The historic and artistic value of the tomb and its murals are beyond question. It is believed to have been built for a Thracian aristocrat or even a king; in any case a wealthy member of the ruling class of this ancient nation which is thought to have peopled the Balkans since at least the 2nd Millennium BC. The fashion for richly decorated tombs appeared among powerful Thracians about the 5th Century BC and lasted until Christianity prevailed in the 4th Century AD. The origin of the tombs are obscure, but experts believe that the Thracians started depicting people, animals and deities about the same time as the Greeks, under their influence.
This is why many Thracian treasures, statuettes, reliefs and murals depict scenes from Thracian culture but were clearly made by dextrous Greek craftsmen. Two of the most prominent examples are from the Panagyurishte Treasure and the Kazanlak Tomb, both showing elegant, idealised mortals and deities.
There are, however, treasures that were obviously made by the Thracians themselves – the vessels from the Rogozen Treasure or the horse harnesses of Letnitsa are some of the most obvious examples.
The Aleksandrovo Tomb, though, is the first painted by a genuine Thracian, with none of the refined proportions and the idealisation typical of Hellenistic art. The people and animals of Aleksandrovo are solid and heavy, and the accuracy of the details depicted is stunning. The horse harnesses on the frescoes were used for the reconstruction of real harnesses found in Thracian graves. The artist did not even shy away from depicting the mythical ancestor of the deceased as a rather overweight and elderly gentleman.
We may even know the name and the face of the painter. In the chamber, above the dining scene, there is a small but clearly visible profile of a young man, scratched on the surface, together with the words ΚΟΞΙΜΑСΗС ΧΡΗСТОС. One of Bulgaria’s leading epigraphists translated it as Kodzimases the Master, giving strong support to the hypothesis that it might be the first self-portrait in ancient art.
The most striking aspect of the murals, however, is their meaning. Why are the four riders chasing deer and boar? Why is the overweight, elderly gentleman running naked after a boar and waving a double axe above his head? What do the dancers and the diners represent? The answers are the result of guesswork. According to the most accepted explanation, the dining and hunting scenes show the bliss that awaits the deceased in the afterlife. Thracian aristocrats were followers of a peculiar doctrine, now called Thracian Orphism. It was a mystical religion that kept its secrets from outsiders, although it is known that its initiates believed that they became semi-gods after death.
Kitov’s theory, in which he firmly believed, was that dead Thracian kings and aristocrats were deified and their tombs were turned into temples. Despite the claustrophobic dimensions of the tombs – or maybe precisely because of them – the living initiates would return and participate in rituals we may never be able to reconstruct.
Dr Kitov was positive that the Aleksandrovo Tomb was full of evidence to support his theory. The stone couch had cushions at the two sides, like the beds used for dining in Antiquity, and among the rubble in the antechamber, there were fragments of something like a table. The stone doors could only be locked from the inside. All these details, Dr Kitov speculated, showed that feasts held exclusively for initiates took place in the tomb. However, it was harder to explain why the doors were broken from the inside and where and how the pick found in the corridor fits into the picture.
The tomb, as with everything connected to the Thracians, who did not bother to write down their deeds and left all that work to the “prejudiced” Greeks, is full of secrets and unexplained details.
One of the most surprising mysteries of the Aleksandrovo Tomb, however, is the story of its discovery by Kitov.
When the dazed archaeologist left the tomb, he called the Archaeological Institute in Sofia, some colleagues and the media. The reporters seized the news, but the commission at the institute was far from happy. Kitov had overstepped his authority and the excavations did not look as if they had been recently made by treasure hunters. By entering the tomb and photographing the murals he had put the frescoes at risk and might have disturbed the layers of evidence inside.
The archaeologist was banned from fieldwork for one year and lost his copyright on any information concerning the Aleksandrovo Tomb. He returned and finished the research only in 2003. Then he spent the rest of his life in open warfare with his colleagues from the commission. He denounced them as petty bureaucrats who cared more for the rules than the actual heritage and claimed that his “illegal” work had saved the murals from being stolen, cut to pieces and sold to collectors in Bulgaria and abroad. Kitov’s opponents criticised his gung-ho approach to fragile artefacts, structures and cultural layers. Rumours appeared as well, according to which Kitov (or locals hired by him) had dug the trenches and made up the whole story of that peculiarly clear and sunny 17 December 2000 to back up his version of how the Aleksandrovo Tomb was discovered.
Who was right and who was wrong will probably never emerge. Dr Kitov, however, won in the long run. His spectacular discoveries turned him into one of the superstars of Bulgarian archaeology. The judgement is still out on the place of the Alexandrovo Tomb on UNESCO’s world heritage list.