Sci­en­tists un­cover the world’s oldest pyra­mid… in Bul­garia

BBC History Magazine - - History Now -

Formil­len­nia, the pyra­mids of Egypt have inspired awe among those lucky enough to wit­ness them. But, in at least one re­spect, it seems that a se­ries of mas­sive rock steps re­cently dis­cov­ered deep in the moun­tains of Bul­garia may put the pharaohs’ cel­e­brated rest­ing places in the shade.

This nat­u­ral pyra­mid-shaped rock for­ma­tion was, ex­perts be­lieve, fash­ioned into an im­por­tant rit­ual cen­tre at some point between 4,500 and 4,000 BC – mean­ing that it was used at least 1,350 years be­fore pyra­midic struc­tures were built in Egypt, and 1,100 be­fore those of the Me­sopotamian civil­i­sa­tion.

Lo­cated near the Bul­gar­ian vil­lage of Kovil in the Rhodope moun­tains, the 15-me­tre-high ed­i­fice fea­tures five nat­u­ral rock steps. On the low­est and largest of these, is a rock-cut al­tar that is il­lu­mi­nated by the sun’s rays at sun­rise on the ver­nal and au­tum­nal equinoxes. This has led ar­chae­ol­o­gists to sug­gest that the site func­tioned as a so­lar tem­ple.

The up­per steps of the pyra­mid also fea­ture rock-cut al­tars, while a se­ries of mys­te­ri­ous chan­nels are carved into the rock.

It seems that the rock-cut al­tar was quite a late ad­di­tion to the site. In fact, the team of ar­chae­ol­o­gists in­ves­ti­gat­ing the find – led by Bul­gar­ian aca­demic Vassil Markov – be­lieve that it was made in around 2,500 BC, cen­turies af­ter the area was first used as a cult cen­tre. And, far from stand­ing in iso­la­tion, the pyra­mid is part of a larger pre­his­toric rit­ual com­plex of up to a square mile.

This lat­est find fol­lows the dis­cov­ery of two smaller, pyra­mid-shaped rock out­crops also used for cult prac­tices. Yet it is the sheer scale of the new dis­cov­ery that makes it stand out. “I was stunned when I stood in front of it,” said Markov, head of the Univer­sity Re­search Cen­tre for An­cient Euro­pean and East­ern Mediter­ranean cul­tures at Bul­garia’s South-West Univer­sity. “I am un­able to of­fer an ex­pla­na­tion as to why it had been missed by sci­en­tists.” David Keys

“Ex­perts have found an al­tar that is il­lu­mi­nated by the sun on the ver­nal and au­tum­nal equinox”

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