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

Sam Osmanagich claims that 12,000 years ago, early Europeans built "the greatest pyramidal complex" on earth, in Bosnia. (Morten Hvaal)
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"The landform [Osmanagich] is calling a pyramid is actually quite common," agrees Paul Heinrich, an archaeological geologist at Louisiana State University. "They're called ‘flatirons' in the United States and you see a lot of them out West." He adds that there are "hundreds around the world," including the "Russian Twin Pyramids" in Vladivostok.

Apparently unperturbed by the University of Tuzla report, Osmanagich said Visocica's conglomerate blocks were made of concrete that ancient builders had poured on-site. This theory was endorsed by Joseph Davidovits, a French materials scientist who, in 1982, advanced another controversial hypothesis—that the blocks making up the Egyptian pyramids were not carved, as nearly all experts believe, but cast in limestone concrete. Osmanagich dubbed Pljesevica's sandstone plates "paved terraces," and according to Schoch, workers carved the hillside between the layers—to create the impression of stepped sides on the Pyramid of the Moon. Particularly uniform blocks and tile sections were exposed for viewing by dignitaries, journalists and the many tourists who descended on the town.

Osmanagich's announcements sparked a media sensation, stoked with a steady supply of fresh observations: a 12,000-year-old "burial mound" (without any skeletons) in a nearby village; a stone on Visocica with alleged curative powers; a third pyramid dubbed the Pyramid of the Dragon; and two "shaped hills" that he has named the Pyramid of Love and the Temple of Earth. And Osmanagich has recruited an assortment of experts whom he says vindicate his claims. For instance, in 2007, Enver Buza, a surveyor from Sarajevo's Geodetic Institute, published a paper stating that the Pyramid of the Sun is "oriented to the north with a perfect precision."

Many Bosnians have embraced Osmanagich's theories, particularly those from among the country's ethnic Bosniaks (or Bosnian Muslims), who constitute about 48 percent of Bosnia's population. Visoko was held by Bosniak-led forces during the 1990s war, when it was choked with refugees driven out of surrounding villages by Bosnian Serb (and later, Croat) forces, who repeatedly shelled the town. Today it is a bastion of support for the Bosniaks' nationalist party, which controls the mayor's office. A central tenet of Bosniak national mythology is that Bosniaks are descended from Bosnia's medieval nobility. Ruins of the 14th-century Visoki Castle can be found on the summit of Visocica Hill—on top of the Pyramid of the Sun—and, in combination, the two icons create considerable symbolic resonance for Bosniaks. The belief that Visoko was a cradle of European civilization and that the Bosniaks' ancestors were master builders who surpassed even the ancient Egyptians has become a matter of ethnic pride. "The pyra­mids have been turned into a place of Bosniak identification," says historian Dubravko Lovrenovic of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Commission to Preserve National Monuments. "If you are not for the pyramids, you are accused of being an enemy of the Bosniaks."

For his part, Osmanagich insists he disapproves of those who exploit his archaeological work for political gain. "Those pyramids don't belong to any particular nationality," he says. "These are not Bosniak or Muslim or Serb or Croat pyramids, because they were built at a time when those nations and religions were not in existence." He says his project should "unite people, not divide them."

Yet Bosnia and Herzegovina still bears the deep scars of a war in which the country's Serbs and, later, Croats sought to create ethnically pure small states by killing or expelling people of other ethnicities. The most brutal incident occurred in 1995, when Serb forces seized control of the town of Srebrenica—a United Nations-protected "safe haven"—and executed some 8,000 Bosniak men of military age. It was the worst civilian massacre in Europe since World War II.

Wellesley College anthropologist Philip Kohl, who has studied the political uses of archaeology, says that Osmanagich's pyramids exemplify a narrative common to the former Eastern bloc. "When the Iron Curtain collapsed, all these land and territorial claims came up, and people had just lost their ideological moorings," he notes. "There's a great attraction in being able to say, ‘We have great ancestors, we go back millennia and we can claim these special places for ourselves.' In some places it's relatively benign; in others it can be malignant."

"I think the pyramids are symptomatic of a traumatized society that is still trying to recover from a truly horrendous experience," says Andras Riedlmayer, a Balkan specialist at Harvard University. "You have many people desperate for self-affirmation and in need of money."


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