Extraterrestrials, energy vortices peep from behind Bulgaria's most 'mysterious' sites
"I dislike bringing people here." The voice of the guide from the tourist office in Malko Tarnovo drops, as we approach the summit of Golyamo Gradishte, the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. It is summer. The sun shines through the thick foliage of the oak forest. The only thing negative about this pristine location, in the Strandzha Nature Park, are the midges that swarm around our eyes.
"This place has a strange energy. Dark energy," our guide stops and shows us a small cave with a dark, almost black pool of stagnant water at the foot of a grey rock overgrown with creepers. "Recently an expedition detected a strange, cuboid object in a tunnel under the water. They wanted to dive and check. The historians banned them from further research. But you surely want to see the cat's face? It is over there, on the rock. Just squint and you will see it." "Why did the historians intervene?," I ask as, although the news about the cuboid object did appear in the media some time before, there was nothing about any historians stopping further research. "I don't know," replies the guide, with a conspiratorial tone suggesting a coverup.
Thousands of Bulgarians believe that a supernatural secret is hidden under the stagnant pool at Golyamo Gradishte. No one is sure what it might be, but the most popular theories are the tomb of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, half-cat and half-woman, a gold treasure trove and/or a sarcophagus containing "the history of the world 2,000 years back and a prediction for the next 2,000 years." All agree, however, that it is something huge, monumental, and capable of turning world history on its head. New-Agers also claim the place as their own. Sometimes they spend the night there, searching for the famed strange energy, and report experiencing supernatural phenomena.
If the light falls at a specific angle and you squint really hard, you might discern a cat face in the rock over the cave's flooded entrance
Golyamo Gradishte became a household name in the 1990s, but its story starts earlier. It is hard to say what exactly happened, as it all began in secrecy protected by none other than the Communist-era State Security. Some of those who gained first-hand knowledge of the site at the time never spoke about what happened there, and those who did produced often contradictory accounts. For the outsider, it is hard to decide which of these to trust and to what extent. Once the story became public, it flourished, adding additional and increasingly phantasmagorical details.
In 1981, the most popular account of the events goes, a man brought a map to Vanga, the blind clairvoyant living in Petrich, in the southwest of Bulgaria. Vanga scolded him for wasting her time and made him leave, but not before she had asked her niece, Krasimira Stoyanova, to make a secret copy of the map. Years later Stoyanova would write a book explaining the map, according to Vanga, showed the location of a treasure trove of suprahuman knowledge.
Back in 1981, the news about the map soon reached Lyudmila Zhivkova, daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, then minister of culture, a fervent believer in the occult and a frequent visitor to Vanga. Wasting no time, she put together a secret expedition to identify the site. A top archaeologist and some associates of Zhivkova were part of the group, as was Krasimira Stoyanova.
The expedition found the place indicated on the map. That was Golyamo Gradishte Peak, deep inside the border zone with NATO-member Turkey, a strictly guarded area with shoot-to-kill instructions.
Zhivkova's expedition found the exact location and started digging, while State Security kept an eye out for leaks and the Bulgarian military – for intruders. There were neither leaks, nor intruders. Even archaeologists doing a legitimate dig at the foot of the peak, in the area of Mishkova Niva, were unaware of what was going on only a few hundred metres away.
This pediment, now in front of Malko Tarnovo's History Museum, once belonged to the ancient tomb at Mishkova Niva, a stone's throw from Golyamo Gradishte. Mystics claim the shield, the spear and the two palms have secret meaning. In actual truth, this was a popular motif in ancient funerary art. It did hold a symbolic meaning: that the deceased was a soldier
However, bad luck struck. Unexpectedly, Lyudmila Zhivkova died shortly before her 39th birthday. Then the minister of mineral resources, who was among the organisers, also died. The expedition packed up in a hurry. Before departing, they dynamited the entrance of excavation. A nearby spring overflowed and flooded the site, creating a pool. The location was sealed, seemingly forever.
The Golyamo Gradishte expedition remained a well-kept secret throughout the 1980s. When Communism collapsed, in 1989, two of the participants broke their silence and published books about it. Those were Krasimira Stoyanova and Krastyu Mutafchiev. Mutafchiev, a close confidante of Lyudmila Zhivkova, had been sentences to many years in a jail in a secret trial in the 1980s and had just been released from Pazardzhik Prison. The newly liberalised Bulgarian media took over, spreading the news and embellishing a detail here and a detail there.
Today, you can read all sorts of things about Golyamo Gradishte. Ancient Thracians and Egyptians, secret powers, Nazi Germans and Soviet agents, and, of course, extraterrestrials are all said to be involved. What the expedition really experienced and found, and whether they actually found anything at all, is elusive.
According to archaeologists, the 1981 expedition dug into an ancient mine, with which the region abounds.
