The Valley of the Thracian Rulers: Hidden Beauty of the Barbarians
In ancient times, before Bulgaria’s Turkic and Slavic history , on the territory of this country lived a unique and almost mythical people . They were called the Thracians, and their history spanned many centuries, intriguing historians and leaving rich and enigmatic traces behind them.
One of the richest remains of their culture is found in the heart of present day Bulgaria, in the famous Rose Valley of Kazanlak , which is today rich with ancient tumuli. These tombs belonged to Thracian kings and nobles, and the riches found inside are beyond measure, showing us an important glimpse into this sparsely attested ancient nation.
Today we are recounting the story of these tombs, pointing out the finest examples of Thracian burial customs , and showing you some of the incredibly intricate and rich items found within them. Considered one of the world’s most pristine and profound heritages, these burial mounds hide an unspoiled look into classical antiquity. Join us as we visit the famous Valley of the Thracian Rulers.
Origins of the Valley of the Thracian Rulers
The territory of the modern day country of Bulgaria played a crucial role in ancient history, before the coming of the nomadic Turkic Bulgars and Slavic tribes which would form the basis for the modern identity of Bulgarians. But before that occurred, in ancient, classical antiquity, this fertile region was the home to the Thracians. The Thracians were a group of closely related Indo-European tribes, and over a few centuries played a significant role in the Balkan-Mediterranean sphere.
They provided a lot of (mainly military) influences to the nearby Greeks, but also received a lot of Hellenistic influences, which would come to dominate their art and overall culture. As this Hellenic influence became entwined with the Thracian native elements, it gave birth to a unique and vastly rich style, which is perfectly illustrated by the finds in the Valley of the Thracian Rulers.
The Thracian people were, by all accounts, a warlike and highly militaristic society, with a lot of tribes that often clashed with each other. A large part of their history consists either of warring or loose unities of these tribes under a single king. In fact, the first historical mention of Thracians is related to their participation in the Trojan War . Moreover, this is established by the fact that the Thracian warriors, mostly the agile peltast spearmen, were highly sought as mercenaries due to their warrior prowess and often merciless conduct.
Fresco in 4 th century BC tomb of Thracian king at Kazanlak. ( ollirg / Adobe Stock)
The most powerful Thracian tribe, the Odrysai, founded the Odrysian kingdom under the leadership of Teres I. This was one of the first states in the region that managed to surpass the usual tribal hierarchy. This kingdom’s capital was in Seuthopolis – the largest Thracian city which was named after its founder – Seuthes III. The story of the Valley of Thracian Rulers takes us to this very ancient town.
Today, Seuthopolis is gone – its remains and ruins are submerged beneath the modern Koprinka reservoir close to the modern city of Kazanlak. The remains of the city were discovered in 1948, in the process of building a dam. The discovery was of immense importance, but this didn’t save the site from its future fate. The communist government of Bulgaria was more interested in the dam being constructed, than the preservation of ancient Seuthopolis.
Kazanlak Reservoir - the site of Seuthopolis. (Laveol / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
They gave the archaeologists a deadline of six years to excavate what they could. And after that, the dam was built and the remains of this ancient site were submerged, where they still lie today in a watery tomb.
All around this ancient town, strewn about the picturesque Kazanlak Valley that expands from the foot of the Balkan Mountains , ancient mounds are strewn. Rising like small hills, these burial mounds were forgotten by history – overgrown and diminished – and largely overlooked by the locals. To the north, east, and west from the spot where Seuthopolis once stood, these burial mounds are scattered, indicating an area of immense importance for the Thracians and perhaps the very heartland of their kingdom.
To the north, around the modern town of Shipka, is the greatest cluster of tombs. These include the Donkova mound, the Helvetia, Goliama Arsenalka, and the most popular by far – the Goliama Kosmatka mound. To the east are the Maglizh tomb, the Fartun mound, and Kesteleva mound, while to the west lies the Lulcheva mound.
These locations and the position of the tombs show us a clear picture of Seuthopolis as a region of great significance for the Thracians and the center of its rulers. Some of them have been identified and were laid to rest in these mounds that dot the edges of the valley before the rising hills.
And besides the tombs, the Valley of the Thracian Rulers contains some other interesting remnants of the Thracians. Many dolmens dot the area, as well as an iconic Thracian megalith that overlooks the entire valley offering a majestic and powerful view of the area. It is jokingly called the ‘Bulgarian Stonehenge’, or more properly the ‘Door of the Goddess Mother’.
Thracian megalith. (maristeneva0 / Public Domain )
It is located 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of Kazanlak and Seuthopolis and is an imposing stone megalith structure that defies the laws of physics at first glance. Its large window-like hole in the center is perfectly aligned to capture the setting sun of the summer solstice on 21 st of June.
The light pours through the hole and is cast onto a stone at the far end. This points to an obvious religious and ritual significance of this site, and perhaps connects it all together with the Valley of the Thracian Rulers which it overlooks.
In the Footsteps of the Thracians – The Kazanlak Tomb
In April of 1944, in the whirlwind of the Second World War, a pair of soldiers were frantically digging a trench in hopes of protection. What they discovered was thoroughly unexpected and found in the worse time possible – it was an ancient tomb.
The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak would prove to be one of the most significant discoveries of the time and would survive the war. It was later thoroughly explored. The tomb was built around the 4 th century BC and consists of a narrow corridor and a circular burial chamber, both lined with expertly carved stone slabs and vaults.
