Valley of the Thracian Kings

Although the Thracians were mentioned by many classical sources including the Histories of Herodotus (445-440 BC) and the Anabasis of Xenophon (401-399 BC), they remained relatively obscure until the early 20th century, with most Thracian art objects assigned to the Scythian culture. Regrettably, during their 2000-year-long history the Thracians have not created an alphabet of their own, nor have left written monuments in the Thracian language from their and the Roman Age. The reconstruction of the past of this people – builder of one of the pillars of the ancient European civilization, has been based on the scanty information available in the literary tradition of Hellenians and Romans and, naturally, on the results obtained from the particularly large-scale archaeological excavations carried out over the past three or four decades. Thracian language was preserved during the Roman Age as one of the principal characteristics of the Thracian ethnos and as a factor for the preservation of the ethnic identity of the Thracians during the Roman era until the end of Late Antiquity.

Thracian social structure was simple – the leader or the ruler who was also the supreme priest was at the top of the social pyramid. He exercised his powers aided by a retinue of aristocrats who ranked above the stratum of free community farmers and artisans. The Thracians left no written account of their customs and history, and their language is known only from place names and a small number of inscriptions written in Greek characters by the antique writers. The beginnings of Thracian culture date back to 3,000 BC with archaeological findings. Spread across Southeast Europe, Thracians were groups of men and women who were highly skilled in working with refined metals, who were followers of a delicate mystique that worshiped the mother goddess, and who had complex funerary rituals immersed in symbolism. In the beginning of the 13th century BC, some Thracian state formations comprising the territorial and ethnic borders of the individual tribes are already mentioned by ancient authors with relation to the Trojan War. They were linked with the lands of Southern Thrace and were allies of the Trojans with whom, as it looks, they had economic, political and, perhaps, ethnic relations. Many of the Thracian deities and gods we find later in the Greek Mythology.

The political detachment of the Thracian tribes was preserved until the beginning of the 5th century BC. Then Theres, the chieftain of one of the tribes, the Wends, made a successful attempt at organizing a unified Thracian state. Under his successors Sparadokus, Sitalkus and Sevtum (5th century BC), all Thracian tribes in present-day Bulgarian homeland had been united within the borderlines of the Thraco-Wendish kingdom. Allies of Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars, the Wends’ rulers inspired with respect the adversaries of ancient democracy in its northern zones of influence by ensuring steady supplies of grain, raw materials and metals. Also during the 5th century BC, the Wends suppressed the attempts of Macedonia to come up the big political stage. However, in the middle of the next century (4th century BC) the Macedonians, headed by Philip and his son, Alexander the Great, took their revenge. The Wendish kingdom suffered severe blows and its borderlines shrunk into the relatively small region of the Upper Thracian Valley. New Thracian states enjoying brilliant, though transient, political success, those of the Bessae, Astae, Getae and the Dacean tribes, emerged on the Thracian political and battle scene in the quickly changing atmosphere between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 1st centuries BC. The endless scuffles for political domination between the Thracian family dynasties facilitated the invasion of Rome which, after a series of sanguinary wars and complex diplomatic combinations, succeeded in imposing its power on the Thracian people in the year 46 BC. Spartacus, the Thracian who rose the biggest uprising of slaves in the antique world and thus, nearly brought to the downfall of Rome, was captured in the vicissitudes of this nearly two-century-long resistance and was made a gladiator. Within the borderlines of the Roman empire, most of the Thracian lands were structured in two big provinces – Moesia and Thrace.

Subsequently, in light of such new interpretations, large quantities of important Thracian art objects have been explored and recovered in Bulgaria and day by day the monuments of Thracian art inspire scholars as well as the general museum-going public. In the last few years, in the area near Kazanlak several Thracian tombs were discovered with numerous Thracian artefacts, among which the golden mask of the great Thracian king Teres and the bronze head of the Thracian ruler Seuth III stand out as most prominent examples of Thracian culture. The number of Thracian mounds in Bulgaria is between 10,000 and 60,000.

In I millennium B.C. Thracians were one of the largest people in Europe. Homer said the Thracians were the most populous race after the Indians. For centuries Thracians ruled over most of the Balkans and much of the Aegean, including the three mayor rivers and three main mountain chains. Thracian horsemanship was legendary and their guerrilla tactics were famous within the ancient world. The Thracians, one of Bulgaria’s ancestral people, fought against the Greeks on the side of Troy during the Trojan War. The ancient land of Thrace encompassed a large area now divided into Bulgaria, southern Romania, eastern Serbia, northeastern Greece, and parts of European Turkey. Divided into many tribes, they settled the eastern parts of the Balkan Peninsula as well as in some areas in north-western Asia Minor. One of the most powerful Thracian tribal groups was that of Odrisses – Southeast Thrace, Bessi – in the Rhodope region, Getae same as the proto Slavs- in the north-eastern regions, Triballi – in today’s north-western Bulgaria and Vitini – in Asia Minor. The Getae was the name given by the Greeks to several Thracian or Dacian tribes that occupied the regions south of the Lower Danube, in what is today northern Bulgaria, and north of the Lower Danube, in Romania. This was in the hinterland of Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast, bringing the Getae into contact with the ancient Greeks from an early age. Herodotus calls the Geti of Muntenia, Moldavia and the North of Bulgaria as well as the Dacians of the Carpathian Mountains “the bravest and the justest of all the Thracian tribes.” In the fertile plains of Thrace agriculture was developed, while people living in the mountain areas occupied with livestock breeding. Ore-mining, metalworking, pottery, leather and woodworking were well developed. Thrace was also well known for its silver and gold mines, including the Pangeion gold mines near the Strymon delta, captured by Philip II in 348 BC. War was a constant companion in their lives. Much of their time, when not at war, the Thracian nobility spent hunting.

