Until recently, no one was able to visit one of Bulgaria's most interesting sites, the dark grey remains of a tomb near Malko Tarnovo. Under Communism, people needed special permits to enter this small town in the Strandzha mountains, as it was only a few metres from the border with Turkey, a member of a hostile NATO member. Even if tourists had somehow obtained permits, it was impossible for them to cross the border fence and take a look at the tomb in the Mishkova Niva area.
Well, Communism is no more, and now the tomb at Mishkova Niva is on the tourist map. Crossing the border fence is hassle-free, provided you get a bit of help from the Malko Tarnovo Tourist Information Centre (you will find it next to Preobrazhenie Square in the town centre or call 05952 3017).
Situated at the foot of the 710-metre-high Golyamo Gradishte Peak, the tomb was part of a larger complex consisting of a necropolis, a residential building and a mine which in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD belonged to the household of the Roman emperors.
The tomb was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century by Karel and Hermann Škorpil, the Czech brothers who laid the foundations of Bulgarian archaeology, and it made an instant impression with its most distinct feature: a pediment over the entrance decorated with a low relief of a shield and a spear, and two human palms. The pediment is no longer in situ. It was moved to the Malko Tarnovo History Museum and is now the star exhibit of its lapidarium.
The rest of the tomb, whose mound was excavated by archaeologists in the early 1980s, still stands in the midst of a clearing in the lush oak forest in the border zone, but the lack of proper conservation has taken its toll on the site. The blocks of the krepis, or the 23-metre-wide, 1.8-metre-high wall which once supported the mound, are only partially in their designated places. The corridor leading to the chamber is missing its roof. The chamber, with a diameter of 2.7m, is open to the Strandzha sky, as its covering slabs, which used to form a tent-shaped cupola, are now scattered around. The least damaged piece of the tomb seems to be a structure next to the tomb whose function is unclear (some believe that it is a dolmen, a burial structure popular in pre-Roman Thrace in the first half of the 1st Millennium).
The Mishkova Niva tomb had been robbed long before archaeologists arrived, and the few finds from the site shed little light on when it was built and who built it.
The theories explaining the strange tomb at Mishkova Niva do not agree. While the tourist signs attribute the site to the 4th century BC, there is more evidence that it is actually from the Roman era.
According to the more popular interpretation, it all began with the so-called dolmen. A Thracian aristocrat was buried under it and, after centuries of veneration, his family built the new and more fashionable tomb near it, in the 4th or the 3rd centuries BC. The tomb was a heroon, or a shrine to this predecessor, or a temple of Apollo, or both. In any case, the tomb-cum-shrine was a major religious site, and people would flock from afar to pay their respects there.
The alternative theory holds more scientific water. According to it, the dolmen is not a dolmen at all and the tomb was built in the 2nd or in the early 3rd centuries AD: all the finds from the site date from this period. The tomb's construction is also similar to that of the Roman tombs at the nearby Propada necropolis, about 5km from Malko Tarnovo. No conclusive evidence has been found to support the hypothesis that the tomb served as a shrine. Even the relief on the pediment is not that mysterious – shields and spears are common features on tombstones from Roman times and would often indicate that the deceased had had a military career. As for the open palms, they provide a symbolic protection against evil and uninitiated visitors.
In Roman times, the region of Malko Tarnovo was also the home of a number of shrines to the Thracian God Rider, Zeus and Apollo. Besides the artefacts in the local History Museum, visible traces of these can be found in the village of Brashlyan. In the 17th century, the locals built their church, St Dimitar, over a sanctuary to Dionysus. The builders did not hesitate to use parts of the ancient temple for the Christian church. The base and the top of a marble column were turned into chandeliers that are now in the narthex. The altar, with an ancient inscription to the old god, ended up as an altar to Christ. Due to the rules of the Eastern Orthodoxy, however, no layman – and certainly no laywoman – can pass through the altar doors to see the reused altar.
The pediment of the Mishkova Niva tomb is the star exhibit of the Malko Tarnovo history museum
Sadly, in recent years the Mishkova Niva site has been overshadowed by a nearby, more murky place of interest, where one of the strangest stories of Communist Bulgaria unfolded.
In 1981, while archaeologists were surveying the Mishkova Niva tomb, a different expedition started digging, in deep secrecy, into a saddle on the top of Golyamo Gradishte peak. This group was endorsed by none other than Lyudmila Zhivkova, the minister of culture and daughter of the Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, after a a clairvoyant had predicted that the Strandzha hid "the secrets of history." Zhivkova, who was a mystic, sent a group of close associates to the mountain. Aided by the military and the secret police, they began digging out the remains of an ancient mine at Golyamo Gradishte. After the sudden death of Zhivkova, the excavations were aborted and the site was dynamited, leaving a deep, water-filled cave at the spot.
The story of this dig surfaced after the collapse of Communism in 1989, when a number of those who had been involved published their vivid accounts of the events and claimed that the expedition had been close to discovering some mystical knowledge and – believe it or not – the tomb of the Egyptian goddess Bastet. The paranormal fame of Golyamo Gradishte has been growing ever since, and now the area is popularly known as "the place where an Egyptian goddess is buried" rather than a location hosting one of the most fascinating ancient tombs in Bulgaria.
The tomb during the 1980s excavations
The remains of the tomb's corridor and chamber today
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.