Kazanlak, Bulgaria: Thracian tomb Helvetia. The tomb was discovered on 28 July 1996. ( bulclicstar
/ Adobe Stock)
This is a tholos type tomb, also known as the beehive, and was common for the area and the period. But the contents of the chamber were perfectly preserved and stunned the researchers with their quality. The paintings that line the walls are a majestic display of Thracian nobility: chariot races, horses and feasting, and couple holding hands – exuding a royal look.
These paintings are of the finest quality and are perhaps the most important insight into the lives of Thracian nobility. The tomb was closed to protect this art, but a full sized replica was built beside it, so people can visit and enjoy the sight.
Fresco from the Thracian tomb of Kazanlak. (Kmrakmra / Public Domain )
Mound Golyama Kosmatka - The Tomb of Thracian King Seuthes III
One of the most astonishing tombs in the Valley of Thracian Rulers is the Golyama Kosmatka mound, widely believed to be the tomb of King Seuthes III, the founder of Seuthopolis, and the ruler of the Odrysian kingdom. It was discovered relatively recently, in 2004, and its importance was immediately obvious, mostly because it is much larger and more elaborate than those found previously.
Thracian tomb of Seuthes III. (VladislavNedelev / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It consists of an exceptionally long corridor of 43 feet (13 meters), a square anteroom, a high vaulted round chamber, and finally a rectangular chamber which was built as a sarcophagus. The whole complex is walled with imposing stone slabs which were cut with exceptional precision. The largest of these weighs close to 60 tons.
But the most important feature of the tomb of King Seuthes are the rich archaeological finds: a spectacular golden crown in the form of a laurel wreath, various golden items, and magnificent armor. Also, intriguing are the large marble doors – two huge white slabs carved with intricate details. But that’s not all – the most important find is the bronze head of King Seuthes III himself – a bust of impossible intricacy, detailed to absolute perfection, and a telltale sign of Thracian crafting skills.
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Thracian golden wreath crown. (Tourbillon / Public Domain )
The Thracian Ostrusha Mound
Close to the town of Shipka, where the majority of the tombs are located, a spectacular discovery was made in 1993. In the so-called Ostrusha mound, excavations revealed a cult tomb complex that dates to the 4 th century BC. It consists six objects, of which the most important one is a chamber in the form of a sarcophagus.
This chamber, resembling a small rectangular house, is carved out of a single enormous slab of granite, and weights an impressive 60 tons. But it’s the ceiling of the tomb that will leave you amazed as much as it amazed the archaeologists who made the discovery.
The ceiling is intricately carved with square indentations, each one housing a masterful, vivid painting. Most of them are damaged, but still show the vibrant colors and an impeccable mastery and attention to detail.
The best preserved painting is a portrait of a young lady – painted with such skill that it resembles something from the Renaissance. Sadly, the Ostrusha tomb was apparently looted in ancient times – the only untouched burial was that of a horse (ritual burial) which had on it elaborate rich silver trappings.
Thracian fresco of a noble woman on the ceiling of the main chamber in the Ostrusha Mound. (Bollweevil / CC BY-SA 2.5 )
The Thracian Svetitsa Mound – The Tomb of Teres I
Close to the village of Cran, in the Valley of the Thracian Rulers, the Svetitsa mound lay solitary – a grassy hillock of no great size. But what the discoverers found inside in 2004 would prove to be far from unimportant.
Fairly simple in its construction compared to the other tombs, also slightly older – from 5 th century BC – the Svetitsa mound contained a rectangular stone sarcophagus. Inside it were the remains of a Thracian aristocrat of seemingly great importance. This fact was further established by the extraordinary finds that accompanied the bones.
It was entirely clad in full armor of the period – a bimetal breast plate and swords, accompanied with a pile of arrowheads and assorted spear points. Several cups and pitchers made of silver and bronze were laid as well, some of them bearing signs of Athenian manufacture, as well as amphorae and varied clay dishes.
But the most striking find on the skeleton was a funerary mask – a 1.5 pound (682.5 gram), solid 23 carat, gold funerary mask – that was laid on the face of the deceased and was manufactured with impressive skill. The craftsman perfectly presented the strong facial lines, the features, and the thick beard and hair of the deceased. These finds are considered among the richest and most important in the Valley of Thracian Rulers.
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The golden Thracian funerary mask from the Svetitsa mound. (Flickr upload bot / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The man who discovered it with his team, Georgi Kitov, stated that “there have been other gold masks discovered, but all of them are made of foil-thin gold. Gold masks with this shape and weight are absolutely unheard of.” And most scholars believe that the remains and the golden mask of such richness are those of the first king of the Odrysian state – Teres I.
Final Thoughts on the Thracian Burials
The discoveries in Bulgaria’s Kazanlak Valley are easily as exciting and important as those of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings several decades before. But this valley, the Valley of the Thracian Rulers, presents a glimpse into a different era, and one that was always difficult to understand.
The Thracians left no written records of their own and much of their history depends on contemporary Greek historians of classical antiquity. That is why the excavation of these mounds in Kazanlak Valley proved to be such a crucial undertaking – it gave us a large portion of the story that was hitherto obscured.
It told us that the Thracians were far more than warlike and bloodthirsty ‘barbarians’ as the Greeks called them – they instead showed signs of skill and eloquence and wealth, with Hellenic influences but also with a lot of their own Thracian touch. So if the roads ever lead you to Bulgaria, make sure to stop in the iconic Rose Valley of Kazanlak – and step back into 4 th century BC as you walk among the mounds in the Valley of the Thracian Rulers.
Top image: Entrance to the Ancient Thracian tomb Heroon in Pomorie, Bulgaria. Source: Ekaterina Senyutina / Adobe Stock
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