This popularity of mysterious lore about a location is not unique to Bulgaria. England has Stonehenge and the Rosslyn Chapel, the United States has Area 51, and so on. What makes Golyamo Gradishte different is that the legend was created not by some fringe group, but by high-ranking members of a Communist, and hence theoretically atheist and materialist, government.
Curiously, this was not an isolated case. Bulgarian penchant for mystery, the inevitable coverup and of course conspiracy theories of all shapes and sizes transpired again soon after Communism collapsed.
In the autumn of 1990, the country was in disarray. It was trying to transition from a Communist country with a planned economy and no freedom to an open-market democracy. Belief in mysteries of all hues and colours was rife. Mysteries were an easy outlet for thousands of people from all levels of society who found themselves vulnerable and unprepared for the winds of change.
In a twist of irony, archaeologists excavated the tomb at Mishkova Niva at the same time as the secret expedition was digging at Golyamo Gradishte. However, they learned of the secret digs only years later
In this atmosphere a group of psychics convinced some of the top brass in the Bulgarian Army that they had a map of a legendary golden treasure hidden in Tsarichina, a nondescript village near Sofia.
In December 1990, the military started secret excavations, named Operation Lightbeam. They dug for two years, while the publicity reached hysterical levels, spending thousands of leva in what was a very impoverished post-Communist state. One of the psychics committed suicide, and internal conflict within the group became stronger and nastier. As the now infamous Tsarichina Hole got deeper, the remaining psychics changed their idea of what was supposed to be buried there several times. Today, the consensus is that the expedition was looking for a creature – a "yellow-haired monkey", a "Biblical personage," a "hermaphrodite extraterrestrial," that would disprove Darwin's theory of evolution and would reveal humanity's extraterrestrial origins.
Amazingly, the government dragged its feet for months before ending what was an increasingly obvious waste of public money. The excavations were terminated in November 1992. At that time, the Tsarichina Hole was 70 m deep and led to a 160-metre tunnel. Nothing was ever found there.
Three years later, one of the leading officers involved in Operation Lightbeam killed himself. Whether this was related to the Tsarichina event remains unknown.
Today the Tsarichina dig is little more than a faint memory. No traces of the hole survive. When asked about it, the few locals show visitors its location: an area of low shrubs beside a power substation.
Bulgarians, both believers and sceptics, think that the excavations at Golyamo Gradishte and Tsarichina were singularly unique. For the former, they show Bulgaria's special status as an energy vortex, a "chosen" country that has only temporarily been beset by problems and bad luck, but that will eventually shine again, for all the world to marvel at. For the latter, the digs illustrate the Bulgarian modus operandi of searching for supernatural help and real or imaginary greatness in the past as a way of dealing with living in dire economic circumstances, such as the turmoil of the 1990s.
The thinking that led to both digs, however, might have been borrowed from the West.
This is what the infamous Tsaritchina Hole, which was supposed to overturn the way we see human history forever, looks now
In 1971, speculative non-fiction author Erich von Däniken published his second bestseller, The Gold of the Gods. Däniken's books provided "evidence" that humans and extraterrestrials had been in contact thousands of years before, a cooperation still visible in "unexplained" sites such as the pyramids in ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, Stonehenge, the Nazca Plateau and so on. In The Gold of the Gods Däniken included the account of a man who claimed to have discovered gold, strange artefacts and a "metallic library" in Cueva de los Tayos, a cave at the foot of the Andes, in Ecuador.
Sounds familiar? Keep reading.
Däniken's story about Cueva de los Tayos grabbed the attention of the public. In 1976, an expedition including scientists, speleologists, Ecuadorian and British government officials and British special forces was sent to explore the cave. The expedition was well publicised, with Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, as its honorary president.
The expedition found neither gold, strange artefacts or a "metallic library." As proper scientists, however, they mapped the cave and surveyed its ecosystem. End of story.
It is possible that news about the Cueva de los Tayos "mysteries" and the subsequent expedition could have reached Bulgaria in the 1970s. The country was not as isolated at the time from the outer world as latterday Bulgarian anti-Communists claim. An interest in the mysterious and unexplained was increasingly prevalent among ordinary Bulgarians, arising mainly from the USSR. Stories about UFO sightings both in the present and the distant past appeared here and there in the press, and some books on the topic were even published. Däniken's film, The Chariots of the Gods was shown in theatres across the country.
Whether Stoyanova, Mutafchiev and the rest of the people who generated the original Golyamo Gradishte story were in one way or another influenced by Däniken will probably remain a mystery for good. So will the facts about what really happened in the Strandzha, in 1981. But as time goes by, it seems increasingly likely that the real mystery about both Golyamo Gradishte and Tsarichina will be how large groups of people, including senior state officials, both Communist and non-Communist, could spend a significant amount of time and money after... a wild goose chase.