Something very interesting from my country- Bulgaria: What is the ancient relation between Bulgaria and Egypt :
LIFESTYLE / MILESTONE
Sooner or later, anything that happens in Strandzha takes on strange, legendary proportions. Prepare for tales that will make your hair stand on end
by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
If you're looking for a place where the mysteries outnumber the rowdy tourists, you don't need to go to Tibet. You don't even have to leave Bulgaria. Hop into your car and head for the town of Malko Tarnovo in the Strandzha Mountains, in the little visited corner of southeastern Bulgaria.
Malko Tarnovo, the only town in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha Mountains which straddle the border between Bulgaria and Turkey, has 2,994 inhabitants, according to the 2005 census, and is 76 km south of Burgas, 470 km from Sofia and less than 10 km from the border with Turkey. Nevertheless, it looks like a different universe. In the Strandzha, time passes according to different rules. Ancient paganism has never completely disappeared and Christianity has never completely established itself, though Malko Tarnovo has an Orthodox, a Catholic and several Protestant churches. When you are in the mountains you may even find yourself starting to believe the stories that one of its slopes hides an Egyptian sarcophagus bearing the secrets of mankind "from 2,000 years before present times to 2,000 years hence," the tomb of the Egyptian goddess Bastet, messages from aliens - or all three.
"Look at Golyamo Gradishte. It's shaped like an Egyptian pyramid!" The guide from the tourist information centre in Malko Tarnovo reiterates that she doesn't believe the stories circulating about the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha (Golyamo Gradishte is 710 m, or 2,330 ft, above sea level). These tales centre around excavations that took place in Golyamo Gradishte in 1981 under orders from the infamous Lyudmila Zhivkova, the daughter of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov who was minister of culture at that time. The most popular theory is that the aim of the excavations was to find Bastet's tomb.
Golyamo Gradishte does look like a pyramid, but so do a number of peaks in the Turkish part of the Strandzha- and in the Rhodope Mountains, for that matter. Unlike those, however, Golyamo Gradishte stands behind a barbed wire fence.
You can only visit it if you are accompanied by somebody from the History Museum in Malko Tarnovo, notify the border police in advance and, preferably, have a robust cross-country vehicle. Such security measures appear somewhat anachronistic, like the bakelite handsets which are still part of the equipment at the Bulgarian border, especially now with the Bulgarians no longer having to risk their lives to get to the West. What has changed, however, is that you don't need the special permit, known as an otkrit list.
Soon after entering the Strandzha on the Burgas road, you will be stopped by a border guard. You will have to show your ID and provide a satisfactory answer to the question "Where are you going?". Don't be afraid to tell the truth: "To Malko Tarnovo, Mishkova Niva and the tomb of Bastet." In the Strandzha, even the policemen will know you're serious.
This isolated mountain, where the Thracians' ancient beliefs live on in fire-dancing rituals and the annual worship of the pagan shrine of Indipaskha, has never lacked in spirituality. Especially not after Vanga, the blind clairvoyant from Petrich, famous throughout Bulgaria for her prophecies and psychic powers, brought the ancient secrets hidden in Golyamo Gradishte into the public eye.
The peak's aura of mystery has spread to engulf everything around it, including the ruined tomb in the Mishkova Niva area at the foot of Golyamo Gradishte. When it was discovered by archaeologists at the end of the 1970s, it was only of interest to science. Historians are still arguing over whether it was built in the 4th Century BC and converted into a temple to the deity its owner would become after his death, or whether it was built for a Roman aristocrat who lived 600 years later in the villa near by.
Through the years, there have been on-and-off restorations of the remains in Mishkova Niva. The triangular pediment with a relief of two outspread hands which used to decorate the portico of the corridor leading to the tomb is now a major exhibit in the Malko Tarnovo History Museum. The tomb has become popular throughout Bulgaria. Though it is not the only archaeological treasure in the area, the museum has been attempting to hire an archaeologist for several years - so far without success.
