By the turn of the 21st century, however, another name popped up and has stuck in the public's mind, evoking images of hidden treasures and untold mysteries – the Valley of the Thracian Kings. The term was coined by Dr Georgi Kitov, the archaeologist who worked in the area in the 1990s and 2000s and made some of the most fascinating discoveries there, obviously as a parallel with the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The region, he argued, was at the heart of the mighty Odrysian Kingdom and was the preferred burial ground for the Odrysian nobility for centuries, resulting in the creation of about 1,300 tumuli. Of these, about 300 have been archaeologically researched.
Among so many mounds one stands out, the Kazanlashka Grobnitsa, or the Kazanlak Tomb. It was discovered completely by chance. On 19 April 1944, a group of Bulgarian soldiers were digging a trench in the 40-metre wide mound, when their shovels struck a stone wall. Curious, the men broke through the wall and found themselves in a short corridor. A stone door laid broken on the ground. The soldiers called for an archaeologist, who became the first person in centuries to enter the tiny burial chamber (2.65 m in diameter and 3.25 m in height) and to see its lavishly painted cupola and one of the best frescoes preserved from ancient Europe.
The murals of the Kazanlak Tomb still impress visitors. The lower frieze is a decorative one, consisting of rosettes and bulls' heads. In the upper frieze, beneath the key-stone of the cupola, three chariots race eternally around the circle.
The middle frieze, which is also the largest, is what makes the Kazanlak Tomb a must-see. A man and a woman feast there with all their wealth, from caskets filled with personal belongings to beautiful horses, surrounded by musicians and servants. The mood of the scene, however, is far from jovial. It is true that Herodotus wrote about the joy the Thracians felt when someone died, as they believed that he was passing into a better life, away from earthly sorrows, but the beautiful face of the veiled woman in the Kazanlak Tomb is unmistakably sad.
The meaning of the scene is open to interpretation. Some believe it depicts the funeral feast for the deceased man, who was deified after his death. For others, it represents the mythological wedding of the deified man and the daughter of the Great Goddess. The Great Goddess herself appears in the fresco, the highest of all the figures in the frieze, standing next to a man crowned with a wreath, offering him pomegranates, the fruit associated with the afterworld.
The vivid expression and the craftsmanship of the bronze head of a man, identified by some as King Seuthes, from Golyama Kosmatka, indicate it was probably made by a Greek master. The head was ritually severed from the statue it belonged to
Whatever the meaning of the fresco, the quality of the image is indisputable. The tomb was painted in the first half of the 3rd Century BC by an unknown Greek painter.
In 1979, UNESCO included the Kazanlak Tomb in its World Heritage List. Due to preservation issues, the tomb is closed to visitors, who can instead visit an exact replica, situated close to the original, in Tyulbeto Park in Kazanlak.
The lavish frescoes of the Kazanlak Tomb are not the only paintings you can see in the Valley of the Thracian Kings. Built in the 4th Century BC, the Ostrusha Tomb near Shipka was hewn into a monolithic stone block and was covered with another monolith, which was richly decorated with frescoes. Sadly, after the tomb was robbed in Antiquity, only one beautiful female head remained completely intact – a telling example of what has been lost forever.
Built in the 4th Century BC, Shushmanets, near Kazanlak, is another interesting example of Thracian burial architecture – the entrance to the tomb is decorated with a column in the Ionic style, an obvious influence from Greece. In the round chamber there is another column, this time a Doric one.
All of these tombs, along with many others in the Valley of the Thracian Kings, had already been plundered by ancient or modern treasure hunters before they were discovered,. In 2004, however, Dr Kitov's team literally struck gold – twice.
In August, the team excavated an unimpressive brick grave in the Svetitsata Mound, near Shipka, which had belonged to a Thracian aristocrat from the second half of the 5th Century. Despite the unpromising appearance of the grave, its contents were truly amazing: a collection of top-quality weapons and expensive imported vessels, plus a gold mask weighing 673g and depicting the face of a bearded man. Dr Kitov identified the deceased owner of the grave (the skeleton was there, with some parts missing, suggesting post-mortem ritual dismemberment) as the Thracian king Teres.
