Treasure hunting has been a popular activity among the people in the southeast of Bulgaria since time immemorial.
However, apart from the destruction that it continues to bring, there are a few occasions where this illegal activity has led to extremely interesting discoveries. The Thracian tomb discovered near the Mezek village, in the region of modern Svilengrad, is one such story.
The mound that hides the tomb is a spectacular sight, at 14m high and about 90m wide. Its name, Mal Tepe, or Gold Hill, indicates that its secrets had long gripped the imagination of the locals.
In 1903, one man decided to see if Gold Hill contained actual gold, but on the overgrown mound he discovered something completely unexpected. Hidden in the lush vegetation covering the mighty body of the tumulus lay a life-size bronze statue of a boar. It weighed 177kg and was probably part of a larger group of statues, representing a sacred hunt.
The authorities were informed, and soon the strange find was brought to Constantinople, as at that time Mezek was still in the Ottoman Empire. Some time later, a leg of the boar somehow ended up in a museum in Plovdiv. In 1931 the management presented it to the museum in Istanbul, receiving in exchange a plaster copy of the whole statue.
The bronze boar from Mezek is a rare discovery. It is one of the few sculptures ever found in the lands of the Thracians. Today the original is on display in the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul. A replica in bronze is exhibited in the Archaeology Museum in Sofia.
But Mal Tepe was hiding more.
In a twist of historical irony, the mound found itself in Bulgaria proper after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. In 1931 treasure hunters returned to it, and their dig led them to the entrance of a tomb still undisturbed after millennia. They broke inside and looted everything they thought valuable.
Their luck did not last. Rumours about their find spread, and soon the authorities forced the robbers to return everything they had stolen. The treasure hunters obliged, although it remains unclear if they really gave back everything they had found.
An archaeological survey of the tomb started immediately, led by Professor Bogdan Filov (1883-1945). Filov was one of the finest archaeologists Bulgaria has ever produced and also one of its most controversial politicians. An outspoken anti-Semite, he was prime minister when Bulgaria allied with Nazi Germany. A couple of months after the Communist coup of 9 September 1944, he was executed by the so-called People's Court, together with many high-ranking politicians.
What Filov found in Mal Tepe in 1931 was the largest Thracian tomb ever discovered. It is nearly 30 m long, with a 20-metre-long corridor, two rectangular antechambers and a 4.3-metre-high round, beehive-shaped chamber built of stone blocks. Under the slabs covering the floors of the antechambers, Filov found the cremated remains of two women and some gold jewellery. These are the only actual graves found in the tomb, although the main chamber contained a stone bed and two stone urns, a sign that the room was intended as a burial space for probably three people. Researchers are still not certain how many burials had taken place in the tomb before its entrance was blocked with boulders and covered over with soil, remaining sealed for centuries until 1931.
Expensive jewellery, fine pottery and vessels of bronze, silver, and gold were found in the tomb. A breastplate and a 134-centimetre bronze candelabrum decorated with a figure of a dancing satyr were also recovered. Most of the items were imported from Greece, evidence both of the wealth of the tomb's owners and their taste for international fashions.
Fake Thracian lady spooks visitors of Mezek tomb
Today the treasures from the Mezek tomb are exhibited in the Archaeology Museum in Sofia and in the Haskovo History Museum. The tomb is open for visitors, although a recent project to "enhance the visitor experience" with EU funding has robbed it of some of its charm. The path to the tumulus is now covered with crude, and already fading, 3D-paintings of what the artists imagined might have been a real Thracian burial ritual. The gloom and the sheer size of the corridor is now impossible to grasp, as its walls are covered with hologram images of the artefacts discovered in 1931 and other bits of information. A shop mannequin pretending to be a Thracian lady now inhabits the burial chamber.
In spite of this, Mezek Tomb still remains one of the best ways to experience one of the most interesting Thracian sites in modern Bulgaria, and there is more to see in the area.
On one of the last hills of the Rhodope nearby stands one of the best preserved mediaeval fortresses in Bulgaria. It was built at the turn of the 11th-12th centuries during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos and was much used in the 13th-14th centuries, when the region was hotly contested by Bulgarians, Byzantines, the Latin Empire and the Ottomans. The walls were almost intact until 1900, when many of their stones were taken to Svilengrad and used for the building of military barracks.
The fortress was declared a site of historical importance as early as 1927, but this did not protect it from becoming again an actual military site during the Cold War. A bunker was constructed at the tip of the fortification that overlooks the surrounding plain, because Svilengrad was on the border with NATO-member Turkey.
Finely hewn blocks make the chamber's beehive-shaped cupola
Do you see the 3D Thracian soldier?
The Mezek fortress is small, but is one of the best preserved in Bulgaria and has a commanding views of the surrounding plain
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.