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Sam Osmanagich claims that 12,000 years ago, early Europeans built "the greatest pyramidal complex" on earth, in Bosnia. (Morten Hvaal)

The Mystery of Bosnia's Ancient Pyramids

An amateur archaeologist says he's discovered the world's oldest pyramids in the Balkans. But many experts remain dubious

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Sam Osmanagich kneels down next to a low wall, part of a 6-by-10-foot rectangle of fieldstone with an earthen floor. If I'd come upon it in a farmer's backyard here on the edge of Visoko—in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 15 miles northwest of Sarajevo—I would have assumed it to be the foundation of a shed or cottage abandoned by some 19th-century peasant.

Osmanagich, a blond, 49-year-old Bosnian who has lived for 16 years in Houston, Texas, has a more colorful explanation. "Maybe it's a burial site, and maybe it's an entrance, but I think it's some type of ornament, because this is where the western and northern sides meet," he says, gesturing toward the summit of Pljesevica Hill, 350 feet above us. "You find evidence of the stone structure everywhere. Consequently, you can conclude that the whole thing is a pyramid."

Not just any pyramid, but what Osmanagich calls the Pyramid of the Moon, the world's largest—and oldest—step pyramid. Looming above the opposite side of town is the so-called Pyramid of the Sun—also known as Visocica Hill—which, at 720 feet, also dwarfs the Great Pyramids of Egypt. A third pyramid, he says, is in the nearby hills. All of them, he says, are some 12,000 years old. During that time much of Europe was under a mile-thick sheet of ice and most of humanity had yet to invent agriculture. As a group, Osmanagich says, these structures are part of "the greatest pyramidal complex ever built on the face of the earth."

In a country still recovering from the 1992-95 genocidal war, in which some 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million were driven from their homes (the majority of them Bosnian Muslims), Osmanagich's claims have found a surprisingly receptive audience. Even Bosnian officials—including a prime minister and two presidents—have embraced them, along with the Sarajevo-based news media and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Bosnians, drawn to the promise of a glorious past and a more prosperous future for their battered country. Skeptics, who say the pyramid claims are examples of pseudo-archaeology pressed into the service of nationalism, have been shouted down and called anti-Bosnian.

Pyramid mania has descended upon Bosnia. Over 400,000 people have visited the sites since October 2005, when Osmanagich announced his discovery. Souvenir stands peddle pyramid-themed T-shirts, wood carvings, piggy banks, clocks and flip-flops. Nearby eateries serve meals on pyramid-shaped plates and coffee comes with pyramid-emblazoned sugar packets. Foreigners by the thousands have come to see what all the fuss is about, drawn by reports by the BBC, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and ABC's Nightline (which reported that thermal imaging had "apparently" revealed the presence of man-made, concrete blocks beneath the valley).

Osmanagich has also received official backing. His Pyramid of the Sun Foundation in Sarajevo has garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in public donations and thousands more from state-owned companies. After Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, toured Visoko in July 2006, more contributions poured in. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the former high representative for the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, visited the site in July 2007, then declared that "I was surprised with what I saw before my eyes, and the fact that such structures exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

Osmanagich's many appearances on television have made him a national celebrity. In Sarajevo, people gape at him on the streets and seek his autograph in cafés. When I was with him one day at the entrance to city hall, guards jumped out of their booths to embrace him.

Five years ago, almost no one had ever heard of him. Born in Zenica, about 20 miles north of Visoko, he earned a master's degree in international economics and politics at the University of Sarajevo. (Years later, he obtained a doctorate in the sociology of history. ) He left Bosnia before its civil war, emigrating to Houston in 1993 (because, in part, of its warm climate), where he started a successful metalworking business that he still owns today. While in Texas he got interested in the Aztec, Incan and Maya civilizations and made frequent trips to visit pyramid sites in Central and South America. He says that he's visited hundreds of pyramids worldwide.

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