The Valley of the Thracian Kings is situated between the Balkan Range and Sredna Gora Mountains, near the town of Kazanluk, in an area where the Odrysian Kingdon once was. Here the capital of the Odrysian Kingdom (the strongest and mightiest of all Thracian kingdoms) – Seuthopolis was unearthed, which unfortinatelly today lies at the bottom of the Koprinka reservoir. Many projects have been launched in the recent years in an attempt to expose the only surviving Thracian city. The Valley of Kazanluk is strewn with Thracian burial mounds, of which only a small part has been studied. The most impressive site in the region is the Kazanluk tomb, dating back to the late 4th – early 3rd century BC. Kazanluk tomb consists of an antechamber, a narrow corridor – dromos, which was a small room for the things needed in the after-life, and a round burial chamber for the body of the ruler. The surviving unparalleled Kazanluk murals in the corridor and the bural chamber are Bulgaria’s best preserved artistic masterpieces of Thracian art of the early Hellenistic period. The Kazanluk wall paintings represent scenes of the earthly and military life and afterlife of the buried ruler. The Thracian burial chamber in Kazanluk contains the Feast composition, representing a husband and his wife, holding each other’s hands and sitting at a table, laden with food, surrounded with many figures, servants carrying gifts, musicians …. Despite the small surface containing the decorative friezes in Kazanluk, the unknown artist has created an exceptional work of art. Due to the outstanding value of the tomb, the Kazanluk tomb features a limited visiting regime, by the National Institute for preservation of the immovable cultural properties. However nearby there is a museum which contains the exact replica. The Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk belongs to the World Heritage Legacy since 1979.

The most characteristic and best known, through archaeological artefacts manifesting the Thracian culture are burials of wealthy people, often in monumental tombs and under impressive mounds. The funereal costume of the prominent Thracians was especially opulent. It included gold and silver jewellery, golden wreaths, and for the men – protective armor made of noble metal. The number of Thracian mounds in Bulgaria is between 10,000 and 60,000. One of the largest and most impressive is the mound near the village of Mezek, Svilengrad. Tombs discovered near Kazanlak, the village of Sveshtari, municipality of Isperih, and the one near the village of Alexandrovo, municipality of Haskovo, are world famous with their magnificent murals.

The Thracian treasures found today reveal the wealth of local aristocracy and are indicative of some of their religious rituals. Particularly impressive is the Panagyurishte gold treasure, consisting of nine gold vessels richly decorated with man-like compositions. The biggest treasure found so far is the one from Rogozen, found in 1985 consisting of 165 silver vessels ot total weight of 20 kg, most of them richly ornamented with typical Thracian issues – hunting which involves variety of wild beasts, archetypal goddess figures in chariot drawn by winged horses or riding a golden-headed lioness. Many Rogozen Treasure vessels are inscribed in Greek with punched lettering, showing several royal Thracian names and geographical sites in southeast Thrace. The exquisite silver vessels of Rogozen had belonged to a rich family of rulers of the Triballi tribe. They were made, collected and added to over a long period, from the end of the 6th century B.C. to the mid-4th century B.C. or in the course of about 150 years. Rogozen silver items were probably hidden, because of the danger of the campaigns threatened to be undertaken by the Macedonian rulers, Philip II and Alexander the Great, who attacked the Triballi in 341, 339 and 335 B.C. Smaller in size – containing just 5 artifacts, but of superb craftsmanship – is the treasure of silver vessels discovered in 1974 near the village of Borovo, municipality of Rouse. Silver ornaments for horse harnesses with interesting figurative and animal images are the characteristics of treasures excavated near Lukovit and Letnitsa.

In 1993 the largest Thracian complex dating back to the mid-fourth century BC was unearthed in the Ostrusha mound. It spreads on a total area of 100 sqm and consists of five rectangular and a rotund chamber, the bural chamber made of huge boulders with total weight of 60 tons. In the vicinity of the town of Shipka, about 1 km from the main road between Kazanlak and Shipka, the Goliama Kosmatka tumulus from the 5th century BC was discovered. Goliama Kosmatka tumulus consists of three chambers and a corridor – dromos which is 26 meters long. The Goliama Kosmatka tumulus was unearthed intact, which makes the fully preserved tomb of a Thracian king who was buried with his horse. The Thracian ruler was buried in a stone sarcophagus with over 20 golden artefacts, among which are golden wreath with oak leaves, silver and bronze vessels, an unique life-size bronze head with semiprecious stones mounted into eye sockets. It is assumed that the Goliama Kosmatka tomb belonged to the Thracian King Seuthes III, founder of Seuthopolis, the capital town of the Odryssian kingdom, in the immediate vicinity.

In 2004 archaeologists made another sensational discovery – in the Svetitsa mound a magnificent golden mask, phial and a gold ring were unearthed. It is assumed that the Svetitsa tumulus belonged to the great Thracian King Tereus. In 45 AD, Thrace was conquered by the Romans. In the Balkans, the process of Romanisation, which went on throughout the vast empire, meant the fusion of the ancient Hellenic and Thracian traditions with the new trends introduced by the conquerors. This development was particularly pronounced at the Perperikon site, where during the 1st-4th century AD, the sacred structures carved in the rock took on a distinct Classical character.

The great Thracian civilization has left numerous artifacts which continue to amaze us today with their intricacy, complexity of detail and depth of imagery. Thracian Inheritance thus inspires numerous outstanding tourist arrangements in Bulgaria and the Balkans. Bulgaria’s Ministry of Tourism has proposed a special tourist route dedicated to the so called Valley of Thracian Kings located in the Kazanlak Valley in Central Bulgaria, which features a huge number of Ancient Thracian tumili (burial mounds) that have yielded stunning archaeological artifacts over the years.