The Valley of the Thracian Rulers

[Kazanluk, Bulgaria]

We left the medieval capital of the Bulgarian rulers on Saturday morning. We were headed to Kazanluk, about 90 km (60 mi) South. In the process, we had to cross the Balkan mountains and planned on visiting a magnificent monument at Shipka pass, which commemorates a battle that turned the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. On the other side of the Balkans, Kazanluk valley awaited us. Now known as the place where the famous Bulgarian rose is cultivated, the valley used to be the home of one of the first Indo-European people to inhabit the area – the Thracians. They roamed these lands more then 2500 years ago, leaving behind the tombs of some of their most powerful rulers.

Before we reached Shipka, we made an unexpected stop at the Ethnographic complex Etar near the town of Gabrovo. It is an open-air museum, the first of its kind in Bulgaria. It was opened in 1964 and represents the architecture, culture and crafts of the 19th century.


The goal of the museum is to represent the way of life and economy of the region during the Bulgarian National Revival period, and so most of the buildings are Revival-style houses with craftsman workshops attached. Among the crafts that impressed me the most were the creation of various objects (clocks, jewelry boxes, bags) from dried corn husks, and the coppersmith craft -the Turkish coffee sets were gorgeous!


Clock made out corn husks

We also stopped by the woodcarver’s shop, where I bought a collapsible fruit bowl. In the bakery, I had boza – a fermented beverage made from wheat. You won’t find this anywhere but here and Turkey, and I missed its unique flavor – sweet but slightly acidic.

One may think by now that the Revival period in Bulgaria was mostly about architecture, but in reality, the most important result of this period was the increased sense of national pride and the repeated attempts by Bulgarian revolutionaries to regain our freedom from the Turks. The biggest such attempt, although unsuccessful, took place in April 1876. The suppression of this uprising was so violent that Western nations finally took notice of the plight of the Bulgarian people, and the Russians, looking to regain some of the territories they had lost in the preceding Crimean war, used the opportunity to declare war on Turkey in 1877. The Russians were joined by the Bulgarians and several other Balkan nations who were trying to gain independence from the Turks. Many Bulgarians living in Romania organized (they were called the Opalchentsi) and joined the Russian army. They crossed the Danube river from the North and advanced towards the Balkan mountains, pushing the Turks further and further South. By July 1977, the Russian and the Opalchentsi had reached the Balkans and took over Shipka pass, a crucial strategic point. A total of 7,500 were left to guard the pass as the rest of the forces scattered to help with other battles to the West, North and East. The Turks, having been pushed South of the Balkans, made three attempts to regain control of the pass, the second of which almost succeeded. The Turks outnumbered the Russians and Bulgarians by several times, but the Russians and Bulgarians fought with heart and soul, and once they ran out of ammunition, they started throwing rocks, tree limbs and even the bodies of their dead comrades down at the Turks. This specific battle is the subject of many a Bulgarian poem, and the heroism of the Bulgarian soldiers is a source of national pride even today. Luckily, just as the Turks about to win, reinforcements arrived just in time and the Bulgarians were able to repel this as well as the third and final attack. The Bulgarians and Russians subsequently entrenched themselves at the peak, as they didn’t have enough power for yet another battle, and suffered through a brutal winter that claimed the lives of many Russian and Bulgarian soldiers. Finally, Russian troops elsewhere had taken over Pleven, Sofia and other areas, and in January 1878, approached the pass from the South. This meant the Turks were now completely surrounded, and they surrendered the same day. Two months later, on March 3, 1878, Bulgaria proclaimed its independence. The Shipka pass battle is a pivotal moment in the struggle for that independence, and in 1934, a monument was built at the peak to commemorate it. The first floor inside the monument contains a sarcophagus with the remains of soldiers who died in the battle. The next few floors include an exhibit, which contains soldiers’ personal effects, weapons and uniforms. There is an observation deck at the top, from which one can see the battlefield around and the many smaller monuments in the area. Having studied many of the poems about Shipka in school, and having heard the stories about the battle for many years in history books, it was amazing to finally see this symbol of Bulgarian courage and patriotism.

After Shipka pass, we started descending towards the valley. Not too far below the Shipka pass was the town of Shipka, which also had a monument commemorating the battle – A church. The church was finished in 1902 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the battle. The bell tower contains a 12-ton bell, which was cast from the cartridges that were collected after the battle. In the temple itself, the names of the Russian regiments and the Bulgarian Opaltchentsi are inscribed on 34 marble plates. In the church’s crypt, the remains of some soldiers are laid in stone sarcophagi.


We decided to take a break from driving the winding Shipka pass, and we sat down at a cafe in front and to the side of the church (yes, there are cafes EVERYWHERE). A sign at the cashier’s advertised buffalo yogurt. Yogurt, of course, is something Bulgarians take pride in, as Bulgarian yogurt contains a special kind of bacteria not found elsewhere. Look up any yogurt you pick up at the grocery store and you will see L. Bulgaricus listed. First identified by Bulgarian doctor Stamen Grigorov in 1905, the bacterium feeds on lactose to produce lactic acid, which then preserves milk. Bulgarian yogurt containing this special bacteria has been linked to the longevity of the Bulgarian people. Yogurt is an integral part of my Bulgarian upbringing. Mom made sure we drank a glass of it with dinner every night when we were kids; a cold yogurt soup called tarator is a staple in hot summer days; my grandma used to make her own yogurt, which I loved; and finally, when taking me to my grandma’s in the country for the summer, my parents would stop by some village on the way and pick up homemade yogurt. You can’t mistake the thickness and creamy taste of homemade Bulgarian yogurt; once you taste that, store-bought yogurt will never be the same.

