The opulently painted tomb near the village of Aleksandrovo is one of the greatest discoveries in recent Bulgarian archaeology, and its discovery happened in a spectacular way. On 17 December 2000, the last day of excavations at two small Thracian burial mounds in the area, the head of the team, Dr Georgi Kitov (1943-2008), made a short trip to the nearby town. On his way he spotted something strange. 

The mound of Roshavata Chuka, or Bushy Rock Peak, stood out among the low hills – big and impressive, 15 m high, 70 m wide. Partly overgrown with shrub and trees, the mound had been unexplored. On this day, however, Kitov clearly saw gaping holes on the mound's surface. They hadn't been there before. Someone had been digging at Roshavata Chuka, and that someone was clearly not an archaeologist. 

When the team of archaeologists arrived at the mound to inspect it, they discovered a freshly dug shaft leading to a stone slab covering the corridor of a tomb which was obviously under the mound. The stone was broken. It was dark inside. 

Dr Kitov climbed down the shaft and squeezed through the narrow hole into a passageway. It led him to an antechamber which opened to a dark, round space, filled with rubble. And then a stunning scene opened before his eyes. There were frescoes of a kind never seen before: from the gloom appeared men on foot and on horseback, chasing and killing deer and wild boars. 

Excavations in 2003 led to further discoveries. The tomb was built of stone blocks of regular shape, and its corridor was 14.4 m long, one of the longest ever found in Bulgaria. The antechamber was also painted, and its walls showed badly preserved but still enchanting figures of horsemen and dancers. The chamber, 3.4 m high and 3.3 m in diameter, had a stone couch and a second frieze. There was a dining scene below the hunters which was in a very bad condition. 

aleksandrovo tomb visitor centre

Aleksandrovo Tomb visitor centre

The tomb dates from the end of the 4th or the early 3rd centuries BC, and has been plundered. 

The historic and artistic values of the tomb and its murals are beyond question. The fashion for decorated graves and tombs appeared among powerful Thracians about the 5th Century BC and lasted until Christianity prevailed in the 4th Century AD. But the Thracians had started depicting people, animals and deities just at the end of the 4th Century BC. 

Although the elegant murals at the Kazanlak Tomb were probably painted by a Greek master, the Aleksandrovo Tomb is definitely the work of a Thracian. Its frescoes have none of the refined proportions and idealisation typical of Hellenistic art. The people and animals of Aleksandrovo are solid and heavy, and the precision of the details depicted is stunning. 

In the chamber, above the dining scene is a small but clearly visible profile of a young man, scratched on the surface, together with the words KOZIMACHC XRHCTOC, translated by one of Bulgaria's leading epigraphists as "Kodzimases the Master." The inscription gives strong support to the hypothesis that Kodzimases might be the frescoes' limner. Other scientists, however, believe that the face and the name could actually be a curse or a dedication to a recently deceased relative or a friend, and was left there by an unknown visitor. 

aleksandrovo tomb mural

But the most striking aspect of the murals is their meaning. Why are the four riders chasing deer and boars? Why is the elderly gentleman running naked after a boar and waving a double axe above his head? What do the dancers and the diners represent? According to the most accepted explanation, the elderly gentleman is the mythical ancestor of the deceased. The dining and hunting scenes show the bliss that awaits the deceased followers of the Thracian Orphism – the mystical Thracian religion which kept its secrets from outsiders – in the afterlife. It is known that the Orphic initiates believed that after death they would become demigods. 

Dr Kitov, however, believed that the Aleksandrovo Tomb was a temple of its deified owner. 

Sadly, you cannot see this intriguing tomb and its astonishing murals. The frescoes' condition is so vulnerable that the tomb was sealed soon after the survey had been completed. 

The general public has the chance to experience, at least partially, the charm of the murals in the Japanese government-sponsored information centre nearby the original. Officially clled Museum Centre for Thracian Art in the Eastern Rhodope, it contains photographs of prehistoric shrines and Thracian monuments from the area, as well as a lifesize model of the Aleksandrovo Tomb and its amazing frescoes. 

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