The media were still in a frenzy over this find when, in September, Dr Kitov's team made the news again. In the Golyama Kosmatka mound, near Shipka, they discovered one of the biggest and best preserved aristocratic graves in Bulgaria. Built in the 5th Century BC, the tomb had a 13-metre corridor. A marble door protected a circular chamber with a 4.5-metre cupola. The rectangular burial chamber was hewn into a 60 tonne monolith and contained a variety of expensive weapons and precious objects, including a beautiful gold wreath.
The words "To Seuthes", written on one of the silver vessels, pointed to King Seuthes III as the man buried there.
A funeral feast or afterlife bliss? The meaning of the Kazanlak Tomb murals is still open to discussion
The most astonishing find from Golyama Kosmatka, however, was buried in the mound, and not in the tomb itself. It was a masterfully cast bronze head of a man with an unruly beard and strong features. The head was probably a depiction of Seuthes himself, and may have been cut from an actual, life-sized statue of this Thracian king.
Why did the Thracians do this? They were probably recreating the myth of Orpheus, whose head, according to legend, foretold the future after his death. It could be that the symbolic decapitation of the statue meant that the deceased had been initiated into the secretive Thracian Orphism, a mystical teaching which promised bliss in the afterlife.
All of these tombs can be visited, if permission is obtained from the Kazanlak History Museum.
It is understandable if, after reading about so many tombs, you start thinking that the Thracians were so preoccupied with thoughts of death that they did not care about building structures for the living. The Valley of the Thracian Kings, however, has preserved a whole city.
Sadly, Seuthopolis cannot be visited, as it lies at the base of the Koprinka Dam, near Kazanlak.
The city was built from 323 to 320 BC on the whim of King Seuthes III (of the bronze head). At that time he was at the height of his power and had enough money and ambition to follow the fashion set by the Macedonian kings Philip II and Alexander the Great, and found a city named after himself. The Thracian king built his city, which became the capital of his kingdom, on the bank of a river according to the style popular in the Hellenistic world. The paved streets ran straight, and there was an agora, or an open air place where citizens used to meet, talk and do business. A portion of the city was reserved for the king and his family.
Seuthopolis, however, did not survive long, and had been abandoned by the middle of the 3rd Century BC. Afterwards, people never settled there again, thus leaving the undisturbed ground to protect the remains of the forgotten Thracian capital.
The city of Seuthes was discovered in 1948 in the most distressing of circumstances, when a survey was made of the area which would be submerged by the waters of the Georgi Dimitrov Dam (now Koprinka Dam). The scientific importance of the discovery was immense, but the Communist government was too keen to industrialise the country at top speed, and the water supply was seen as more important than the preservation of history. The archaeologists were given six years – while the reservoir was being constructed – and they did all they could, before the waters finally closed over, submerging the only preserved planned Thracian city in Bulgaria.
Seuthopolis is still there, hidden under the silt of the dam.
The waters of the Koprinka Dam cover the remains of a whole Thracian city, Seuthopolis
The golden mask of a man, supposedly King Teres, buried in the Svetitsata mound weights 673 gram
One of the finds in the Golyama Kosmatka tomb, this silver jewellery box in the shape of a shell is a strange find, as a man was buried in the mound, supposedly King Seuthes. Historians believe that it was a gift for the deceased by his wife
The circular chamber of the Golyama Kosmatka Tomb is 4.5 m high. The tomb is one of the largest in Bulgaria and has a burial chamber made of a monolithic rock
A Muslim shrine, long abandoned, was build near the mound that has protected the Kazanlak Tomb since the 3rd Century BC
A gold wine cup was among the luxurious objects buried with their owner, supposedly King Seuthes, in Golyama Kosmatka
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 opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.