As a lover of history, I’ve always found myself fascinated by cultures and civilizations that have been largely lost to history. Where imagination is as important as fieldwork, and where astonishing archaeological finds collide with enormous gaps in the known records. A fantastic example of this is the Odrysian kingdom, which existed in Thrace between about 500 BC and 50 AD, when it was annexed by the Roman empire.
The area known as Thrace (Тракия) existed mainly in modern-day Bulgaria, but also extended into southern Romania, northern Greece, and some of European Turkey as well. Precious little Thracian culture has survived, though they’re well-known from ancient historical sources including Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder.
Two of the best places to explore Thracian history in person are at the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak in central Bulgaria, and the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, in Bulgaria’s north-east. These ancient tombs are two of Bulgaria’s best UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Despite their incredible age, both mounds were only discovered in the 20th century, and are thus in excellent condition. Entranced by the promise of engaging with the long-lost Thracian civilization, we immediately booked our tickets for Bulgaria.
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This is a guest post by Joel, the author of World Heritage Journey. Joel will be contributing to a series of posts dedicated to less popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe. I am very happy, he agreed to share his amazing experience and knowledge with us. All photos, unless otherwise indicated, are taken by me, Daniela – the owner of this blog. All tours and places to stay are recommended by me, as well.
Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak
Our odyssey to explore these Thracian tombs began in Sofia, Bulgaria’s bustling and fascinating capital city. After the usual tourist stops (including the magnificent Rila Monastery just south of the city), we rented a car and headed east from Sofia. It’s about 200 kilometres from Sofia to Kazanlak, though we opted for the longer route via Plovdiv as we’d heard that the roads were in much better condition – sometimes still a concern in this corner of Europe!
Tip: If you don’t feel like organizing the whole logistics stuff yourself, you can always opt for booking a day-tour from Sofia to Kazanlak.
Read more: Visiting Bulgaria for the first time? Read here everything you need to know about this beautiful country.
After a brief look around the modern city of Kazanlak (also known as Kazanluk, spelled in Bulgarian as Казанлък), we headed for the Tomb. Interestingly, the original Tomb is completely off-limits to the general public for conservation reasons, and has been for several years now. You can, however, visit a precise replica of the tomb just nearby. We’d been reliably informed that the replica was absolutely identical to the original tomb, so we paid the small entrance fee and headed in.
The tomb itself is both ornately decorated, and surprisingly small. Dating from around the late 4th century BC, the entire tomb consists of a narrow corridor just a few metres long and not much over a foot wide, while the main burial chamber is a tholos or beehive-shaped tomb. It’s about 3.5 metres tall, and about 2.5 metres across at the base, so it’s also quite compact. Both the corridor and the main chamber are covered in ornate frescoes.
All of the paintings are done in a Hellenistic style, which was apparently popular at the time. Aside from the excellent preservation, the most striking aspect of the frescoes is just how lifelike and emotional they are. The main scene is a Thracian funeral feast, and archaeologists believe that guests of honour depicted in the mural are actually the tomb’s occupants, attending their own funeral feast while their slaves, servants and friends bid them farewell. The walls also show a chariot race, possibly done in their honour, which looks fantastic, and is a stunning example of Thracian art.
Tip: For more Thracian art, visit the National Historical Museum in Sofia, where you can admire the golden treasures of the Thracians.
Despite the magnificent paintings, visiting the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk is quite a brief experience. By my calculations, it’s actually the world’s smallest UNESCO World Heritage Site! However, Kazanlak is located near what was once the ancient Thracian capital city of Seuthopolis, and is just one among hundreds of royal Thracian tombs discovered in a necropolis that’s known as the “Thracian Valley of the Kings”. Although Kazanlak is by far the best preserved of these tombs, it’s still fascinating to visit and explore some of the others, particularly the Tomb of Seuthes III, and the Temple in Mound Ostrusha. Plus of course, the nearby Kazanlak Museum.
Know before you go
The Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day. It’s busiest around lunchtime, so arrive early or late in the day if possible. Entrance fees are 6 Bulgarian Lev for adults (approximately 3 euros), and 2 Lev for students. It’s a good idea to have Bulgarian money on hand, as Euros and cards aren’t always accepted.
Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari
The following morning we rose early and headed north-east out of Kazanlak. It’s a long, four-hour drive from Kazanlak to Sveshtari (Свещари), though if you need a base to stay I’d recommend travelling to the border city of Ruse first, staying the night, and then making the 90-minute drive to Sveshtari from there. Unlike the tomb at Kazanlak, the Sveshtari tomb is located about 2.5 kilometres outside the village of Sveshtari. It’s believed to be the tomb of Dromichaetes, a king of the Getae people, who were one of the Thracian tribes. (Interestingly, Dromichaetes’ wife was the daughter of King Lysimachus, a successor to Alexander the Great!).
The tomb at Sveshtari is younger than the tomb at Kazanlak, and much more recently discovered as well – it was only found in the early 1980s! It has a different architectural style as well, with more chambers (a porch, two rooms, and the actual grave chamber), and there’s no tholos room like at the Kazanlak tomb. Neither is there any paintings, murals or frescoes inside. However, the main chamber has ten incredible sculptures along the walls: half-female, half-plant caryatids (or human shaped columns), holding up the ceiling.
These columns are by far the most fascinating and unique feature, and nothing similar has been found at any other Thracian graves. Unfortunately, you only get a couple of minutes to admire the caryatids, as it’s not long before the humidity alarm goes off and your guide ushers you back out. There are several other tombs in the area, all of which are located in similar large earthen mounds, and it’s worth looking at several of them. It really gives you a new appreciation of just how special the Sveshtari tomb is.
Know before you go
The Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari is open 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, Wednesday through Sunday, from 17 March till the end of the November. Visits are 10 Bulgarian lev (approximately 5 Euros) for adults. Note that photos inside the tomb are not permitted for conservation reasons. You’ll also be accompanied by a guide, explaining the history in either Bulgarian or English.
After visiting Sveshtari and seeing the surrounding tombs, you’ve got a few options. You can go back to Sofia via Veliko Tarnovo (absolutely worth exploring), you could head north across the Danube to Romania and Bucharest (about 3 hours drive, plus a potentially long queue at the border), or follow in our footsteps and drive the two hours eastwards to Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. It’s a great relaxing beach city, and its airport serves a surprising number of destinations across Europe. It made for a perfect capstone to our fascinating journey across Bulgaria, back in time to discover the Thracians and their beautiful burial practices.
Hotel recommendations: In Kazanlak, I highly recommned Hotel Diamond or Grand Hotel Kazanluk, both have free parking, which is handy if you you are renting a car and driving yourself. If you decide to stay in Ruse, before you go to Sveshtari, these two hotels are lovely and have free parking: Vega Boutique Hotel or City Art Boutique Hotel. If you include Veliko Tarnovo in this itinerary and decide to spend the night there, check this extensive post about the hotels in Veliko Tarnovo.
Selected tours to Kazanlak
If you are not keen on organizing the whole trip yourself, or if you have limited time, the best will be to book an organized day trip to Kazanlak. The Thracian Tomb in Sveshtari is the real embodiment of a hidden treasure and is not offered massively as a tourist destination, which is kind of good.