Not that there's a shortage of young archaeologists in Bulgaria, it's just that nobody wants to live in Malko Tarnovo, where the nightlife is limited to the strange combination of a restaurant and a disco in the same room. Only a hundred years ago, the town was a busy trade and stock-breeding centre on the road to Istanbul and had nearly 8,000 inhabitants, but due to urbanisation and the strict border regime under Communism, it gradually became depopulated. The authorities tried to keep, or even attract, young people to the area by opening mines for non-ferrous metal ores, an ore-dressing plant, electronics, household chemistry and cosmetics factories and a construction company, and encouraged the timber industry and stock-breeding. But as the empty prefabricated blocks of flats and the tumbledown wooden-panelled Revival Period houses show, the Strandzha-Sakar Project to attract young people failed.
Now enthusiasts in the area are trying to develop cultural tourism around the ruined tomb in Mishkova Niva, the rich flora and fauna of the Strandzha Nature Park, the blown up remains of Valchan Voyvoda's Bridge, the tumular necropolis in the Propada area and the Thracian shrine of Indipaskha. But though incoming tourists are mainly interested in Golyamo Gradishte, nobody in Malko Tarnovo is very willing to talk about it. Older people say that they know nothing, and historians purport that the only interesting thing there is the sealed Thracian mine.
This doesn't stop them from calling the area Bastet, after the deity whose tomb was supposedly the object of Lyudmila Zhivkova's secret expedition in 1981.
Krasimira Stoyanova, Vanga's niece, described the events that lead up to the excavations. In 1981, an elderly man called on Krasimira's aunt carrying a map inscribed with strange runes. Vanga sent him away, but asked her niece to copy the document. Remember the theory that the mountain hides an Egyptian sarcophagus holding the secrets of mankind "from 2,000 years before present times to 2,000 years hence"? Stoyanova claims that Vanga herself said this. According to her, the mysterious sarcophagus was buried on a tall peak on a mountain at the Turkish border.
How Vanga's prophecy came to the knowledge of Krastyu Mutafchiev, the head of the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Lyudmila Zhivkova's associate, is not clear. Probably the agents who followed the clairvoyant had a part in this. What matters is that some time later Stoyanova, Mutafchiev, an anonymous professional archaeologist and two other people set off to Strandzha, backed up by enough authority to reach Golyamo Gradishte without having problems with the border guards.
The expedition discovered what Vanga had said they would by following the blind woman's "signs": a rock with three solar circles carved on it standing in a highland meadow. On a dramatic night in April, the moon lit the rock - it seemed to glint from within, "like a television screen," and the figures of a young pharaoh and an elderly priest with long, grey hair and a grey beard appeared in the ghostly light.
The expedition quickly went back to Sofia and returned a month later with Lyudmila Zhivkova's approval, along with a group of soldiers who stood guard over the excavations. The whole operation was conducted in such secrecy that the archaeologists who were excavating the tomb in Mishkova Niva at the same time only learned what happened a little further uphill years later. Little or no information at all came to the knowledge of Malko Tarnovo's citizens.
What were Zhivkova's men looking for? According to Stoyanova, the secrets of the Egyptian priests. They had saved their astounding knowledge from the foreign Ptolemaic dynasty, who took power after Alexander the Great's death in 323 BC, in an extraordinary fashion - by hiding their secrets in other foreign lands, that of the Thracians.
Krastyu Mutafchiev came up with an even wilder theory. He claimed that there was an architectural complex under the mysterious rock, which in fact was an encoded star map. Bastet herself was buried there and the strange runes on the old man's map that had started the whole thing were in Proto-Bulgarian language!
Those of Malko Tarnovo's citizens who are not afraid to talk about Bastet (habits developed from living in a closely guarded area and keeping your eyes open for secret agents for half a century die hard) have other theories regarding the events. Some say that tons of soil were removed and there were fragments of Roman pottery and German newspapers from the Second World War. Others are convinced that the "archaeologists" found what they were after and it left the mountain loaded into army trucks. Most people, however, refuse to talk about it. "We know nothing, we've heard nothing," they say and change the subject to Pope John Paul II's white hat which he gave to the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in 2002.
