Indiana Jones of the Balkans: The Great Pyramid of Bosnia

An amateur archaeologist claims to have found Europe's first pyramid. The experts may be sceptical but the people have been quick to see the potential for attracting tourists
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The Independent Online

There is a new sign hanging above Visoko's shabby hotel. From now, guests will be staying at the Pyramid of the Sun. Across the road at the local restaurant the hungry can tuck into pyramid pizza. It is served, of course, on triangular wooden platters.

And for those who have yet to get the point, the local market is offering allegedly home-made brandy. It comes in pyramid-shaped bottles.

Up until a few weeks ago, most Bosniaks would have been hard placed to locate Visoko on the map; it was "somewhere outside Sarajevo." No more. It is now home to Europe's only pyramid, or at least that is what one Bosnian archaeologist would have us believe. Whether the 45-year-old Semir Osmanagic is right or not, he has certainly started a craze.

At the filling-station heading north out of Sarajevo there is pyramid fever as well as petrol fumes in the air. There was no fooling the pump attendant. "Oh, you're going to see the pyramid," he said. "Visoko is famous now. You can't miss it, it's above the town."

He was right. Visoko sits in the brooding shadow of Visocica hill, towering 2,050ft over this previously anonymous hamlet. Mr Osmanagic - whose main qualification is a decade and a half spent studying the pyramids of Latin America - is convinced that sitting underneath the hill is a giant step pyramid, which would be the first found in Europe. He thinks it is 772ft high, one-third taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

At the open-air market, the traditional focal point of any small Balkan town, there are predictably few pyramid sceptics. T-shirts with the imaginary pyramid are sold in the streets. Esref Fatic, 45, the owner of a small souvenir shop, is ready to herald the dawn of a golden age.

"The good times are finally arriving to Visoko," he said surrounded by a clutter of handmade wooden clocks with the inscription "Visoko" on them above a hastily carved pyramid looming from the background.

Mr Fatic firmly believes "something will be found under the hill". He added: "Any kind of discovery means a lot after so many years of nothing." He pointed at key chains with small pyramids and traditional Bosnian slippers, now with pyramid design. "People will come here and spend money and that would mean our youth has something to do."

Excitement reached a fever pitch last week when researchers unearthed geometrically cut stone slabs from the hillside that they claim formed part of the sliding slope of the ancient pyramid. For Mr Osmanagic it was the final vindication of what has been obvious to him since he first visited the site.

"I'm certain that there is a colossal artificial object under that hill," he said. "All the satellite images, thermal and radar researches so far have shown there are man-made structures under the hill. I came to the idea that the mounds around Visoko hide the old, man-made pyramids last summer, when I was invited to visit."

After studying the pyramids in Peru, Mexico and the rest of Latin America for 15 years, he could not, in his words "mistake the regular geometrical structure" of the hills around Visoko.

On the slopes of the hill, renamed the "pyramid of Sun plateau" by Mr Osmanagic, dozens of volunteers have dug up rectangular shaped sandstone plates. They are on display for the thousands of people who have descended on the site in the past few weeks.

The man now known as the Balkan Indiana Jones believes there are pyramids of Moon and Dragon as well, under two nearby hills. "Nature does not make such shapes and they have to be man-made."

So far, 10 teams are digging in the shafts as several spots on the slopes to see if they will run into stone blocks below the slopes of the hill. The work will last nearly seven months, with volunteers working eight-hour daily shifts. Experts from Egypt are expected to join the project within weeks.

Measurements by the Geological Institute of Bosnia-Herzegovina have shown that the Visocica hill has 1,120ft-long sides, forming triangles of 60 degrees on each of its four slopes. Geological surveys show that the alleged tips of the three form a 60-degrees regular triangle of their own.

"That is the so-called sacral geometry of all ancient pyramids," Mr Osmanagic said. He has lived in the United States for the past 15 years and claims to be working on a doctoral thesis on the Mayans. He believes the Visocica pyramid was made according to the Latin American model, but with a few key differences. "The huge blocks were put on top of each other, with half a metre distance into the slope. The slopes run for 30 metres up to the 2.5-metre wide terraces. The process is repeated up to the top. This pyramid combines the method of ancient Egyptian and Mexican pyramids. We have yet to establish if this is the mother of all the pyramids."