So, when we saw the sign for buffalo yogurt at the cafe, we were all skeptical. We bought a jar of just over 1 lb, and we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to finish it, even among the 3 of us. I opened the jar and just by looking at it, I knew it was the real thing. The texture was just right – – firm and not runny, almost like flan – and the taste was buttery and creamy, just divine. Less than 5 minutes later, the whole thing was gone. So much about us bringing the leftovers home! It has probably been close to 20 years since I’ve had real homemade Bulgarian yogurt. What a treat!

Next up was Kazanluk valley – the valley of the Thracian rulers, named so for the high concentration of funeral mounds. The Thracians lived in lands currently in Southeastern Bulgaria and Turkey. Separated into tribes, the Thracians did not form a permanent political organization until the Odrysian Kindgom in the 3rd century BC, although that kingdom did not last long past the life of its founder, Seuthus III. Thrace eventually became a province of the Roman empire; when it fell apart in the 5th century AD, the remaining Thracians were absorbed by the Bulgarians who came to the Balkan peninsula in the 6th and 7th century AD. Thrace kept changing hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium until the Turks got there in the 14th century.

Thracians buried their royals in burial mounds, also called tumuli (small hills) because the Thracians covered the tombs with a mound of earth (they really look like small hills and are completely inconspicuous in the valley). A typical Thracian tomb includes one or more ante-chambers, which can be oval or rectangular. The horse of the person being buried was sometimes sacrificed in the ante-chamber. In the burial chamber, one would usually find horse halters, helmet and other armor of the deceased, his weapons, vessels, coins and whatever else was believed that the person would need in the afterlife. All of that was usually made of gold and silver, so unearthing a Thracian tomb is much like digging up a hidden treasure. It is believed that more than 1500 mounds are located in the valley, although only 300 have been excavated.

We visited two of the tumuli that day – the tomb of Seuthus III, of the Odrysian kingdom, and the Kazanluk tomb, where an unknown Thracian had been buried. Both were unique in their own way.

The tomb of Seuthus III was impressive both in its size and in the items that were found in the burial chamber, all of which had been moved to the History Museum in Kazanluk; copies had been made and placed in the tomb in the places where they were found. Seuthus III’s tomb included a long corridor, and three chambes – one rectangular, one round, and the last one, the burial chamber, carved out of a huge stone block. A giant marble double door with a relief of the Thracian god Dyonisius lead to the burial chamber.


Many amazing, one-of-a kind gold and silver items were found; most importantly a wreath of gold leaves, a gilded helmet with images, wine vessels and a sculpted head made out of bronze believed to be Seuthus III himself. While many other tombs in the area had been raided long ago, this one had remained untouched in 2500 years, which is why the objects found in it are that much more significant. We saw the originals later on in the History Museum in town, and they were indeed amazing.

The second tomb is in the town of Kazanluk itself. It is Bulgaria’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, dedicated in 1979. The Turks almost unearthed it when they built a monument for a Turkish administrator in Kazanluk. That monument backs up to the tomb, and in fact the Turks may have dug out the very end of the tumulus. The monument can still be seen just to the left of the tomb, which remained undiscovered until 1944, when Bulgarian soldiers were digging a trench.


The Turkish monument on the left, and the tomb on the right.

The tomb consisted of a narrow ante-chamber and a round burial chamber, both decorated with murals representing Thracian burial rituals and culture. For fear of damage to the frescoes, the tomb was sealed off to visitors after some restoration work. With a donation from Japan, an AC was installed to regulate the temperature and humidity, and a protective structure was built around the tomb. However, visitors were still not allowed, so an exact copy (including mistakes made during the restoration work!) was built just a few steps down, and this is what we saw that day. I was a little bummed to not see the original, but it was nice to be able to inspect the frescoes from up close and touch them.


With the history of ancient Thrace and gold treasures still on our mind, we had to switch gears without wanting to, as we stumbled upon the Museum of the Rose on our way into Kazanluk. The Bulgarian Rose is as big of a symbol of our country as yogurt is, and so I was a bit disappointed that the museum was in an old building in a basement floor. The most interesting objects in the exhibit were the giant boiler that was used to extract the oil from the rose petals. There was also a giant container that was used for storing the oil, and even though it had not been used in over 60 years, the cap smelled like a just-plucked rose.


The rest of the exhibit consisted of photos of the Rose Festival, which takes place in the first weekend in June, as well as artifacts from the families that were involved in rose oil production in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Bulgarian rose oil remains a basic ingredient in perfumery because it is superior to all other rose oils.

I know I covered a lot of ground in this entry – from 19th-century Bulgaria to 4th-century BC Thrace to modern day rose oil making. What I thought was going to be a fairly leisurely ride to Kazanluk with a stop at Shipka turned out to be a full day of sightseeing. My head was buzzing by the end of the day while I was trying to wrap it around everything I had seen. But that just goes to show how much there is to see in this small country the size of Tennessee, the numerous battles and wars to control this piece of the Balkan peninsula a testament to its natural beauty, wonderful climate and fertile lands.

2 Comments on “The Valley of the Thracian Rulers

  1. Pingback: The Ancient City of Nessebar | Balabanova All Over

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