The Staggeringly Well-Preserved Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari
In 1982, the now-famous Thracian tomb of Sveshtari was discovered by archaeologists just south of what is now Sveshtari, Razgrad Province in Bulgaria. The tomb of Sveshtari likely belonged to Dromichaetes, a king of the Getae, a Thracian-related tribe, as well as his wife, the daughter of another Thracian king Lysimachus. Dromichaetes ruled the Getae on both sides of the Danube in present-day Romania and Bulgaria in around 300 BC. The tomb of Sveshtari has been preserved to a truly amazing degree and is an excellent example of the structural principles of Thracian cult buildings. The tomb also corrects past assumptions or propaganda that the Thracians were backward, primitive or barbarian.
The Tomb of Sveshtari and The Thracian Legends
The Thracians were a group of ancient peoples who resided mainly in the Balkans, but also in parts of Asia Minor and elsewhere in eastern Europe. They were largely ununified, and only managed to form a lasting political organization in the fifth century BC when the Odrysian state was founded. Even then, Thracian rulers frequently fought against each other, leaving them vulnerable to attacks from outsiders. As a result, the Thracians spent many years under the subjugation of their bigger, more powerful enemies such as the Achaemenid Empire , the Persians, and the Romans.
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Both the Greeks and the early Romans described the Thracians as warlike barbarians with no culture. They were perceived as primitive and backwards in comparison to the sophisticated Greeks and Romans. The image painted by Greek and Roman historians does not necessarily reflect reality, however. The truth is the Thracians had a pretty advanced culture that was particularly noted for its poetry and music. The Tomb of Sveshtari is an excellent example of this.
The interior of the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari. (Interact-Bulgaria / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Tomb of Sveshtari: Advanced, Unique Designs
The Tomb of Sveshtari has incredibly unique decorations. It takes great influence from the Hellenistic culture to the west, perhaps unsurprising given the close contact the Thracians had with the Greeks. Nevertheless, this Greek influence is transformed through the visions and beliefs of the Getae tribe , resulting in a stunning, singular interior design. In fact, the Tomb of Sveshtari is one of the highest quality examples of sepulchral architecture ever found!
The tomb features multicolored half-human, half-plant caryatids (a sculpted female figure serving as architectural support like a column) and painted murals for decoration. These 10 female figures are carved high on the walls of the central chamber. The tomb also features a lunette (a half-moon-shaped architectural space, variously filled with sculpture, painting or glazing). The unusual half human, half vegetable caryatids and lunette found here are the only examples of this type so far found in the Thracian lands.
The tomb is preserved incredibly well, with the caryatids remaining in their mesmerizing colors of ochre, blue, red, brown and lilac. The tomb remains completely unaltered from its original state, with the exception of a moisture-isolating protective shell added to the outside. The tomb is located within the archaeological reserve of “Sborianovo,” which is home to over 40 Thracian tombs , sanctuaries, ancient and medieval villages , a fortress, and a mausoleum.
In the foreground of this photo, you can see the original entrance to the tomb of Sveshtari, glowing golden in the background of this image. (Interact-Bulgaria / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
But Who was the Tomb of Sveshtari Built For?
It has been speculated that the tomb was built for Dromichaetes, king of the Getae tribe. Little is known of Dromichaetes and his reign over the Getae. Two fragments from the 1st century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus provide a little insight into his reign, but even these must be treated with caution.
What is known is that Dromichaetes entered into a war and defeated Lysimachus, successor of Alexander the Great who ruled parts of Thrace, Asia Minor and Macedon. Dromichaetes initially defeated and took prisoner Agathocles, the son of Lysimachus, before sending him back to his father without ransom, hoping to gain the favor of the king. Unfortunately for him, this did not happen. Instead, Lysimachus invaded the territories of Dromichaetes with a large army.
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Lysimachus’ invasion did not go as planned, however. Before long he ended up as Dromichaetes’ prisoner, just like his son was. According to the ancient sources, Dromichaetes treated Lysimachus well and in a regal manner. Eventually, Dromichaetes let Lysimachus go on the condition that Lysimachus gave him his daughters hand in marriage and restore the conquests he had made from the Getae to the north of the Danube.
Pausanias, a Greek geographer from the 2nd century AD gives a different account, however, claiming that Lysimachus himself escaped, but his son Agathocles, having fallen into the power of the enemy, was compelled to purchase his liberation by concluding a treaty on the terms mentioned above.
In 2012, archaeologists uncovered significant treasure near the tomb, including a golden ring, 44 female figure depictions and 100 golden buttons. This has caused some historians to propose the idea that the village of Sveshtari is in fact located at the ancient Getan city of Helis, home to the palace of Dromichaetes.
There are also some unfinished aspects to the tomb that suggest a hasty and premature burial, and the skeletal remains belong to a man between 30-35 years and a woman between 25-30. This is the reason many speculate the tomb belonged to Dromichaetes and his wife, the daughter of Lysimachus.
Despite speculation, the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari is still somewhat of a mystery today. While it may seem likely that the tomb is located at Helis and belongs to Dromichaetes, there is not enough evidence to say for certain.
What we can say is the tomb is an incredible representation of a Thracian culture that was deeply influenced by the Greeks. The preservation of the tomb is staggering, allowing visitors to marvel at the beauty of the tomb in its original beauty. Finally, the Tomb of Sveshtari corrects the “long-held” and historically recorded ancient “propaganda” that the Thracians were primitive or barbaric!
Top image: The half-human, half-plant caryatids in the tomb of Sveshtari; these sculpted female figures served as architectural support like a column in the stunning Thracian tomb design. Source: Nenko Lazarov /
By Mark Brophy
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