The southern slopes of the Sredna Gora mountain, near Hisarya, are nowadays a quiet rural area of sleepy villages. But about 2,400 years ago the region was abuzz with social and religious activities born in the mix of the mild climate, fertile soil, abundant game in the forests and fish in the rivers, not to mention the proximity to a number of healing mineral springs. The people who called this area home in the times of the Thracians have left a considerable number of fascinating sites, and the most famed of them has a name so hard to pronounce and remember that even Bulgarians don't bother with it.
That is why in most tourist information you will read a lot about the Starosel Tomb, instead of the tomb in the tongue-twisting Chetinyovata Mogila, or Chetinyova Mound. Starosel is actually the nearest village to the site, and Chetinyova Mound is not the only Thracian site of interest around. There is another tumulus: Horizont. This has resulted in the combined popularity of the site, including on road signs, as Starosel Thracian Cult Complex.
The tomb at Chetinyova Mound is indeed imposing and like nothing else in Bulgaria. Discovered in 2000 by Dr Georgi Kitov (1943-2008), the tomb is hidden in a mound whose base is encircled by a 241-metre-long, 3.5-metre-high massive crepis, or stone wall, thought to have been even higher in ancient times, rising up to 5.5 m. Entrance to the tomb is through nine stone steps, which were once adorned with the sculptures of two lions. Then come a platform, where religious rituals were probably performed, a 10-metre-long corridor and a detail-ornamented entrance. Only after passing through them and through a rectangular antechamber, you enter the innermost and most sacred space – a circular, 5.4 m wide chamber decorated with 10 columns. Above them is a relief frieze painted in blue and red, a clear borrowing from the ancient Greek architecture.
The doors to this space were made of stone and were found, broken, on the floor.
When the tomb was built is still a matter of debate. According to Dr Kitov, it was constructed at the end of the 5th Century BC as a burial place for the Odrysian King Sitalces (ca. 444-424 BC), and was used throughout the 4th Century BC as a temple to the king, who was deified after his death. Other hypotheses based on the archaeological material and some architectural details suggest as a date of building the middle of the 4th Century BC or the closing decades of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd centuries BC.
The proximity of a Thracian rock shrine near the mound, the unusual architecture of the tomb and the traces of continuous usage of the doors were among the reasons for Dr Kitov to decide that the building was actually a temple to its deified owner and that the mysterious rituals of the Thracian Orphism were performed, only for the eyes of a handful of initiated, in the inner chamber. This theory is still not fully accepted by the scientifci community, but it sounded tasty enough to the general public. Today an impressive amount of tourist literature cites it as a proven fact. Hence the Starosel Cult Complex label at the site.
The second tomb of the complex, in the Horizont Mound, is also unusual in appearance. With 10 Doric columns it is an example of the symbiosis between Greek architecture and the tastes of Thracian aristocracy in tomb-building. During excavations, most of the columns were found scattered around. They were later restored to their original positions.
The impressive tombs at Starosel pose an important question: Where did the people who were buried in them live? After all, tombs of such grandeur would hardly appear in the middle of nowhere.
One of the possible answers is the fortified settlement on the 1,100-metre-high Kozi Gramadi, or Goat Piles, Peak, about 20 km of Starosel and a 90 minutes' horse ride (it has been clocked in a scientifc experiment). There lie the remains of a major Thracian royal citadel.
So far the ruins of a two-storey monumental building, probably a treasury, have been found, together with strong fortification walls and an abundance of Thracian rock shrines. The settlement at Kozi Gramadi was probably one of the seats of power of the Odrysian kings. It was conquered by the Macedonians in the third quarter of the 4th Century BC.
To reach Kozi Gramadi, you need a 4WD vehicle to take you to the Fenera Tourist Hut. From there the fortress is a kilometre away. An alternative route is the 10-km-long signposted path which starts from the Chetinyova Mogila mound.