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The Kazanlak Thracian tomb was discovered 80 years ago

Mural paintings reveal the world of Thracian kings and mysteries for the first time

Photo: Ivo Ivanov

"Man does not know the way to heaven, but the horse does," says an ancient Thracian proverb. That is why the Thracian kings were necessarily sent to the afterlife together with their horses. Because of the numerous burial mounds of rulers from the Hellenistic era, the area between the Bulgarian towns of Kazanlak and Shipka is called the Valley of the Thracian Kings. The great archaeological discoveries in this part of Bulgaria began 80 years ago. 

On April 19, 1944, soldiers dug trenches on the Tyulbeto elevation above the town of Kazanlak (Central Bulgaria). They came across a stone wall. They moved a huge stone and entered a dark hole. Under the light of lit newspapers they were astonished to see frescoes in the Thracian tomb that was looming before their eyes. The director of the local museum, writer and artist Dimitar Chorbadzhiyski ака Chudomir, immediately reported the important discovery to Sofia. Research and conservation continued until the 1970s. To preserve the original, a copy of the priceless monument was built. 

In 1979, the Kazanlak Tomb became the first Bulgarian site inscribed in the World Heritage List under the protection of UNESCO. 

The tomb was plundered in antiquity, but in the dust on the floor archaeologists found gold and gilded stitching from faded sumptuous garments, parts of ornaments, and outside the mound - in an altar - a silver jug was placed. In the antechamber (dromos) researchers discovered the remains of a horse buried with the Thracian king to serve him in the afterlife. In the round chamber a man and a woman were laid. The buried man was a warrior. He was armed with a spear and a crooked Thracian short sword known as makhaira.

The most remarkable thing in the last abode of the buried royal couple are the expressive frescoes. In the narrow dromos, at eye-level to the passer-by under the sloping vault, are painted dynamic battle scenes. They depict the military exploits of the Odrysian ruler's earthly journey. The scenes are an introduction to the central frescoes under the dome of the burial chamber. 

Standing in the middle of the small hive-like space, you turn your head and like in a movie, the last moments of a funeral ceremony spin before you. In the middle is the image of the departed king. With a golden laurel wreath on his head, he is painted in darker hues because he is now dead. He sits before a table laden with food. In his right hand he holds a vessel of wine. His left hand is entwined in the hand of his wife seated opposite him. Apparently death will not separate them either. The man has his eyes fixed on the beautifully clad woman. She has lowered her head thoughtfully and her gaze is questioning - what lies beyond death? She must be the king's beloved wife. She is destined to accompany him to the afterlife.

The couple's last meal harbours tension. The maids amplify the mystery. One presents the deceased with pomegranates as a symbol of immortality. Others offer the queen the things that will serve her in eternity. The procession departs. Women trumpeters announce the parting. A man carries a small blue box. Horsemen pull the ruler's favorite saddled stallions. The animals sense that they will soon be sacrificed. The most nervous are the horses harnessed to the quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses). The charioteer with the flowing plume can barely restrain them. This is the last moment.....

The visitor glances up to the stone covering the tholos or domed vault. In this commotion, 3 chariots fly racing in a circle. These are the funeral games-races held in memory of the departed. Life and death swirl simultaneously. People who lived 23 centuries ago "come alive" before our senses. 

There are various interpretations of these images. For some, a Hellenistic funerary feast is painted beneath the dome. According to other researchers, the characters and scenes are to be studied for Orphic symbolism, revealing the immortalisation of the soul of the buried and deified Thracian king. 

At the beginning of the 21st century, Associate Professor Konstantin Boshnakov, through photographic analyses, discovered that the frescoes in the Kazanlak Thracian tomb were signed by their author. The artist's name was Kodzimasis or Cosimasis. In his youth he painted another Thracian tomb, the Tomb of Aleksandrovo (in South-eastern Bulgaria). The hunting scenes there are much more primitive in composition and painting. 

It is evident that the artist developed over the following decades. But he continued to sign his works with confidence. Boshnakov also found the name of the person buried in the Kazanlak tomb inscribed. He was Roigos or Raizdos, son of Seuthes, all kings of the Odrysian Kingdom in ancient Thrace.

King Seuthes III
There are about 1,500 Thracian tombs in the Kazanlak area. That is why they call the Kazanlak field the Valley of the Thracian Kings. 

About 200 mounds and 15 tombs have been studied so far. Why did the Odrysians decide to bury their ancestors precisely here? The answer to the mystery may lie in the famous megalith near Buzovgrad, above Kazanlak, or in the already submerged city of King Seuthes (Sevt) - Sevtopolis.
Miniature model of Sevtopolis
Find your own answers! The Valley of the Thracian Kings is expecting its new discoverers!

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Photos: Ivo Ivanov

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