idea that a foreigner could come and have this kind of success in the most advanced empire in the world was amazing. Grand Vizier was like the Prime Minister — like Joseph in Egypt — kind of like a combination of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Speaker of the House, and was dismissible only by the Sultan himself. 

But, after holding this position 5 times, he also retired and retreated from his public role. He would eventually retire to a small town called Dil, on the sea. He had his estate, his servants, and it’s said that he never returned to his homeland of Herzegovina. But in a way, he brought the spirit of his homeland with him. 

Because the spirit of his homeland was one of independence. Even though the region was part of the kingdom of Bosnia, his father was independent. He made the deals and he was successful. And because of his great personality and shrewdness, the land became known for him. So much so, that it eventually bore his name, Herzegovina — the Duke’s land. 

That spirit would be recognized in Ahmed, as he grew old. When Ahmed died, he was buried in his village of Dil, and a mosque was eventually built on his grave. And after his death, when the Ottomans looked back on what an immeasureable talent had passed through their ranks, they went and changed the name of that town, to honor the one who had been taken from his homeland, and had made his home among them. 

Today, you can visit that town, but it’s not called Dil anymore. It’s called Hersek. The Duke. 


I hope you’ve had a great summer, and I hope you’ll listen again. We are starting a weekly email, which you can sign up for on my website, thebosniaproject.com . We’ve had monthly updates forever, but for a long time I’ve had the desire to go deeper and communicate more with our readers. So, from now through the end of 2019, we will start sending out weekly updates to those of you who want more.

I hope this weekly email will give you a few things to think about. Here’s the basic content:

  1. A weekly passage of Scripture, with some commentary from me,
  2. A story from our experience in Eastern Europe,
  3. A private Facebook group where you can connect with me and with others who are reading and thinking about all this, and
  4. Occasional articles and links that will help you understand this part of the world better.

So, sign up and get connected. I think you’ll enjoy it.

In any case, have a great start to the school year, and we wish you all the very best this Fall. Thanks for listening. 

This podcast was made by me, Jonathan Trousdale, using my laptop and a few little gadgets and apps. If you’ve enjoyed this — if it’s enriched your life, consider helping us keep going and doing what we do. If you’d like to donate, instructions are in the show notes and it’s easy to give online. 

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