But Bosnia's freshly fêted adventurer is a good deal more evasive when it comes to dating his findings. "We have yet to find any organic remains, bones, wood or coal," Mr Osmanagic said. "The analysis would help us establish the age of the structure."

When it comes to origins of the material, he becomes even more evasive. "The building material must have come from quarries. It was transported by men to this location, but we have not established yet where from. Some quarries exist near the Neretva river [in Herzegovina]".

To confirm the hypothesis of a "Valley of Pyramids" as Mr Osmanagic calls the area surrounding Visoko, he speaks of tunnels that connect the three structures. Unlike at the "Pyramid of Sun" site, where volunteers are busily at work, professional miners from Zenica and Kakanj in Bosnia have set to work examining the 3.8km of tunnels. This part of digging is out of reach to visitors, for obvious safety reasons.

"The tunnels meet at 90 degree junctions and contain significant amounts of oxygen, no carbon monoxide or methane and at each 30 metres or so, one feels the breeze of fresh air," Mr Osmanagic claimed. He says the first archaeological artefact to have been found in the tunnels is "the big monolithic plate, weighing seven to eight tons, with angles of 90 degrees". He added: "We are facing the slow systematic task that will gradually provide answers to all questions that are posed now."

Not everyone is as happy as the souvenir sellers and their Mayan expert at the goings on in Visoko. The search for pyramids has caused controversy in Bosnia and beyond. Mr Osmanagic was sharply criticised by the elite corps of archaeology professors and historians from Sarajevo. They called the relevant institutions in Bosnia to stop what they described as "travesty of science", performed by "the free researcher, Semir Osmanagic".

Experts said there is no scientific basis for any of his claims, and accuse him of digging up a locality "known for its medieval importance, already studied by scientists who wrote papers on their findings". Visoko was the medieval capital of Bosnia, with a fortress used by Bosnian kings on the top of Visocica hill.

The fortress and its surroundings were burnt in the 16th century by the invading Turks, who ruled here for centuries. The fortress had been built on an old Roman Empire observation post, which in turn was constructed on the ruins of an ancient settlement.

Many objected to Mr Osmanagic inviting senior Bosnian politicians to the site, giving it a political dimension aimed at boosting the morale of Bosniaks, a thing that is easily said in the country where everything is still measured in tune with ethnic divisions.

Critics say Bosnian Catholic Croats have the sacred site of Medjugorje in Herzegovina. Now Bosnian Muslims want an important place of their own. "I came here to protect the cultural heritage of the small country that suffered so much," Mr Osmanagic admitted. "This is an opportunity to have some positive news coming from Bosnia after long time."

Senad Hadovic, head of the local museum for the past 18 years, is unhappy at years of neglect but remains wary of the newcomer and his grand visions. "All the archaeological sites in Visoko were neglected for decades. We need systematic research on what has historically been proven, and no personal propaganda. German and Italian archaeologists have collected 23,000 Neolithic items in their diggings last year, but no one finds that important. The only thing I don't mind [on pyramid search] is the positive boost it might give to people of Visoko."

Along the steep, narrow, two-mile-long road to the excavation site, families climb to the top to see "the new miracle", as 32-year old Sead Simko put it. Despite the heat and lack of shade, pensioners hauling plastic bags with water and food.

"I made some sirnica (cheese-pie) for those kids up there" said Fatmira Mujovic, 62, a native of Visoko. "We always knew something was under Visocica hill; let it be the pyramid now."

The young of Visoko, like so many in Bosnia, dream of leaving. Jobs here are scarce, and 10 years after the end of the bloody conflict which made it famous, Bosnia's future seems gloomy. Surveys show 66 per cent of people aged between 18 and 25 in Bosnia would like to start another life abroad. Unemployment remains at 40 per cent.

Mr Osmanagic appears to have half a shrewd eye on the economic conditions. "The idea is to make the first European archaeological park with the aid of this research, in the period over the next two years," he said. "It will contain the pyramid, but the cultures from Middle Ages and Roman and other eras as well."

Ordinary people seem not to care much about science or disputes between Mr Osmanagic and the academicians' elite.

In a garden of one small house in Visoko, young men were busy with a printing machine for T-shirts. The inscription will be "I have a pyramid in my backyard", they said.