SEUTHOPOLIS

by Robert Nurden

Ancient city submerged in a lake may rise again as a tourist attraction

A light breeze ruffles the surface of Koprinka Dam, creating a ripple of tiny waves in its wake. Some ducks land on the water, skidding unceremoniously to a halt. A fisherman sits motionless on the shore, waiting for his luck to change. Away to the north the majestic escarpment of Stara Planina stands sentinel to this idyllic Bulgarian scene.

Yet 20 metres below the surface of this tranquil stretch of water, near the town of Kazanlak, lies something even more awe-inspiring. There, at the bottom of the man-made lake, lies the ancient city of Seuthopolis, a 2,300-year-old archaeological site that represents the pinnacle of Thracian culture. In its day, its magnificence outshone even the citadel of Perperikon, 100 kilometres to the south.

For centuries it lay hidden, destined to crumble away like so many of Bulgaria's archaeological marvels before it. But in 1948, workers building the reservoir discovered some ancient remains. Archaeologists were called in, but at first they didn't know what they had stumbled across.

Only when they found the name "Seuthopolis" carved on some marble did they finally realise what they were looking at: nothing less than the finest emblem of Bulgaria's past. A few pillars, tombs, stonework and coins, were hastily saved, and you can see them in museums in Sofia and Kazanlak.

After the find, the authorities called a halt to the excavations, and the city was consigned to a watery grave. Archaeologists knew that submerging it was tantamount to sacrilege, but were too afraid to speak out in those dark times. It looked as if Seuthopolis would be lost once again – perhaps forever.

But three years ago the city – named after King Seuthes III – reappeared on the radar. An audacious scheme is now in place to resurrect Seuthopolis and make it not only Bulgaria's number one tourist attraction but also to establish it as the world centre for Thracian studies. The groundbreaking idea means pushing back the waters to create a 20-metre deep "well" which visitors will look down into from the parapet of a wall encircling the site. If it succeeds, supporters say, it will provide Bulgaria with a symbol as patriotically potent as the campaign in the 2000s to release the country's health workers from prison in Libya.

"21st Century Bulgarians need a symbol that combines the glories of the past with the architectural marvels and engineering feats of the present," said Dimitar Mandradzhiev, chairman of the Save the Bulgarian Heritage association. "Our Thracian heritage is under threat and we need to save it before it disappears completely. The Seuthopolis site, right in the middle of the Valley of the Kings, will be a magnificent testimony to the richness of Bulgarian, and European, history."

The 150 million euro project is the brainchild of award-winning Bulgarian architect Zheko Tilev. In 2005 he was asked by the Kazanlak City Council to design a scheme that replicated old Seuthopolis and would act as a visitor centre. But he turned his clients' specifications on their head and came back with a stunning plan to expose the old site itself.

seuthopolis project

"To have recreated Seuthopolis as a model would have been of minimal scientific and touristic interest," Tilev told Vagabond. "Such a solution would also have run counter to contemporary architectural practice which strongly disapproves of copying and pale imitations. The answer was to be truly bold and drain the water from the site."

The vision is stunning, like nothing else in the Balkans, or anywhere else for that matter. A ferry service shuttles visitors from the reservoir shoreline to the circular-walled site. After disembarking, they will have a huge range of activities to choose from. Inside, and on top of the wall, there will be restaurants, cafes, shops, hotels, a museum and a medical centre.

You can walk or hire a bike to cycle the perimeter, which commands a bird's eye view of Seuthopolis complex with its beautiful backdrop of hanging gardens. Afterwards you can take one of four chairlifts down to the city itself.

But Seuthopolis has a more serious, academic aspect to it. The developers hope that historians and archaeologists of international repute will come to see it as the world's leading site in which to study Thracian culture. To this end, it will house conference and education facilities, classrooms, and a hall for exhibitions, festivals and concerts.

This courageous architectural vision holds one more surprise. As dusk falls, Seuthopolis will be floodlit, while all around the wall the entertainment will swing into action – music, drama, wining and dining.

"The view from the top of the 420-metre diameter wall will be breathtaking, both day and at night," said Tilev. "Visitors will get the chance to stand, as it were, on the boundary between past and present. They will be able to get a view from above as well as to explore the city itself, a rare opportunity for archaeological sites like this. We also plan to keep restoration to a minimum so we can leave as much as possible in its original condition."

seuthopolis project

But hard-headed engineers are needed to execute this 21st Century dream. The task is immense, not least because of the need to drain away 3,700,000 cubic metres of water. But, as Mandradzhiev explains, the timing couldn't be better. "The lake is drained roughly every 20 years for maintenance and the last time this happened was in 1987, so it is due to be done again. After that has been done it takes nine months to fill up completely again, which gives us time to build the foundations and the protecting wall."

Ancient Seuthopolis was originally constructed on a hill, so the wall only needs to be 40 metres high, 20 metres below the surface and 20 above.

