Persisting Myths about Legendary Rebel’s Gold Keep Drawing Bulgarian Treasure Hunters to Archaeological Sites

A pit dug up by treasure hunters in the medieval fortress of Vetrintsi, Veliko Tarnovo District, in Central Bulgaria. Photo: Borba daily

A pit dug up by treasure hunters in the medieval fortress of Vetrintsi, Veliko Tarnovo District, in Central Bulgaria. Photo: Borba daily

Large numbers of Bulgarian treasure hunters keep searching for alleged gold treasure(s) motivated by countless legends, thus damaging or destroying ancient and medieval archaeological sites, as it is believed that Robin Hood-like Bulgarian rebels from the 19th century used them to hide their riches.

Some of the most persisting legends are those about the alleged gold treasure of Valchan Voivoda (1775-1863), a legendary Bulgarian voivode and “haidutin”.

Voivode (“war leader” or “warlord”) was a medieval title for a military commander from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) which during the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) was assumed by the leaders of Bulgarian haiduti, Robin Hood-style rebel bands robbing rich people and employing guerilla warfare against the Ottoman forces (for more detailed explanations see the Background Infonotes below).

One of the legends about Valchan Voivoda’s gold is that it is cursed and causes the death of those who go after it – not that such scary stories have reduced the number of the wannabe looters.

Some of the folk tales which are said to support the curse legend include the story of a French expedition in the 1920s that managed to enter secret tunnels of the Thracian rock shrine Belintash in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, and never came back; or the story from the 1970s, in the communist period, when the ruling Bulgarian Communist Party dispatched an expedition to search for Valchan Voivode’s gold in the swamp near Arkutino.

The expedition found an elderly local fisherman claiming to have learned as a child the treasure’s secret location from one of the rebel leader’s men; the fisherman led the search party to the location, and when he came back the next morning, he discovered a huge pit with no trace of the seekers.

According to other legends, Valchan Voivoda, who was said to have been so rich that he sent a delegation to the Russian Emperor offering to pay the Russian Empire for a war against Ottoman Turkey to liberate Bulgaria, hid his treasure in the southeastern mountain Strandzha. There it lies in a cave either on Bulgarian, or on Turkish territory.

Some treasure hunters believe that the voivode‘s treasure can be found near the village of Karadere in Turkey; the treasure which allegedly lies there is said to consist of a bishop’s crown and a golden cross seized from the Greek bishop of Odrin (Adrianople; today’s Edirne in Turkey) who was killed by Valchan Voivode‘s men for snitching to the Turks.

The popularity of the legends about Valchan Voivode’s treasure(s) and other alleged gold stashes and/or underground secrets of archaeological sites in Bulgaria has reached monstrous proportions.

An example in hand are the claims of late Bulgarian Assoc. Professor. of genetics Angel Kalinov from Plovdiv, who until the end of his life claimed that the Ancient Thracians had built secret underground tunnels from the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria to the Danube River in the north, and that those tunnels are still intact today, and hide enormous ancient treasures.

Whatever their origin may be, however, the various legends about enormous riches hidden somewhere in Bulgaria and the neighboring countries continue to lead huge numbers of Bulgarian treasure hunters all over the country and abroad.

For example, a recent report talked about the destruction to archaeological sites near Vetrintsi in Northern Bulgaria by looters searching for one of Valchan Voivoda’s treasures.

According to another report, Bulgarian treasure hunters are active in Northern Greece where they have been searching for the alleged gold treasure of another Bulgarian freedom fighter, Captain Petko Voivode.

What matters most, however, is the fact that wherever they go, the treasure hunters destroy or damage badly archaeological sites harboring invaluable historical information. And those are just the treasure hunters looking for actual gold treasures, not to mention the damage done by those who are outrightly after archaeological artifacts, and a part of the antique trafficking mafia.

Background Infonotes:

Haiduti were irregular rebel bands in Bulgaria (as well as elsewhere in Southeast Europe) during the period of the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912) who robbed the rich and fought the Ottoman forces employing guerilla warfare. They have been likened to legendary English outlaw Robin Hood, the difference being that in the case of Bulgaria and other Balkan countries the rich were also the foreign (Ottoman) occupants. While during the entire period of the Ottoman Yoke, the haiduti engaged in robberies and banditry, in the 17th, 18th and especially the 19th century they became actively involved in the fight for Bulgaria’s National Liberation, their cheti (bands) and guerilla warfare supporting Russian and Austrian forces fighting the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, the haiduti with their hit-and-run guerilla tactics often stood in contrast to the modern nationalist Bulgarian movement whose apostles, as they are known, advocated all-out mass Bulgarian uprisings against the Ottoman Empire such as the April Uprising (1876) and the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising (1903). The known names of haiduti leaders, or voivodes, are in the hundreds, and even though historical documents about many of them are scarse, the exploits of pretty much all of them have been perpetuated in legends, folklore songs, and folklore tales.

Voivode (voivoda in Bulgarian) meaning “war leader” or “warlord” is a Slavic title of a military commander used in the medieval Bulgarian Empires as well as in other Eastern European and Slavic countries. After the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century, the title “voivoda” (voivode) was assumed by the leaders of haiduti bands which were Robin Hood-style outlaws robbing the rich and attacking the Ottoman occupants at the same time.

Valchan Voivoda (1775-1863) is a legendary Bulgarian guerilla fighter, a voivode of a band of haiduti, against the Ottoman Empire from the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Not much is known about his life from written sources while much comes from legendary tales. During the “mature” stage of his “career” as an outlawed rebel he commanded a band of 70 haiduti that was active in different areas of the occupied Bulgarian lands. He is said to have  first fled from the Ottoman authorities after killing a Turk who was making passes at his fiancée (his sister, according to another account). Later Valchan Voivoda is believed to have acquired enormous riches from the robberies of the rich and the Ottoman authorities.

He was a close friend with other legendary Bulgarian voivodes of haiduti bands such as Indzhe Voivoda, Hristo Voivoda, and Kara Kolyo, and together with them and other associates funded two Bulgarian monasteries – the Ustremski Monastery “Holy Trinity” in the Sakar Mountain in today’s Southeast Bulgaria, and the Seven Altars Monastery in the Balkan Mountains north of Sofia. He is also believed to have funded the construction of bridges and the education of young Bulgarians abroad. During the Uprising in Thrace during the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, the then 53-year-old Valchan Voivoda participated with his cheta (band) in the 1000-strong volunteer unit of another Bulgarian revolutionary, Stoyko Mavrudov, taking part in the liberation and defense of the Black Sea town of Sozopol together with forces of the navy of the Russian Empire. Valchan Voivoda is believed to have died of natural causes in the city of Tulcea, then largely Bulgarian-populated, or in the city of Braila in Wallachia (both are today Danube cities in Romania).

The legends for Valchan Voivoda’s riches range from tales about how he gave the haiduti treasury to Bulgarian traders Evlogi Georgiev and Hristo Georgiev to found a Bulgarian school of higher education after Bulgaria’s Liberation (which they did in 1888 when they founded Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” but with their own money, according to the officially accepted history) to tales about how he send emissaries to the Tsar of the Russian Empire offering to pay for a war against Ottoman Turkey for the Liberation of Bulgaria. It is believed that Valchan Voivoda not only robbed Turkish warlords and administrators but also collected Ancient Thracian and Roman treasures from all over Bulgaria. It is also widely thought that he was a Bulgarian Robin Hood and spent the riches he acquired to support monasteries, build bridges, educate young Bulgarians abroad, and fund other revolutionary units fighting the Ottoman Empire.

Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.