On 19 April 1944 a group of Bulgarian soldiers were digging a trench in a 40-metre-wide massive mound in Kazanlak, and the brick-and-mortar remains of a deserted türbe, or a shrine over the tomb of a Muslim saint, when their shovels struck a stone wall. The men broke the wall and found themselves in a short corridor. A stone door lay broken on the ground, frescoes of fighting men covered the walls. 

The soldiers called immediately the director of the local history museum, Dimitar Chorbadzhiev, who, under the pen name Chudomir, happens to be one of Bulgaria's most beloved short-story writers. He recognised the importance of the discovery, and called for professional archaeologists. 

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The tomb's replica (right) is next to the remains of a long abandoned Ottoman shrine

The painted corridor led the researchers into a claustrophobic chamber – 2.65 m wide and 3.25 m in height – with a beehive-shaped cupola covered with even more impressive frescoes, one of the best preserved examples of ancient European painting ever discovered. 

The murals of the Kazanlak Tomb still are. The fighting men in the corridor are animate in their hectic movements, although it is not clear if they represent a battle won by the dead owner of the tomb, or play a commemorative game. 

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Vivid scenes are also depicted in the tomb's corridor

In the burial chamber, three chariots chase each other, in an eternal circle, around the keystone of the cupola. 

But it is the main freeze in the burial chamber that makes the Kazanlak Tomb a must-see place. In it, a man and a woman feast, surrounded by musicians, servants and their beautiful purebred horses. The mood of the scene is far from jovial. It's true that Herodotus wrote that some Thracian tribes celebrated the deaths of their loved ones, as they believed that dying frees men from the sorrows of earthly life, taking them to a better place. But the beautiful face of the veiled woman, who is sitting to the wreathed man, her white hand gently resting in his, is unmistakably sad. 

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The deceased was depicted surrounded by his wealth, servants and pure-bred horses

The meaning of the scene is open for interpretation. It could depict the funeral feast for a deceased man, who was deified after his death. Another version sees it as the mythological wedding of a deified man and the daughter of the Great Goddess. The Great Goddess herself is in the fresco: the highest of all figures in the freeze, carrying a plate with pomegranates, the fruit associated with the afterworld. 

Whatever the meaning of the frescoes, their limner's mastery is indisputable. The tomb was probably painted by a Greek painter in the first half of the 3rd Century BC. 

kazanlak tomb bulgaria unesco

In 1979 UNESCO put the Kazanlak Tomb on its World Heritage List. Due to preservation issues, the tomb is closed to the public. Visitors can go round an exact replica, a few steps from the original. 

kazanlak tomb bulgaria unesco

Floral ornaments from the decoration of the tomb's corridor