In 1948, a marble slab bearing the Greek inscription, "This record to be carved on two tablets and to be made in Seuthopolis, in the temple of the great Thracian gods," should have alerted the authorities to the site's importance. As should the discovery of 2,000 coins, 800 of which bore the imprint of the head of King Seuthes III. But they weren't, and the flooding went ahead.

This could, however, have been a blessing in disguise. "Because it's been hidden for 50 years, robbers have not been able to get their hands on it," said Andrey Stoychev of the heritage association. "Ancient sites in Bulgaria have been decimated in the past 40 years, but this time we have managed to beat the raiders."

The Discovery Channel made an underwater film about Seuthopolis in 2007, and the footage showed that the city was still in a remarkably good condition. "It is covered by a thin layer of mud, which helped check erosion," said Stoychev.

So, who was King Seuthes III and how important was his kingdom? He ruled over the state of Odrissia at the end of 4th Century BC and founded Seuthopolis as his capital in 323 BC. The city quickly developed into the political, economic and cultural hub of the Thracian state. "It is nothing less than a treasure house of the Thracian way of life," said Mandradzhiev. "It will show us how our ancestors lived."

Recent research reveals that that 20 percent of Bulgarian men have Thracian genes, a discovery which provides modern Bulgarians with a firm link to the past and an understanding of their origins.

The 1948 excavations showed that the city was built on a 2.5 acre site. It was a fortified settlement, with several outlying suburbs.

The Tundzha River enveloped it on three sides, adding to its defensive capabilities. It had a 890-metre circular wall, and two wide streets ran from the two city gates. They met at right angles in the city centre, where the main Thracian temple of Dionysus was situated.

The royal palace itself consisted of two storeys with a 40-metre long decorated facade. Multi-coloured plaster, designed to look like marble, was a feature throughout the complex. It is thought that about 50 aristocratic families, the core of Thracian nobility, occupied the prestigious central district. Radical building methods for the time, such as bricks rather than stone, were used.

Experts are in no doubt that the scale and lavishness of Seuthopolis is proof that this was a rich city and the pinnacle of Thracian culture, later and far more advanced than Perperikon. True, it had Greek elements but it also displayed characteristics unique to Thracian culture. King Seuthes III was in fact the first Thracian ruler to produce indigenous coinage.

Even more exciting is the distinct possibility that there is a much older Thracian city underneath. This, say experts, could be as much as 8,000 years old. Once the complex has been built, further excavations can proceed without the tourist facilities being affected.

But when Tilev's scheme became public, and in spite of the fact that he is Bulgaria's number one architect, it received little support. Several people saw it as an eccentric pipe dream and it was quickly forgotten.

Only a chance remark by a member of Tilev's association to Mandradzhiev saved it from oblivion. "Once we knew what it was," he said, "we were convinced this was a project to which we should give our full backing. We are determined to make it happen."

Seuthopolis project

Tilev's association has mounted a publicity campaign to garner public support from home and abroad. The petition to raise Seuthopolis from its watery grave now contains over 100,000 signatures.

"This project is essential for Bulgarian tourism if we want to show visitors something really astonishing about the little-known Thracian culture," said Georgi Dimitrov of Zig Zag Holidays, Sofia. "Bulgaria is the only country in the world where so many and varied Thracian monuments have been excavated, and Thracian treasures discovered.

"But nothing like Seuthopolis has previously been discovered. It will give a whole new vision of Thracian civilisation as a European civilisation, which is still a well-kept secret. And it is bound to generate a big flow of tourists alongside the nearby Valley of the Roses."

Funding for the project does not seem to be a problem. The largest chunk will come from the European Regional Development Fund, with the rest being provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the UNDP as well as local funding. A number of private donors and investors from abroad are also in place.

So, it's all systems go, then? Unfortunately, far from it. And here comes the main sticking point. The project still needs the approval of the Bulgarian government. A working committee, created by the Ministry of Culture, was supposed to have established, by 30 September 2008, the framework for an international competition to choose an engineering company for the job.

So far nothing happened. Neither is the ministry making public the ongoing findings of its committee that was set up to establish the technical aspects of the project such as gathering data about soil composition and geological conditions, including the possibility of seismic activity. A Bulgarian Institute of Oceanography submarine was due to start surveying the reservoir this past winter. But the government still seems to be lukewarm about the issue.

Time will tell whether the government eventually pulls its finger out and lends its support. Surely this is one instance in which party politics can take a back seat. Or is Bulgaria forever going to be blighted by suspicions about corruption and demeaning self-interest?

The Save the Thracian Heritage association has no doubts about the project's symbolic and economic significance. "Seuthopolis can bring a new kind of thinking to Bulgaria," said Mandradzhiev. "If people see this huge scheme is a success, with the resulting financial spinoffs for the tourist industry, they will start to think big as well."

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