The Valley of Roses: Until recently the picturesque valley between the ranges of the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountains was known by this name, as it is the centre of production of notorious Bulgarian rose attar. 

But by the turn of the 21st Century another name for the area popped up and stuck in the public consciousness, provoking images of hidden treasures and histories untold – the Valley of Thracian Kings. The term was coined, obviously to bring parallels with the Valley of Kings in Egypt, by Dr Georgi Kitov, the archaeologist who worked in the area in the 1990s and 2000s and made some of the most fascinating discoveries there. The region, he argued, had been part of the mighty Odrysian kingdom and the preferred burial ground for the Odrysian nobility for centuries, resulting in the creation of about 1,300 tumuli. Of them, about 300 have been archaeologically researched. The biggest concentration of monumental tombs under mounds is between the modern town of Shipka and the village of Kran. 

valley of thracian kings

Kazanlak Tomb is the best known site in the Valley of Thracian Kings

Among so many mounds and tombs, one stands out: the Kazanlashka Grobnitsa, or the Kazanlak Tomb. It was discovered long before Dr Kitov – completely by chance. 

On 19 April 1944 a group of Bulgarian soldiers were digging a trench in a 40- metre-wide massive mound, 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. 

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The central scene at Kazanlak Tomb

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. 

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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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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Battle scene from the corridor of Kazanlak Tomb

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. 

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Mural from Ostrusha Tomb

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. 

Built in the 4th Century BC, the Ostrusha Tomb near Shipka preserves another small but moving bit of fresco painting - on the ceiling is the face of a fine lady with white skin and red hair. The tomb's architecture is also remarkable. It was hewn into a monolithic stone block which was covered with another monolith, carved in the shape of a Greek temple's roof. The structure was surrounded by several other buildings, of which, sadly, only the bases have been preserved. 

valley of thracian kings

Shushmanets tomb

The Kazanlak and the Otsrusha tombs, along with many more in the area, were discovered in states that showed that their interiors had been robbed – by ancient or modern treasure-hunters. But in 2004 the team of Dr Kitov working in the Valley of the Thracian Kings literally struck gold – twice. 

In August the team excavated a ostensibly uninteresting stone grave in the Svetitsata Mound, near Shipka, which belonged to a Thracian aristocrat from the second half of the 5th Century. Despite the unpromising appearance, the grave's contents were amazing: a collection of top-quality weapons and expensive imported vessels, and a 673-gram gold mask of a bearded man. The skeleton of the deceased was there, though some of the bones were missing, suggesting posthumous ritual dismembering. 

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Why did the Thracians do that? They were probably recreating the myth of Orpheus, who was torn apart by the maenads, or of Dionysus, who was destroyed by the Titans. The dismemberment could point to the deceased as a follower of the mystic teachings of the Thracian Orphism. 

For Dr Kitov the man in the mound was none other than the Thracian king Teres (turn of the 6th Century BC – 450/448 BC), and although some historians remain unconvinced, the find and the mound are advertised as connected to this Thracian royalty. 

The media was still frenzying over the Svetitsata finds when, in September, Dr Kitov's team made news again. In the nearby Golyama Kosmatka mound they discovered one of the biggest and best preserved aristocratic tombs in Bulgaria. 

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Copy of a portrait of a Thracian king, possibly Seuthes III, from Golyama Kosmatka tomb

The tomb has a 13-metre-long corridor and two antechambers, the second of which is round, has a 4.5-metre-high cupola and is protected by a marble door with medallions of the faces of Helios and Medusa. Following is a rectangular burial chamber hewn into a 60-tonne monolith, which contained more than 70 items: a wealth of expensive weapons and precious objects, including a beautiful gold wreath. 

The words "To Seuthes," written in one of the silver vessels and on a bronze helmet found there, have led some historians to conjecture that the tomb belonged to King Seuthes III (ca. 330-300/295 BC). Others, however, dispute the identification, as Seuthes had died decades before the burial took place – around 280 BC or a while later. 

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Golyama Kosmatka tomb, interior

But the most astonishing find from Golyama Kosmatka was discovered buried in the mound, not in the tomb itself. It was a beautiful bronze head of a man with an unruly beard and strong features. The head was probably an effigy of the deceased, and was cut from an actual, life-size statue: another dismemberment, this time symbolical. 

Built probably at the end of the 4th Century BC, the Shushmanets tomb is another intriguing example of Thracian burial architecture in the region. The entrance is decorated with a column in the Ionic style, an obvious influence from Greece. In the round chamber, there is another column, a Doric one. 

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One of the precious objects discovered at Golyama Kosmatka tomb

It will be understandable if after reading about so many tombs, you start thinking that the Thracians were so preoccupied with death that they didn't care about the living. The Valley of Thracian Kings, however, has proof that this wasn't so. And the proof is the city of Seuthopolis. 

The city was built after 315 BC, on the whim of King Seuthes III. At the time, he was at the top of his game and had enough money and ambition to fall for the fashion set by the Macedonian kings Philip II and Alexander the Great – to found a city and give it his name. So the Thracian king built his city, Seuthopolis, and made it the capital of his kingdom. The new city looked like any other in the Hellenistic world. Its paved streets run straight, and there was an agora, or an open-air place for the citizens to meet, talk and do business. A portion of the city was reserved for the king and his family. 

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One of the precious objects discovered at Golyama Kosmatka tomb

Seuthopolis didn't survive long, and was abandoned by the middle of the 3rd Century BC. A village appeared on its place in the Middle Ages, but it didn't last, and soon earth covered the remains of the forgotten Thracian capital. 

The city of Seuthes was discovered in 1948 in the most distressing of circumstances – during the research of an area which had to go under the waters of the Georgi Dimitrov Dam. The scientific importance of the discovery was incredible, but the Communist government wanted to industrialise the country as quickly as possible, and water supply was seen as more important than preservation of history. Archaeologists were given six years for excavations – the time of the construction of the reservoir – and they did all they could before the waters finally rushed over, drowning the only design-built Thracian city preserved in Bulgaria. 

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One of the precious objects discovered at Golyama Kosmatka tomb

Seuthopolis remains on the bottom of the dam (now called Koprinka) and some of its finds are exhibited at the Iskra Museum of History at Kazanlak. There has been a bold plan for rediscovering the city and turning it into an attraction, but it never took off. 

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