Kazanluk, Bulgaria, is probably most famous for two places not precisely in Kazanluk. One is the UNESCO world heritage site of the Thracian Tomb of Kazanluk. It was discovered in 1944 and you shouldn’t miss it. UNESCO calls the Thracian tomb “a unique aesthetic and artistic work, a masterpiece of the Thracian creative spirit. This monument is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.”
The other is the nearby Valley of the Roses. It has been producing its fragrant damask rose oil since the 15th century. Its fame reached far enough that a 1900 article in Michigan’s The Grand Rapids Herald noted, “The country about Kisanlik (sic), Bulgaria, is the main source for oil of rose.”
But I would like to draw your attention to a building you reach by walking along the pedestrian-only square in the heart of Kazanluk, the Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery. Founded in 1901, the museum staff is warm and informative, with a sense of pride in and ownership of the rich and well-documented prehistoric and ancient archeological collections from the Neolithic through the Roman period. The museum also houses collections from the Bulgarian Middle Ages and the Bulgarian Renaissance. Then there are the “New History” and “Newest History” exhibits. The former is devoted to Iskra’s holdings documenting the changes in Bulgaria generally and Kazanluk particularly after the Russian-Turkish War. The latter focuses on the losses and gains made by the 23rd Infantry “Shipchenski” Regiment in the Patriotic War 1944-1945.
The Soviet Union used the term “Great Patriotic War” to describe its long, bitter 1941-1945 conflict with Nazi Germany. Today’s Russia continues to use “Great Patriotic War” to reference this period, but it is a bit startling to see it still used in Bulgaria. It may take many more years for Bulgarian museums to accumulate the archival objects, scholarship, curatorial analysis and perspective to develop exhibits for a true “Newest History” that focuses on the 45 post-war years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
For me, the wonderful surprise of Iskra Historical Museum and Art Gallery is the unique exhibition of objects found during the excavation of the fortified city of Seuthopolis, the capital of Thracian tribal ruler Seuthes. The Thracians left no written language, but ancient Greek mythology is rife with mentions of them. So are the works of Herodutus, Thucydides and other ancient authors. The Danube was their northern border and the Black Sea the eastern, precisely that of Bulgaria today.
My daughter had a whole chapter on the Thracians in her Bulgarian history textbook. Among the many Seuthopolis objects displayed at the Iskra museum is a strikingly realistic bronze head, once part of a life-size statue, with a long mustache draping down to a flowing beard. The forehead is wrinkled, the eyes lined, it is thought that the sculpture might be of Seuthes III himself. Had Auguste Rodin not died three decades before its discovery, one would think it was a model for the French sculptor’s work. Fittingly, the head of Seuthes was recently featured in a Louvre exhibit entitled The Saga of the Thracian Kings: Archeological Discoveries in Bulgaria, not so very far across the quai from the many works of Rodin at the Musée d’Orsay.
Seuthopolis was thoroughly uncovered and extensively studied and photographed, with its finds carefully preserved. But it was found in 1948 only because of a nearby dam construction project and after the excavation was completed in 1954, the construction proceeded as planned. Today the “the best preserved Thracian city in modern Bulgaria” is underwater in a flooded valley.
Now a project for making the actual Seuthopolis accessible to visitors might be financed at least partly by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation of the US Embassy in Sofia. The project has been long conceived. Let’s hope it is not even longer in the realization.