However, though sceptical, the guide from the tourist office is also kind. So, if you ask her, she will even show you the supposed relief of a feline head on the rock which, as rumour has it, marks Bastet's grave. If you know where to look and let your imagination go, you may just see it. But that is all you are likely to see.
The ancient mine/Bastet's tomb/the Egyptian sarcophagus (whichever you prefer) was blown up. The entrance was filled with stones and water has gathered around it. Stagnant and green, it devours each stone thrown into it with such a grim sound that the man who dared throw it will look around in apprehension.
The secret expedition blew up the rock only a month after the dig began. Why? Because of a succession of puzzling events resembling those which befell Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon's team after they opened Tutankhamun's tomb. Lyudmila Zhivkova died on 21 July 1981 in unclear circumstances (the official diagnosis was a heart attack) and some time later the same fate befell the influential minister who took charge of the excavations. Then there was a serious car crash involving a member of the expedition and the death of two of the soldiers supervising the work. Stoyanova and Mutafchiev's team took the hint and put a halt to their search - forever.
Was the group struck by a Strandzha version of the curse of the pharaohs? Nobody can say for sure. Stoyanova and Mutafchiev's controversial accounts, published years after the events, gave birth to new Strandzha folklore, and speculations on the Internet include such fantastic theories as the one claiming that Golyamo Gradishte is the burial site of aliens.
"This place is unusual. Neither I nor my forester friends are afraid to stay in the dark in the woods, but none of us will spend the night in Indipaskha or Bastet," says one of Gramatikovo's younger men.
The abrupt end to the excavations in Golyamo Gradishte could also have a simpler explanation. Shortly after Zhivkova's death, a spectacular trial began against her closest associates, who were charged with embezzlement. At the centre of it was the Cultural Heritage Department, which was established in 1975 on Zhivkova's initiative and funded by the state budget and donations. Officially, its aim was to trace and purchase all manner of objets related to Bulgarian history from abroad and thus expand the collections of Bulgaria's museums and art galleries in time for the megalomaniacal celebrations of the country's 1,300th Anniversary.
Five years later, it came to light that the Cultural Heritage Department was a cover-up for a large-scale misappropriation of funds, behind which was General Mircho Spasov. The infamous general was in charge of the Staff Unit of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The investigation conducted by State Security revealed that nearly all of the funds raised were being spent on improper or illegal activities and the people who benefited from this included some of the regime's illustrious intellectuals, like Thracian expert Professor Alexander Fol. Mircho Spasov and his associate Zhivko Popov, then deputy foreign minister, had used the Cultural Heritage Department to buy stolen works of art and unmarked gold from Italy, which was then stamped and sold as Bulgarian.
A few days after Zhivkova's death, the grand trial began. Mutafchiev, who as the head of the Cultural Heritage Department was responsible for its financial activities, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. He was freed after the democratic changes after serving even and a half years. Zhivko Popov received 20 years imprisonment, but Mircho Spasov was not among the defendants. His only punishment was that he was forced to resign from his post.
Could it be that Bulgaria's biggest trial against Communist Party functionaries was part of the puzzle of what happened in 1981 in Golyamo Gradishte? Stefan Lilov, one of the investigating officers, now a reservist, told the 24 Chasa daily in March 2007 that Zhivko Popov used to hide some of the misappropriated gold in strange places, more suited to a treasure hunter than a deputy minister - in an old grave or near a marked tree by a sheep path in the Balkan Mountains. Could it be that Mutafchiev's expedition was not after Bastet's tomb, but in fact trying to hide something in the disused mine in the border zone?
This theory seems equally as plausible as the theory that the "archaeologists" discovered a gold treasure which was shipped abroad and sold illegally to fund Bulgaria's extravagant 1,300th Anniversary celebrations.
Whatever really happened, the participants in these strange events can't have imagined that they would end up making a contribution to the Strandzha's strange, mysterious aura. Though British people are now beginning to settle in nearby villages, like Brashlyan, the mountain will never lose its mystical quality to inhabit the world of the pragmatic West - not until it can use its enigmas to attract tourists, and income, to its depopulated villages.