‘Resurfacing’ of Submerged Ancient Thracian Odrysian Capital Seuthopolis Could Make It Global Tourist Attraction, Archaeologist Says
The submerged Ancient Thracian city of Seuthopolis, which was left on the bottom of the Koprinka Water Reservior near Kazanlak in Central Bulgaria by the communist regime in the 1950s, could become a cultural tourism attraction “of global significance” if the ambitious project for its exhibiting in situ is ever realized, a local archaeologist believes.
She adds, however, that tor the time being the Bulgarian government has been unable to provide the necessary funding to wall off the ruins of Seuthopolis (the project was first proposed in 2005) in order to make it accessible for visitors where it is: in the middle and on the bottom of the Koprinka Water Reservoir.
The “resurfacing” of the once glorious capital of the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom (5th century BC – 1st century AD), whose ruins had the terrible luck of ending up on the bottom the artificial lake built by the communist authorities back in the 1950s, is one of the most exciting projects for the preservation of Bulgaria’s archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage proposed in the recent years.
As recently as December 2015, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Tourism recommended the so called Seuthopolis Project as one out of a total of five projects to be considered for funding by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of the US Embassy in Sofia. Any funding provided by the AFCP, however, would likely be only partial because the “resurfacing” of Seuthopolis would cost dozens of millions of euro.
Seuthopolis was the capital of the Odrysian Kingdom in the 4th-3rd century BC. The city was founded by legendary Thracian King Seuthes III (r. ca. 331-ca. 300 BC) whose head sculpture has recently caused excitement at international archaeological exhibitions in Paris and Los Angeles.
Seuthopolis was discovered and fully excavated during the construction of the Koprinka Water Reservoir near Kazanlak in the 1940s and the 1950s.
However, the communist authorities in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (1944/48 – 1989) decided to leave it on the bottom of the artificial lake despite its archaeological, historical, cultural, and potential touristic value.
The realization of the Seuthopolis Project, which was developed in 2005 by Bulgarian architect Zheko Tilev, has been estimated to cost about EUR 50 million. It provides for “freeing” from the water what was possibly the most impressive city of Ancient Thrace by walling it off with a round concrete wall and making it a top-notch site for cultural tourism with its ruins exhibited in situ.
The local authorities from Kazanlak Municipality have been enthusiastic about making Seuthopolis accessible for visitors but they have been unable to raise the necessary funding.
While the project for the resurfacing of the ancient city, which has a territory of about 50 decares (app. 12.5 acres), has been a matter of controversy, its realization cannot be ruled out because thanks to the detailed archaeological excavations in the early 1950s, modern-day Bulgarian archaeologists have all the necessary information to restore the ancient city.
What is more, back in the 1980s when the water reservoir was emptied for repairs of its dam, the archaeologists from the Kazanlak Museum of History “Iskra” found that the walls of the structures in Seuthopolis had been preserved on the bottom of the artificial lake.
If it is ever accomplished, the exhibition in situ of the ruins of the submerged city of Seuthopolis will be an integral part of the so called Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings – the area of the Kazanlak Valley which is dotted with Ancient Thracian tombs, including the tomb of the Golyama Kosmatka Mound where Odrysian King Seuthes III, the founder of Seuthopolis, was buried.
In 2015, there were reports by some Bulgarian media that the ruins of the Ancient Thracian city of Seuthopolis have “resurfaced” but those have turned out to be bogus.
Archaeologist Krasimira Stefanova has emphasized a number of interesting facts about Seuthopolis such as the fact that it is the only Ancient Thracian city to have been fully excavated and researched.
In her words, King Seuthes III, whose capital Seuthopolis was built upon the ruins of a previously existing Thracian settlement, deserves credit for managing to unite the Odrisae and other Ancient Thracian tribes into a single political entity.
Stefanova also reminds that the rescue excavations of Seuthopolis were carried out between 1948 and 1954, and were led by Prof. Dimitar Dimitrov.
“The archaeological excavations of Seuthopolis were a school for a number of Bulgarian archaeologists who later established themselves as splendid scholars in the archaeology of the Thracian era. These include Mariya Chichikova who is still working, and is the living memory of [the excavations of] Seuthopolis, and many others who are no longer with us: Anna Balkanska, Dimitar Nikolov, Lyuba Ognenova. Theirs was a school which is an example for us, their younger colleagues,” she says.
