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FEATURE 23 Mar 17

Bosnia’s 'Pyramids' Get Celebrated from Unusual Perspective

Brussels-based photographer Thomas Nolf embraces Visoko’s famous so-called pyramids for offering a divided country a positive ‘ground-up’ version of history.

Eleanor Rose
Thomas Nolf, left, and colleague Gauthier Oushoorn in front of the K2 megalith extraction point. Photo: Thomas Nolf

“What are people really living in, in Bosnia? What is the Dayton Peace Agreement, and was it good for the country or not? I always found not,” muses photographer Thomas Nolf. 

The 31-year-old, who lives and works in Brussels, is on one of his last in a string of trips to Bosnia since 2013, during which he has embarked on an adventure to explore the famous so-called “pyramids” of Visoko, discovered in 2005 by a controversial self-styled archaeologist. 

Nolf says that on his travels he quickly discovered that most Bosnians were disillusioned and believed the international treaty in 1995 that ended Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war had left the country weak, divided and a pale shadow of the former glory it enjoyed in Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Nolf’s upcoming book 'Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia and Herzegovina - an imaginary exhibition' – put together from his perspective as a sociologist-turned-photographer – presents an alternative history of the country based around the pyramids and set apart from familiar narratives of nationalism and ethnic hatred. 

After all, he says, the romantic notion of an ancient civilisation in Bosnia – one claimed to be more advanced than that which built the pyramids of Egypt – “might be better to believe in than the craziness that is going on here today”.

‘A History to Believe in’

When amateur self-claimed archaeologist Semir Osmanagic in 2005 announced the unlikely discovery of a network of 14,000-year-old pyramids in the small town of Visoko, about 30km from Sarajevo, international media interest was immediately piqued. 

The Bosnian press burst with enthusiasm as locals embraced the fact that for once, international attention had turned to the small Southeastern European country because of something other than the war.

Naysayers were shouted down and souvenir shops sprang up in the cash-strapped town, while funding from government institutions and state-owned companies poured into excavation efforts led by Osmanagic’s Pyramid of the Sun Foundation.

Images of the pyramids emitting photoshopped beams of light to the sky appeared on new-age websites the length and breadth of the internet, and spiritual pseudo-experts speculated about the “energy potential” of the admittedly rather triangular-shaped hills. 

It was not long before international experts decried the “discoveries” as a scam, however. The European Association of Archaeologists termed it a “cruel hoax” in December 2006. 

By then, though, the ball was already rolling. 

More than a decade later, says Nolf, volunteers – many of them alternative science and spiritualism enthusiasts – still flock each summer to assist a permanent team of several people working to unearth the site’s alleged secrets.

They say they have discovered ancient man-made underground shafts connecting what are claimed to be five main pyramids, but have since stopped excavating at the main site, says Nolf, due to lack of permits.

An interview in his book features one employee claiming that officials forced through the purchase of the site by the state, demanding that Osmanagic’s team pay a cut of their income to local authorities. 

Osmanagic refused, says the employee.

Now the teams focus their efforts on digging tunnels from a distance of 2.5 kilometres away, hoping to reach the pyramids from underneath.

“Every day, people are working on the tunnels, trying to stabilise them,” says Nolf, who grew close to Osmanagic and his volunteers throughout his visits.

Nolf describes Osmanagic as a “great businessman”, obsessed with world pyramids, who is “trying to rewrite the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. 

The work can be risky; one accident last year saw a man nearly killed when a tunnel collapsed. 

Meanwhile, the project has become more and more oriented towards new-age beliefs, with people frequently visiting the site to meditate, holding meetings at which participants drink water from the pyramids.

“They say it’s the healthiest water on the planet. They also built this stage that looks like a church,” says Nolf, proffering a photograph of a half-built frame structure. “They are building a whole spiritual park,” he adds.

Embracing the benefits:

Although Nolf was “frightened” by the first tour he went on with Osmanagic, which took in mystical objects around the country such as giant stone balls embedded in rural hillsides, he overcame the skeptical part of himself to appreciate the phenomenon.

“I am totally not a spiritual person, but I defend the pyramids from a sociological perspective,” he says. 

Although on his adventures he has met many people with far-fetched beliefs, such as one man who believes he can find energy lines using metal prongs, he “never had the sense these people were crazy”. 

“Things were being said to me that rationally don’t make sense, but another part of me said they are happy, and they should be free to do what they want,” he says.

Nolf acknowledges concerns that the excavations have disturbed genuine archaeological sites from Bosnia’s medieval kingdom, which was seated in Visoko, and he gives space to critical essays in his book. 

However, he points out that the pyramid legends have brought economic benefits to Visoko, a town that – like much of the rest of Bosnia – suffered youth unemployment of more than 60 percent, but which has since enjoyed a thriving tourism trade that has allowed many local hotels and shops to flourish. 

“A lot of people, especially in Visoko, don’t care if it’s true. It doesn’t matter,” says Nolf. It gives them money and meaning, he adds.

Alternative view of history: 

Osmanagic is not the first person to want to create a unified, alternative history for Bosnia, Nolf points out. 

During the the Austro-Hungarian period, the authorities opened a National Museum in 1888 to try to unite Bosnia’s disparate ethnic groups with one, shared narrative.

Some artifacts were presented in the Museum alongside questionable stories, aimed at creating a shared national identity and overcoming tensions, Nolf observes. 

On his visits to Bosnia, Nolf was also moved by other aspects of the National Museum’s story – because since the 1992-5 war ended, the country’s cultural institutions have been left unclaimed by any particular ministry and have fallen into a state of destitution.

He proposed that the Museum hold an exhibition on the pyramids, suggesting that given the intense tourist interest in the topic, it could help the institution fund itself – but he received no response.

When he finally met an official from the Museum, she told him she “doesn’t open emails mentioning the ‘p word,’” he says with a laugh.

Nolf hasn’t give up hope, however, and his book, to be released this summer, shows how he would “pedestalize” the alternative history of Bosnia if he had the chance. 

For example, one particular artifact – a giant, smooth stone found in one of the tunnels, which volunteers believe has a special energy – especially appealed to Nolf.

Using maps of the tunnels, he located the point above ground where one would need to dig from, to extract the stone for display in the Museum. 

A photograph in the book shows Nolf with a colleague, leaning on shovels next to a dug-out square. 

He brought together more than a dozen other artists from Brussels to put on a group exhibition at Sarajevo’s Charlama, in which the photograph and shovels are displayed alongside works on other themes. The show is open until April 17.

Nolf remembers that the first time he came to Bosnia, in 2013, he found it impossible to alight on a topic to photograph that was apolitical and which did not cause arguments among the locals he met.

He was relieved in the pyramids to find a topic which, despite being “provocative”, he can get behind, since rather than being a history imposed by politicians to divide people, this story came from the ground-up, from ordinary people. 

In the end, he had the feeling of, “Why not?”

As he was told by a group of young Bosnians, “If the Croats can have [the Catholic pilgrimage site of ] Medjugorje, let us have the Bosnian pyramids.”

NOTE: This article was amended on March 24 to clarify that the group exhibition takes place at Charlama. The previous version stated that it takes place at Collegium Artisticum.

NOTE: This article was amended on May 17 as we wrongly reported the title of Nolf's book as "The Pyramid Hills and Other Wayside Discoveries" when it is "Peculiar Artifacts in Bosnia and Herzegovina - an imaginary exhibition".

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