The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak (1979)
Bulgaria

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Bulgaria 1997. Fresco from the Thracian tomb of Kazanlak. 

Discovered in 1946, this tomb dates from the Hellenistic period, around the end of the 4th century B.C. It is located near Seutopolis, the capital city of the Thracian king Seutes III, and is part of a large Thracian necropolis. 

The tholos has a narrow corridor and a round burial chamber, both decorated with murals representing Thracian burial rituals and culture. These paintings are Bulgaria's best-preserved artistic masterpieces from the Hellenistic period. 

  • Bulgaria 1997. Fresco from the Thracian tomb of Kazanlak. 

The Bulgarian capital, Sofia's, first inhabitants were the Serdi, a Thracian tribe who settled there some 3000 years ago.  Directly west of Sofia, in Kazanlak close to the Shipka Pass, is found The Thracian Tomb, a site of a late fourth- or early third-century BC burial chamber, unearthed by chance in 1946 during the construction of an air-raid post. 

Its frescos are so delicate that only scholars with authorization from the Ministry of Culture may enter (and only then with a good reason). 

In this burial place is found some of the finest and most well preserved frescoes of Macedonian/Hellenistic art.  

  • Bulgaria 1976. Souvenir sheet with UNESCO-emblem, honouring the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the Thracian Tombs at Kazanlak. Scan by courtesy of Miomir Zivkovic (Serbia & Montenegro). 

The Bulgarian countryside is dotted with Thracian burial mounds, the majority of which remain unexcavated.  They were erected by a society that obviously thought it important to honour the illustrious dead with the construction of a fitting tomb, and that may have practised a form of ancestor-worship which involved the deification of tribal kings and chieftains.  

Bulgaria 1976. Souvenir sheet with UNESCO-emblem, honouring the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the Thracian Tombs at Kazanlak.

Bulgaria 1963. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. Stamp #1 of six.

The below set of six stamps, issued 1963, describe a procession of horses and servants approaching the chieftain for whom the tomb was built, and who sits behind a low table laden with food.  

His wife, face downcast in mourning, reposes on an elaborate throne beside him, and the couple touch hands in a tender gesture of farewell.  

A bowl of fruit is offered to the deceased by a female figure, who has been linked with both the Great Mother Goddess common to Thracian tribes, and the queen of the Underworld in the Greek Pantheon, Persephone.  

Bulgaria 1963. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. Stamp #4 of six. Bulgaria 1963. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. Stamp #5 of six. Bulgaria 1963. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. Stamp #6 of six.
Bulgaria 1963. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. Stamp #3 of six. Bulgaria 1963. Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. Stamp #2 of six.

While flutists play the funeral music, racing chariots wheel around the apex of the dome, a possible reference to the games that often accompanied a Thracian funeral. 

With its graceful composition and naturalistic details, the painting is a masterpiece of Hellenistic art.  

According to Herodotus, deceased Thracian nobles were laid out for three days before a funeral feast of "various sacrificial animals" which followed a short period of wailing and mourning.  After the corpse was buried or cremated together with the deceased's most cherished belongings, a tumulus of soil was raised, and various competitive games were organized, the biggest prize being awarded for wrestling.  

Bulgaria 1986. Thracian Silver from Rogozen. Stamp #1 of two.

Bulgaria 1986. Thracian Silver from Rogozen. Stamp #2 of two.

Bulgaria 1985. Fresco from the Thracian Tomb at Kazanlak.

Herodotus notes elsewhere that in those tribes where polygamy was practised, the wives of a dead warrior would compete for the honour of being buried with him. This assertion is borne out by the evidence of some of the excavated tumuli, where the bones of speedily dispatched young females have been found lying near to those of the chieftain. In many cases, however, the deceased had to make do with the company of his favourite horse. 

As an aside, speaking of the Shipka Pass in the close vicinity of Kazanlak, here is a very nice Bulgarian stamp as a reminder of one of modern history's famous battles. For drama and majestic vistas, few routes in Bulgaria match crossing the Shipka Pass. Particularly at sunset, when the mountains darken and a chill wind disperses the tourists, one can feel something of the pass's potent historical significance. Ever since Alexander the Great drove back a force of Triballi here in 335 BC, control of the Shipka pass has been an important strategic imperative. 

Bulgaria 1921. Shipka Pass with Memorial church.

"All is quiet in the Shipka Pass", the telegraphs communicated to the European press in the summer 1877, when the rest of Europe followed the Bulgarians' and Russians' fights against the Turks in the War for Liberation. 

The fatal battle was fought here in an altitude of 1.300 meters. On the southern side of the pass the Bulgarians built a church in commemoration of the more than 200.000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives during the whole war.  

  • Bulgaria 1921. The Shipka Pass with the Church.  

Though the pass itself has degenerated into a truck-stop, it's impossible not to be awed - and exhausted - by the final ascent of Mt Stoletov, whose summit the Bulgarians held during the battle, and which overlooks the pass. Visitors struggle up five hundred steps, pas heroic bas-reliefs, to reach the towering stone Freedom Monument, erected in the 1890s, which commands a glorious panorama of the valley beneath. The tower can be seen from Kazanlak. The tower contains a symbolic sarcophagus and a museum of weapons and paintings detailing each phase of the battle, but the real lure is the observation platform on the roof, affording superb vies of the mountains. From here you can see the Russian cemetary, whichis the largest of the many concentrations of cannon and gravestones planted on the slopes of surrounding hills.  

Sources and links:

Other World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, Bulgaria-section,  for further information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 18 jul 2006  
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