Stefanova has also spoken with criticism of the decision of the Bulgarian communist authorities in the 1950s to submerge the Odrysian Thracian capital on the bottom of a huge water reservoir.
“The excavations of Seuthopolis were funded by the then Ministry of Electrification which was in a hurry to excavate this area in order to go on with its work. It was a mistake that when the digs were completed, this facility (i.e. the Konprinka Water Reservoir) was not altered in order to preserve Seuthopolis because this was a unique city which could be a marvelous tourist destination. In any case, back then the people were thinking more about water, electricity, irrigation, and making a living than about monuments of culture and their significance,” elaborates the archaeologist.
Many of the artifacts discovered in the capital of King Seuthes III, which is just one element in the entire ensemble of archaeological monuments all over the Kazanlak Valley, also known as the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings, are part of the collection of the Kazanlak Museum of History, while others are kept in the national museums in Sofia.
Stefanova reminds that a total of about 800 coins of eight different varieties minted by Seuthes III were found during the excavations of Seuthopolis. This diversity of coins is taken as a testimony to the economic connections that the Odrysian capital had with the rest of the Antiquity world.
“Another monument that warrants attention is the so called Seuthopolis Inscription. It is from it that the name of the city became known. It also mentions the other [major] Thracian city on the lower Tundzha River, the city of Kabile with which Seuthopolis was in connection,” she explains.
“The discoveries of various brick tombs [during the excavations of the city] were also interesting. Some of them had been preserved while others had been destroyed but senior Thracian nobles had been buried in them, sometimes with their horses and with artifacts since for the Thracians belief in the afterlife was a defining trait. When a baby was born, they mourned, and when a person died, they rejoiced because they thought that person was going to a better place. The scenes in the murals of the Kazanlak Tomb depict just that – the central figure is the ruler who is seen together with his wife, and with goddess Demetra… Unfortunately, not unlike many other cultural monuments, the Kazanlak Tomb, too, was looted in the Antiquity, by the Celts,” says the archaeologist.
Stefanova also points out that Seuthopolis consisted of a fortified section which had an area of about 5 hectares (app. 12.5 acres), and several suburbs, and was built on top of the ruins of a previously existing Thracian settlement with a fortified royal residence. At the time, the city was located on a river terrace, and was surrounded on three sides by the ancient river Tonzos (today’s Tundzha).
The royal palace was located in the northeastern part of the Odrysian capital which is also where the Seuthopolis Inscription was discovered. In her words, the palace probably had two floors, and boasted a 40-meter-long façade, rich decorations, a large hall, and numerous other rooms. Seuthopolis also had a temple dedicated to god Dionysus, and a temple of the great Thracian gods.
“Its structure and scope testify to the great economic development of Seuthes’s capital, and to its political importance. According to a number of archaeologists, Seuthopolis exhibits the features that are typical for the Ancient Greek polis. These are features that are different from other parts of Ancient Thrace. For example, bricks were used there as a construction material. However, while the city borrows a lot from the Hellenistic culture, we also see here numerous characteristics that are typical for the Thracian culture. The adornments that we have discovered not just in Seuthopolis but also in the tombs testify to a very sophisticated jewelry art. The murals in the Kazanlak Tomb which had no analogy in the arts from the 4th-3rd century BC, and the very beautiful luxury Ancient Greek and local ceramic vessels, garments from stone sculptures, amphorae, etc., – all of those are a true testimony to a high material culture fully corresponding to the spirituality of the Odrysians,” explains further the archaeologist.
She also stresses that even though Seuthopolis was an arena of ancient battles, and was ransacked by the Celts, there is archaeological evidence that the city continued to be inhabited after its demise ca. 270 BC, including as a town in the Middle Ages.
