The eighth wonder of the ancient world ... the great pyramid of Bosnia

By Vesna Peric

VISOKO - There is a new sign hanging above Visoko's shabby hotel. Guests now stay at the Pyramid of the Sun. Across the road at the local restaurant the hungry tuck into pyramid pizza. It is served, of course, on triangular wooden platters.

And for those who have yet to get the point, the market sells home-made brandy - 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 petrol 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 625m over this previously anonymous hamlet. 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 235m high, one-third taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

At the 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 souvenir shop, is ready to herald the dawn of a golden age.

"The good times are finally arriving," he said surrounded by handmade wooden clocks with a pyramid hastily carved behind the word "Visoko".

Fatic firmly believes "something will be found under the hill".

"Any kind of discovery means a lot after so many years of nothing." He pointed at key chains with pyramids and traditional Bosnian slippers, now with pyramid designs. "People will come and spend money - that will mean our youth has something to do."

Excitement reached a fever pitch in late April when researchers unearthed geometrically cut stone slabs from the hillside that they claim formed part of the slope of the pyramid. For Osmanagic it was vindication.

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

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

On the slopes of the hill, renamed the "Pyramid of Sun Plateau" by Osmanagic, dozens of volunteers have dug up rectangular shaped sandstone plates. They are on display for the thousands who have descended on the site in the past few weeks. He thinks there are Moon and Dragon pyramids as well, under two nearby hills. "Nature does not make such shapes - they have to be man-made."

So far, 10 teams are digging in the shafts at several spots on the slopes to see if they will run into stone blocks. The work will last nearly seven months. Experts from Egypt are expected to join them within weeks.

Surveys show that Visocica hill has 340m-long sides, forming triangles of 60 degrees on each of its four slopes. The tips of the three form a 60-degrees regular triangle of their own.

"That is the so-called sacral geometry of all ancient pyramids," Osmanagic said, who believes the pyramid was made along Latin American lines, with a few key differences.

"This pyramid combines the method of Egyptian and Mexican pyramids. We have yet to establish if this is the mother of all the pyramids."

But he 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," Osmanagic said. "The analysis would help us establish the structure's age."

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

To confirm the theory of a "Valley of Pyramids", as Osmanagic calls the area around Visoko, he speaks of tunnels that connect the three structures. Unlike at the "Pyramid of Sun" site, professional miners have set to work examining the 3.8km of tunnels.

"The tunnels meet at 90 degree junctions and contain oxygen, no carbon monoxide or methane and at each 30 metres or so, one feels the breeze of fresh air," Osmanagic claimed.

He says the first archaeological artefact to have been found in the tunnels is "the big monolithic plate, weighing seven to eight tonnes, with angles of 90 degrees".

"We are facing the slow systematic task that will provide answers to all questions that are posed now."

Not everyone is happy about the goings on in Visoko. Osmanagic has been criticised by the elite corps of Sarajevo's archaeologists and historians. They called the relevant institutions in Bosnia to stop what they described as "travesty of science".

Experts say there is no scientific basis for his claims, and accuse him of digging up an area "known for medieval importance, studied by scientists who wrote papers on their findings".

Visoko was the medieval capital of Bosnia, and had a fortress on the top of Visocica hill. That fortress had been built on a Roman observation post, which was built on ancient ruins.

Senad Hadovic, head of the local museum for the past 18 years, is unhappy at years of neglect but remains wary of the newcomer.

"All the archaeological sites in Visoko were neglected for decades. We need systematic research on what has historically been proven.

"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 [about the pyramid search] is the positive boost it might give to Visoko."

Along the steep, narrow, 3km road to the excavation, 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 haul 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."

Ordinary people seem not to care much about academic disputes.

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.

- INDEPENDENT

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