Precious Caves in Northeast Bulgaria Get Destroyed by Car Thieves, Sheep Herders, Treasure Hunters
Numerous caves in the Ruse District in Northeast Bulgaria, which are valuable from an archaeological and environmental point of view, have been damaged by locals who have “utilized” them as car part hideouts, cattle and sheep barns, and camping places, alarming speleologists.
The damaged caves in question are located along the picturesque canyon of the Rusenski Lom River, a tributary to the Danube, in Bulgaria’s Northeast, potentially featuring archaeological and historical remains such as inscriptions left by Christian monks during the Ottoman Empire period (15th – 19th century) or prehistoric artifacts.
There are over 6,000 caves in Bulgaria, and some of the best known ones are famous precisely for their stunning archaeological and historical heritage include the Magura Cave near the Rabisha Lake (with its legendary Water Bull Monster) and Belogradchik Municipality with its prehistoric paintings, which got vandalized recently; the Ivanovo Rock Churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which are the top cultural landmark in the Ruse District; the Aladzha Rock Monastery near the Black Sea city of Varna; what is said to be Europe’s earliest Christian rock monastery near Balik, Krushari Municipality, Dobrich District, also in Northeast Bulgaria.
A large number of the precious caves in Bulgaria’s Ruse District, along the Rusenski Lom River canyon, known as Polomie, however, appear to have been left to the mercy of the locals, the Bulgarian National Television reports.
One of the caves in particular has been turned into a hideout by car thieves who have managed to store inside it various car parts despite the act that the cave is very hard to access.
The cave junk yard for stolen car parts and the other damaged sites have been discovered by speleologist during their exploration of the area. They have been especially startled by the stolen car parts hideout.
“There certainly has been some very serious labor, just like when the Pyramids [of Ancient Egypt] were constructed,” comments Sasho Popov, chairman of the Ruse-based Prista Tourist Association.
“Those must be some car thieves of the Tarzan or the Mowgli type who truly love nature because, even when they steal something, they want it to be [hidden] among the jungles of the Rusenski Lom River, Popov adds, jokingly.
“[When we found the car parts in the cave], we called the police in Ivanovo. They also were in disbelief at first. Then we brought them here, and they began to identify parts from various cars that had been stolen, and had been wanted by them,” he explains.
The car thieves who turned the cave in question into a hideout for their plunder have not been established and punished yet.
Other limestone caves from the area, located near the town of Basarabovo (known for the Basarabovo Rock Monastery) have been turned into cattle and sheep barns by the locals. Some even have had fences, gates, and chimneys installed.
“The locals usually enclose their sheep inside [this cave] at noon. We have even found dead sheep in the cave,” speleologist Miroslav Stoychev is quoted as saying.
“Sometimes people use the caves as dump sites. We then clean up the caves, and then they go ahead and dump garbage in them again,” Popov adds.
Another cave in the Rusenski Lom River canyon has been turned into a camping site by a group of hunters.
“They love lighting fires inside the cave, with the smoke blacking the walls. There are all sorts of scribbles on the walls, including stuff like “V + N = something”, or the year when they visited the cave,” Stoychev reveals.
He also points out that treasure hunters keep digging inside valuable caves in search of hidden gold treasures, thus causing further damage. Treasure hunting is large-scale organized crime industry in Bulgaria destroying numerous archaeological, historical, and cultural monuments on a daily basis.
“The treasure hunters permanent dream of some kinds of treasures hidden inside, and do some serious digging in the caves. They don’t care that the caves might feature wall paintings that might be over 3,000 years old, or precious reminiscences left by monks in the Middle Ages. Or that the caves are the home of 24 of Europe’s protected bat species,” the speleologist elaborates.
“The Rusenski Lom River and its smaller tributaries have formed canyon-type river valleys, limestone and marl slopes, and inside them there are natural caves that are also convenient for additional development. Of course, people have taken advantage of all that,” explains in turn Evgeni Georgiev, a historian from the Ruse Regional Museum of History.
The lack of protection for the numerous valuable caves in Ruse District and all over Bulgaria turns out to be the result, among other things, of adequate legislation.
“The Ministry of Environment and Waters is exerting control but no more than one fifth of the caves are actually protected, and have controlled access, whereas the rest at present have been left to the mercy of fate,” says Ruse District Governor Galin Grigorov.
“Our control is not exactly “control”. What we do is we check out the sites and if we notice any problems, we alert the Regional Environmental Inspectorate in Ruse. We ourselves don’t have enough people on staff,” explains in turn Georgi Georgiev, a biodiversity expert at the Rusenski Lom Natural Park, which includes many of the caves in the District of Ruse.
The Ruse Environmental Inspectorate, however, says their powers are limited by law to controlling the caves that fall within territories with protected status.
Yet, a case in hand is the popular cave “Orlova Chuka”, from which speleologists and volunteers recently removed a large amount of trash.
“There must be a law that clearly states who is in charge of a certain cave, who is responsible for its protection, so that there is diffusion of responsibility among the institutions – municipalities, natural parks, district administrations,” speleologist Stoychev argues.
“During my numerous expeditions abroad, even in Romania, [I’ve found that] caves are protected, access is very restricted, and they are even guarded by rangers,” he adds.
Ruse District Governor Grigorov points out that the adoption of a law covering the caves in Bulgaria has been delayed for some 13-14 years. At present, some caves are owned by the central government, others by the municipalities. One idea has been to declare all caves in the country “public state-owned property”.
“That’s not a priority for our state, and in some time we would only be able to feel sorry that we hadn’t taken the necessary steps and measures [to protect the caves] that other countries in Europe have already adopted,” concludes speleologist Teodor Kisimov.
Learn more in the Background Infonotes below!
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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