Stefanova also recalls that when the Koprinka Water Reservoir was drained back in 1984, her colleague Bogdana Lilova and she had the opportunity to walk among ruins of Seuthopolis
“I must tell you that this has been an exciting and truly unforgettable memory. Everything has been preserved – water is a wonderful preservative. The walls, regardless of whether they were built of stone or brick, have been preserved. The streets, the entire urban layout, have been preserved. It was too bad that back then we didn’t have the money to take an aerial shot but we do have detailed paperwork from the archives. In 2005, this information gave architect Zheko Tilev the opportunity to propose a project for its restoration. By building walls around the ruins (since Seuthopolis lies in the middle of the water reservoir), it could be turned into a marvelous tourist destination of global importance. For the time being, the required funding is too lacking but perhaps this project could be realized in the future,” concludes the archaeologist.
The Ancient Thracian city of Seuthopolis (today under water) was established by King Seuthes III (r. ca. 331 – ca. 330 BC), ruler of the Odrysian Kingdom (5th century BC – 1st century AD), the most powerful state of Ancient Thrace. It was founded around 325 – 315 BC, after the breakup of the Empire of Emperor Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC), on top of an earlier Thracian settlement which is believed to have been burned down.
For several decades, Seuthopolis was the mighty capital of the Odrysian Kingdom. In 281 BC, Seuthopolis was sacked by the Celts, and by 270 BC, it is believed to have waned. Today, the ruins of Seuthopolis are located near the town of Kazanlak in Central Bulgaria, on the bottom of the Koprinka Water Reservoir where it ended up as a result of a decision of the communist regime in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
Seuthopolis was an Early Hellenistic city with active relations to other major centers of the Hellenistic World. The palace of King Seuthes III was also a shrine of the Cabeiri, ancient deities worshiped in a number of Thracian and Greek cities in the Hellenistic World, which indicates that Seuthes might have been a priest-king, the high priest of the Cabeiri among the Odrysian Thracians. The cult for the Cabeiri was associated with fire and metallurgy, and the smith-god Hephaestus.
Seuthopolis was located on elevated ground with natural defenses as it was surrounded on three sides by the Tundzha River. It had a fortified area of about 50 decares (app. 12.5 acres), and much of its territory was occupied by public buildings, rather than homes, with additional population living in suburbs outside of the fortress wall, and in nearby settlements. Its fortress wall was about 890 meters long, and it had the shape of a pentagon, with thorough urban planning similar to that of a Greek polis, and with streets crossing at right angles, and forming rectangular quarters. The city was inhabited by about 50 aristocratic families.
The name of the Odrysian Thracian capital became known thanks to an inscription found in the residence of King Seuthes III which stated in Greek: “This inscription [is] to be engraved on two tablets, and to be placed in Seuthopolis, in the temple of the Great Thracian Gods”. The city also had a temple of ancient god Dionysus.
As part of their excavations in the 1950s, the Bulgarian archaeologists also excavated the necropolis of Seuthopolis, with three burial mounds, which, however, had been raided back in the Antiquity. The fact that many of the graves were found in brick tombs is something untypical of the Ancient Thracians because bricks were not used as construction materials in other parts of Thrace.
King Seuthes III was also the first Thracian ruler to mint his own coins. During the excavations of Seuthopolis, the archaeologists found over 2,000 coins, including about 800 coins of Seuthess III.
The King’s residence was in the northeast corner of Seuthopolis; it had a 40-meter-long façade, and was richly decorated.
The ruins of Seuthopolis were first discovered in 1948 by Bulgarian archaeologists carrying out rescue excavations for the construction of the Koprinka Water Reservoir. The Ancient Thracian capital was fully excavated by 1953. In spite of the value of the archaeological site, the communist government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (1944/8-1989) decided to go ahead with the water reservoir project, leaving the ruins of Seuthopolis under 20 meters of water.
In 2005, Bulgarian architect Zheko Tilev proposed a project to make the submerged Ancient Thracian capital Seuthopolis accessible for visitors by building a round dam around the city walling it off from the waters of the Koprinka Reservoir right in the middle of the artificial lake. The project for making a top-notch archaeological and cultural tourism destination out of Seuthopolis by building a wall around it with a circumference of almost 1.3 km is estimated to cost about EUR 50 million. Walled off from the water, the Ancient Thracian city would be visited by tourists by traveling to its wall by boats, and then descending by four panoramic elevators.
