2 Treasure Hunters Rescued from Self-made Mine in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains, Hospitalized in Critical Condition

The entrance of the underground gallery built secretly by the two Bulgarian treasure hunters in the Rhodope Mountains where they almost suffocated to death. Photo: bTV

Two treasure hunters who had dug up an entire underground gallery in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains have been rescued and hospitalized in critical condition in the southern city of Plovdiv.

The two men, a father and a son aged 73 and 49, had suffocated as they used a gas-powered engine in order to generate electricity for a crusher that they had employed inside what seems like a mining gallery that they have dug up amid a forest close to the town of Hrabrino, Rhodopi Municipality, Plovdiv District.

Initial reports had said that the two treasure hunters had suffocate inside a cave. However, their case appears to be much more intricate, private Bulgarian news channel bTV reports.

It turns out that they had managed to build on their own a complex underground facility with proper prop-ups in a mountain area that is rather hard to access.

What is more, the treasure hunters appear to have been working on it for several months.

A day after their rescue, the men are reported to have made a recovery in a toxicology ward in Plovdiv. The two men were not local but were often seen in Hrabrino’s area recently.

The entrance of the underground gallery built secretly by the two Bulgarian treasure hunters in the Rhodope Mountains where they almost suffocated to death. Photo: bTV

The TV report cites local residents from Hrabrino as saying that they are bewildered by the two treasure hunters’ endeavor since they say there are no legends about hidden treasures in their region.

Nonetheless, reports say that legends abound about treasures buried in the vast Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria. There is said to exist a black market for treasure hunting maps often traded for tens of thousands of US dollars each.

The legends in question refer to treasures supposedly buried during the period when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire (15th – 19th century), also known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke.

Those treasures were presumably hidden by either Ottoman Turkish leaders or by Bulgarian rebel leaders who had seized riches from the Turks.

A case in hand are the persisting legends about the alleged gold treasure of Valchan Voivoda (1775-1863), a legendary Bulgarian voivode and “haidutin".

Bulgarian treasure hunters have also even made forays in the region of Western Thrace in today’s Northern Greece, which is south of the Rhodope Mountains, to search for an alleged treasure of another Bulgarian rebel leader, Kapital Petko Voivoda.

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).

While a number of the many treasure hunters across Bulgaria might be searching for gold stashes from the country’s Ottoman period, the vast majority of the Bulgarian treasure hunting “army" target directly the thousands of archaeological sites across the country for their archaeological artifacts (which end up in private collections, mostly abroad), and, naturally, cause irreparable damage in both material and spiritual terms.

Thus, treasure hunting targetting archaeological sites is a rampant crime in Bulgaria and takes its toll on the country’s enormous cultural and historical heritage on a daily basis. (Learn more in the Background Infonotes below!)

In November 2017, Bulgaria’s police seized a medieval gold treasure from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century) after it was found by accident in the trunk of a jeep owned by treasure hunters.

One of Bulgaria’s countless archaeological sites that have been destroyed with bulldozers by ruthless modern-day looters is the huge Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria on the Danube, in the country’s Northwest.

The type of treasure hunters who are after alleged gold hoards stashed during the Ottoman period also cause damage to archaeological sites from earlier periods since it is believed that the respective Ottoman Turkish or Bulgarian rebel leaders also used ancient sites such as fortresses, temples, or caves to hide their riches.

Background Infonotes:

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.

An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, 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.

According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.

According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.

One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past" (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.

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The 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.

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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.

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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.

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