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The fraudulent pyramids of Bosnia

I stepped out of Visoko’s bus station, looking for the way into town. The sun was just reaching its noonday zenith; it was late July, and the summer heat was bubbling slowly to its afternoon boil.

The town of Visoko

The town of Visoko - and a 'pyramid'

I mopped my brow, relieved to have escaped the sweltering compression of the bus, and headed across the bridge that spans River Bosna and leads to the town.

At a junction, I looked up to find a cluster of roadsigns, different to the ones typical in this part of Bosnia: the local Visoko ones bore on their left side a stylised pyramid, yellow on white. Walking on, I saw what used to be the Motel Hollywood, its old sign replaced with a new one reading “Motel Piramida Sunca”. Menus on the walls outside local restaurants proudly advertised “pyramid pizza”. Everywhere I turned as I walked through the town, I was met with the telltale symptoms of pyramid fever. But why on earth was this unassuming central Bosnian town so gripped by this passion, ordinarily associated more with Giza or the Yucatán than southeastern Europe?

As it happens, the genesis of this pyramidal obsession can be dated quite precisely. In October 2005, Semir Osmanagic, an expatriate Bosnian metalworker now living in Texas, made a most startling announcement. The hills that surround this central Bosnian town were not — as had always been thought — mere hills, but were in fact pyramids, man-made and ancient, built by a prehistoric civilisation that rivalled the ancient Egyptians in technological and cultural sophistication.

The news sent shockwaves through the Bosnian and even the international press, transforming Visoko overnight into a media circus with Osmanagic its ringmaster. Experts were consulted; studies were commissioned; trenches were dug. The claims became more and more outrageous: there was, it turned out, not just one pyramid, but two, then three, then four; tunnels were “discovered”, allegedly bearing ancient writing.

I headed towards the “Pyramid of the Sun”, the most overtly pyramidal of the four claimed pyramids and the closest to the town. I had seen it almost as soon as I had arrived in Visoko; it was a tall, gently sloping hill, carpeted with the thick green forest that is typical of mountainous central Bosnia. In truth, it did resemble a pyramid, inasmuch as a huge, forested hill is able to; my curiosity was piqued, and I headed through the winding streets of the old town in the general direction of the hill.

Eventually, plodding upwards through hairpin roads lined with a jumble of irregular houses, I climbed clear of the town and onto the dirt road that led up the mountain. A large white sign welcomed me to the “world’s largest complex of pyramids”. Next to it, a perspex box invited donations to help fund further research; it was early in the day, but the bottom of the box was already covered with bank notes.

The owner of a souvenir kiosk signalled the route to the summit, and I ascended the wooden steps that had been carved into the side of the mountain. Groups of tourists were filtering down past me, panting from the exertion and the heat; I climbed the wooden steps gingerly, wishing for shade, and when the path met the forest canopy I sighed audible relief.

Before long, I reached the site of the archaeological digs; the area was bustling with guided groups and curious onlookers. Inside the trenches, Malaysian archaeologists carefully probed the ground, scraping the soil from what looked simply to be ordinary rocks. To the side, a large section of hillside was fenced off, its exposed stone on display to the world. The stone was mostly ordinary breccia; its compacted, bound form perhaps gave the impression of design, but there seemed to be only geology at work here.

Archaeology continues

For their part, the archaeological community in Bosnia has agreed with that assessment; even the experts Osmanagic himself consulted found his theories to be riddled with inaccuracies. But he was not dissuaded. Nor was he by the revelation that Bosnia was in an ice age 12,000 years ago, the time when he had claimed the pyramids were built. Nor, either, was he discouraged when informed that Bosnia’s inhabitants at the time were itinerant hunter-gatherers, who built no permanent structures — let alone huge monoliths. Five years on, the archaeological digs continue unabated, and the tourists — myself, somewhat embarrassingly, included — arrive in droves.

I prepared to ascend again past the dig site and to the top of the pyramid. Heading further up the path, though, the official guide approached me, and asked what I was interested in, why I was here. I mumbled something awkward about the pyramids; I was embarrassed to doubt the project that he clearly felt so passionately about. But amidst my mumbling, I also mentioned Visoki, the ruined medieval fortress that sits atop the so-called pyramid. Home to Tvrtko I, first King of Bosnia, for centuries it sat unassailable atop this hill, a perfect base from which Tvrtko was to expand the Bosnian kingdom to its territorial zenith.

“Visoki? You don’t want to go there,” the guide snorted. “All it has is some old walls, and views of the valley. You must go to the tunnels; to go to Visoko and not see the tunnels would be madness!” He insisted that he drive me the two kilometres in his car — for €10, of course — but I declined, first politely, and then more insistently; I had wanted to see Visoki for far longer than I had the pyramids. Frustrated, he left me and headed back to his tourist group, and I resumed my ascent.

I was, unwittingly, scaling the steepest side of the pyramid. The route was treacherous, and barely a path at all; the forest grew more dense the higher I went, and the loose, sandy loam beneath my feet offered little traction. In places, the hill became near vertical, its ascent more a process of rock-climbing than of hiking; as I scrambled from tree root to tree root, stopping, panting, at any available trunk, I thought with bitter amusement of the idea that this colossus had been crafted by human hands.

Eventually, bursting through a thicket, I found myself on a loose stone wall, its cement crumbling. Was this Visoki, I thought? Surely it would have some notice, or a fence at least? But it was; I was standing on one of the outer walls. Climbing further up, I eventually summited the hill and saw the rest of the structure. The sandy rock blazed yellow-white under the early afternoon sun, and as I walked further I saw the remains of one of the fortress’s towers, part-covered in a tattered plastic wrapping, overgrown with grass and wildflowers. There was no fence, no notice warning of the site’s importance; it was thoroughly exposed, to the elements and to human interference.

Visoki's medieval castle

Looking out over the valley, I saw why its location had been chosen. The fortress offered its defenders an unimpeded view of the whole Bosna valley, and approach to it was restricted to the shallower side of the hill. It was a shadow of its former self, but still impressive; I rebuilt it in my mind, conjuring again the thick stone ramparts, the two towers from which the great Tvrtko had surveyed his kingdom, plotting the capture of Rascia or Dalmatia. I thought of the bustling groups of tourists I had seen at the mock archaeological sites, barely metres away from where I stood; none had thought to ascend the hill any further, to see Visoki, to see this glorious sight.

It seemed to me the great tragedy of the pyramid hoax; that myth had overtaken reality, supplanted the truth. Bosnia is not a rich country, and in the wake of the “discovery” the increase in tourist visits and revenue to the otherwise overlooked Visoko must have been welcome relief. But Visoko has real history, real wonder, that is being ignored in the hurry to capitalise on the fame of the pyramids.

Bosnia’s medieval history is neglected anyway. Its Orthodox Serb population looks to the Serbian Kingdom of the period, its Catholic Croat population to the Croatian Kingdom, its Islamic Bosniak population to the later Ottomans; and so a town like Visoko, rich in archaeological and historical sites that elsewhere would attract visitors in their hundreds and thousands, is forced to invent a history while its truth crumbles in ruins. Heading down the hill, I turned to look one last, saddening time at Visoki, its white walls still glinting — for now, at least — in the summer sun.

About this author on his website.

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