RAIDERS OF TREASURE MOUND

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Maltepe Mound near Plovdiv is archaeological discovery of decade

maltepe mound.jpg

Large and small, isolated or in groups, you will see mounds all over Bulgaria: atop rolling hills and amid farming fields, by old village graveyards and motorways, even on the outskirts of Sofia. The ancient Thracians who lived in the Bulgarian lands between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD created most of them. They buried their dead there, interring noblemen and women with expensive personal possessions. In many cases the tombs were very impressive, such as those in Kazanlak, Aleksandrovo and Sboryanovo.

Among the 30,000-plus mounds that exist in Bulgaria today, one stands out. Even when it was yet to be excavated, every archaeology student knew its name: Maltepe. Located at Manole Village, near Plovdiv, it is the largest mound in Bulgaria, at 26 metres high and with a diameter of 140 metres.

Maltepe's sheer size suggested that the lucky archaeologist who got to excavate it would probably find inside the tomb of some very important Thracian noble, a discovery that would make headlines and build careers.

A couple of years ago, Dr Kostadin Kisyov, director of the Archaeological Museum in Plovdiv and an established researcher of Thracian burial sites, did just that. What he discovered indeed made the news. Significantly, it was a surprise no one was prepared for.

The 80,000-cubic-metre Maltepe mound does not contain graves, tombs, burial artefacts or human remains. Instead, a massive structure of stones stands in its centre. Its size is remarkable: it is 23 metre high and each side of its square base is 9 metres long. No such structure has ever been found in an ancient Thracian mound.

Suddenly, the identity and the intentions of the creators of Maltepe Mound became a mystery.

Upon learning the news, the mainstream Bulgarian media rushed to generate outlandish "theories," claiming that Maltepe was the tomb of Alexander the Great, of Rhoemetalces, a 1st century AD king of the Thracian Odrysian Kingdom, or of one of the many Roman emperors who fought to stay on the throne for more than a year during the tumultuous 3rd century. The most exotic "theory" so far has been that a whole "city of the dead," whatever that might mean, is still hidden beneath the stone structure. The word "pyramid" is also often used in sensationalist reportages from the site.

In reality, the structure in the centre of the Maltepe Mound is not a tomb at all. It does not contain any rooms. Instead, the whole massive structure is filled with stones. Archaeologists have discovered about a dozen pits, dug into the mound, containing artefacts from the 3rd century AD, probably placed there as part of religious rituals. A two-metre high wall of stones encircled the mound, ensuring its stability. At that time the region was within the Roman Empire and nearby Philippopolis, as Plovdiv was called then, was one of the most prosperous cities of the province of Thrace.

According to the most plausible explanation, the stone structure was the foundation of a gigantic sculpture that used to stand atop Maltepe. The mound was created both as an additional support for the structure, and to make the statue more visible. The area around is very flat and the hypothetical monument would be visible from afar, particularly from the nearby ancient road that connected Central Europe with the Bosporus and Asia Minor.

Maltepe mound, Bulgaria

You need to see it to believe it

 

The statue might have commemorated an important battle, a larger-than-life demonstration of the might of the empire to the local population. A possible analogue could have been the Tropaeum Traiani in Romania, a monument atop a mound built in AD 109 by Emperor Trajan to celebrate his victory over the Dacians.

The statue that supposedly stood atop Maltepe, if ever there was such a thing, is long gone. Excavations are far from over, however, and the archaeologists hope that they will eventually find a definite answer to the question of what Maltepe was.

The people from the area, who for centuries have lived with the mighty and mysterious silhouette of Maltepe at their doorsteps, never suffered from such doubts. For them the mound's obvious purpose was to hide a gold treasure trove. Even the name of the mound points to this belief; in Turkish it means Treasure Hill.

Treasure hunting has been popular in the Bulgarian lands for centuries and most of the Thracian mounds in this country bear traces of this activity. Maltepe Mound was not spared either.

Sometime in the 16th century, a group of men started digging into the mound. They were professionals: they targeted the southern part of Maltepe as they were obviously aware that ancient Thracian graves are usually located in this part of a mound.

The treasure hunters dug, and dug, and dug, and then they hit a stone wall. We can only imagine their joy when they thought they had finally found the gold, and their disappointment when they discovered only more stones, solid and impenetrable, behind the wall.

In the end, the treasure hunters gave up and left. Six centuries later, Dr Kisyov's team discovered the traces of their fruitless effort: a long, wide tunnel, some droppings and the harness from the donkey they brought with them to carry the gold, and three coins minted under Sultan Suleiman that probably slipped from their purses.

Ironically, Maltepe Mound surprised the 16th century treasure hunters just as it did the 21st century archaeologists, and it will probably provide some more unexpected discoveries. Research is ongoing and the site is currently off-limits to the general public.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

IS RACISM IN BULGARIA ON THE RISE?
"We are fascists, we burn Arabs": the youngsters start chanting as soon as they emerge from the metro station and leave the perimeter of its security cameras.

HOW WOODROW WILSON AND CHARLES DARWIN CAME TO SOFIA
The names of foreigners, mainly Russians, are common across the map of Sofia – from Alexandr Dondukov and Count Ignatieff to Alexey Tolstoy (a Communist-era Soviet writer not to be confused with Leo Tolstoy) who has a whole housing estate named after him.

EMBRACE THE PAST
Picturesque old houses lining a narrow river and tiny shops selling hand-made sweets, knives and fabrics: The Etara open air museum recreates a charming, idealised version of mid-19th century Bulgaria.

JESUS CHRIST ASTRONAUT
Christ was an alien. Or if He was not, then four centuries ago there were UFOs hovering over what is now southwestern Bulgaria.

OF SHPAGINS, TANKS AND ALYOSHAS
Unlike other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, which removed, stashed away or demolished most remnants of their Communist past as early as the 1990s, Bulgaria is a curiosity.

VARVARA'S IRON TREE
Agroup of friends meet each summer at the seaside, a small community who know one another so well that boredom becomes inevitable, and so do internal conflicts. And death.

TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS
Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

LET'S PICK SOME ROSES
Both high-end perfumes and more run-of-the-mill cosmetics would be impossible without a humble plant that thrives in a couple of pockets around the world, the oil-bearing rose. Bulgaria is one of these places.

FROM BLACK ROCK DESERT, NV, TO NOVO SELO, BG
Organisers of the notorious Burning Man festival seem to have heeded the lessons of 2023 when festival-goers, paying uprwards of $500 for a ticket, had to wade, owing to torrential rains and flashfloods, through tons of mud in the northern Nevada desert.

AMAZING PLANTS & ANIMALS OF BULGARIA
In Bulgaria, nature has created a number of little wonders. They might not be spectacular or grandiose, but they constitute a vital part of the local wildlife, create a feeling of uniqueness and are sometimes the sole survivors of bygone geological epochs.

THE MANY FACES OF PALIKARI ROCKS
Next time you visit Sozopol, pay more attention not to the quaint houses in the Old Town, the beaches around or the quality of food and service in the restaurants. Instead, take a stroll by the sea and take in... the rocks. 

MOSQUE OF LEGENDS
Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is the most neglected part of the rich past of this nation. This is a result of the trauma of five centuries spent under Ottoman domination additionally fanned up under Communism and up until this day.