The project has been supported by Kazanlak Municipality which has been fundraising to finance it but appears to be nowhere near securing the necessary sum. Yet, there are great hopes for the “resurfacing” of Seuthopolis, including because thanks to the detailed archaeological excavations in the early 1950s, modern-day Bulgarian archaeologists have all the necessary information to restore the ancient city.
If it is ever accomplished, the exhibition in situ of the ruins of the submerged city of Seuthopolis will be an integral part of the so called Valley of Thracian Kings – the area of the Kazanlak Valley which is dotted with Ancient Thracian tombs, including the tomb of the Golyama Kosmatka Mound where the founder of Seuthopolis, the Thracian King Seuthes III, was buried.
The Ancient Thracians were an ethno-cultural group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting much of Southeast Europe from about the middle of the second millennium BC to about the 6th century AD on the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia.
The Odrysian Kingdom, a union of Thracian tribes dominated by the tribe of the Odrysians (also known as Odrysea or Odrysai bearing the name of a mythical ruler, Odryses or Odrisis, (ca. 715 – ca. 650 AD)), was one of the two most powerful states of the Ancient Thracians. It existed from the unification of many Thracian tribes by a single ruler, King Teres, in the 5th century BC till its conquest by the Romans in 46 AD on the territory of most of modern-day Bulgaria, Northern Greece, Southeastern Romania, and Northwestern Turkey.
The Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings is a term used to describe the numerous Ancient Thracian tumuli (burial mounds) containing tombs and graves in the valley of the Central Bulgarian town of Kazanlak, which was coined by late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov, a tracologist (an archaeologist specializing in Ancient Thrace). It is believed that over 1,500 Ancient Thracian burial mounds exist in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings alone, of which some 300 have been excavated by archaeologists. Not unlike the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the Valley of the Odrysian Thracian Kings is where the Thracian rulers and high aristocrats were buried.
The world-famous Kazanlak Tomb was discovered in 1944 (it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979). Between 1948 and 1954, Bulgarian archaeologists had the chance to explore one of the capitals of the Ancient Thracians, the ancient city of Seuthopolis. Unfortunately, those were only rescue excavations since the then communist dictatorship in Bulgaria decided it would be a good idea to submerge Seuthopolis on the bottom of the then constructed Koprinka Water Reservoir (present day initiatives for creating an underwater island to exhibit Seuthopolis for tourists have failed to be realized). The Thracian tombs in Maglizh and Kran were discovered in 1965. Thracian tombs from the Roman period (i.e. after Ancient Thrace (at least south of the Danube) was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD) were excavated near the towns of Tulovo and Dabovo in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the team of Dr. M. Domaradski explored a Thracian settlement and a necropolis near the town of Tazha. Between 1992 and 2006, late Bulgarian archaeologist Georgi Kitov led his special archaeological expedition TEMP (Tracology Expedition for Mound Research) which explored over 200 Thracian burial mounds during the Iron Age and the Roman Age in the Kazanlak Valley. The expedition’s finds include over 15 tombs, 3 brick masonry graves, and a number of rich funerals. New discoveries after 2007 of funerals of Thracian aristocrats at Drumeva Mogila Mound near the town of Staro Selo, and Yakimova Mogila Mound near Krushare have extended the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings’ eastward along the Tundzha Valley to the city of Sliven. The traces of civilized life indicate that the Thracians continued many of the traditions of the prehistoric people who inhabited the region in today’s Central Bulgaria. This is evidenced by the Buzovgrad Megalith dating back to 1,800-1,600 BC, and the city of Seuthopolis, which was built on top of a previously existing settlement. More Thracian tumuili have been studied recently near Buzovgrad and Dolno Izvorovo.
Of all the Ancient Thracian burial mounds with their tombs and graves in the Valley of the Odrysian Thracians Kings, only the Kazanlak Tomb has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1979). However, in 2012, Kazanlak Municipality started preparing its application for seeking UNESCO World Heritage Status for several more of the most major Thracian tombs in the Valley of Odrysian Thracian Kings’ – the Golyama Kosmatka Tomb, the Ostrusha Tomb, the Shushmanets Tomb, the Helvetia Tomb, and the Griffins’ Tomb.