By Daria Sito-Sucic
Visoko, Bosnia - Pyramid or publicity stunt? Archaeologists can't agree but for the people of Visoko, the debate is almost irrelevant: they believe there's a pyramid under the hill near their town and they are already cashing in.
Visoko is booming, boosted by a controversial dig that aims to prove that the nearby Visocica hill is a pyramid built 12 000 years ago by the ancestors of the Illyrians, said to be the first inhabitants of the Balkans.
Many archaeologists are sceptical but Semir Osmanagic, the Bosnian-born businessman who came up with the pyramid theory and who is the force behind the dig, is convinced he can prove it.
"As much as the idea of pyramids in Europe and particularly in Bosnia may seem incredible, we're convinced we'll succeed," US-based Osmanagic told reporters.
Since the dig began in April, visitors have flocked to the top of Visoko's hill, about 30km north of Sarajevo, making the ascent by car, motorbike and even horse-drawn coach.
On a sunny April day, lines of people clambered up the 700-metre hill while models from Sarajevo Fashion Week walked around the dig, waving paper Bosnian flags.
"We read about the pyramid on the Internet. It would be great that something so grand happens to Bosnia," said tourist Senada Wiitigen, who came to Bosnia from Germany on holiday.
Nearby, the manager of a food factory was flogging "Bosnian Sun Pyramid" pralines. Hawkers sold hastily printed T-shirts and brandy in pyramid-shaped bottles while craftsmen turned out pyramid souvenirs.
Pensioner Rasim Kilalic turned his weekend home near the dig into a cafe. "Please God, let them find a pyramid," he said, rushing to serve crowded tables.
But many established archaeologists believe the theory behind Visoko's mini-boom is nonsense.
"Even the slightest acquaintance with archaeology would tell anyone that the only things being built in Europe at that time were flimsy huts, and a lot of people were still living in caves or rock shelters," said Professor Anthony Harding, president of the European Association of Archaeologists.
"Even if we assume these people have the date wrong by several millennia, and they are actually nearer in date to the Egyptian pyramids, the idea that people in Bosnia at that time were building pyramids of any sort, let alone enormous ones that dwarf even the Great Pyramid at Giza, is pure fantasy."
Osmanagic calls the two hills forming a gate into the Visoko valley the Sun and Moon Pyramids, named after pyramids he saw in Central America. He named a smaller hill the Dragon Pyramid.
"Visocica hill has almost three perfect triangle sides, each pointing towards cardinal points," said Osmanagic, who often wears an Indiana Jones-style trilby hat.
"This and its pyramid shape were enough for me. Nature simply could not build such perfect objects."
Last year, during a dig at the base of Visocica hill - Osmanagic's Sun Pyramid - geologists on his team said they found polished sandstone slabs, which may have formed the pyramid's floor. They found another building material, also not native to the area, which they think was used for the stairs.
In the second week of digging, they found stone blocks that Osmanagic said were pyramid walls. Over the next few months, he aims to unearth what he believes are stone stairs and explore 3,8km of tunnels that he says connect the hills.
Pyramid-shaped structures were built by many ancient peoples and used as temples, tombs or royal monuments. Some of the best preserved are Egypt's pyramids, built around 4 500 years ago. Step pyramids exist in Mexico and modern-day Iran and Iraq.
Greece and Egypt have said they will send experts to the Bosnian site in the coming months, but closer to home there are fears the ad-hoc dig could destroy the remains of a medieval Bosnian town at the top of Visocica hill.
"This is the equivalent of letting me, an archaeologist, perform surgery," said Enver Imamovic, professor of history and former director of the Sarajevo-based Regional Museum.
Osmanagic plans to open the "Bosnian Valley of Pyramids" as an archaeological park in 2008. His project is supported by Visoko council and has raised hopes that the area could become a major tourist attraction in a country slowly winning back visitors after a devastating war in the 1990s.
"We should absolutely allow the research here," said Senad Hodovic, the director of the Visoko Historic Heritage museum.
"This isn't about whether there are pyramids or not... But it's important to create a climate for research, also of the medieval town of Visoki, which has never been explored."
Nearby mines and rescue associations have offered their services for the exploration of the tunnels. Universities in Sarajevo and Tuzla have pledged their expertise and firms in Visoko are donating products and services.
The volunteer diggers are mainly unemployed men from Visoko.
"We have such high unemployment that everybody hopes something good will come out of this," said Emsad Husic, a former car mechanic and father-of-three. "You can already feel the town has got livelier in the recent weeks."
Osmanagic believes the site was chosen in the belief that it was a focal point of energies, like Giza in Egypt. That, he says, could explain the local claim that no one was killed in the three-pyramid area during the 1992-95 war.
"The pyramid saved them," he said.
For now, Osmanagic is financing the dig himself. To continue his research this year, he will need about 200 000 Bosnian marka (about R750 000), which he hopes to get from Bosnian authorities.
"The history of civilisation has to be rewritten," he said. "Bosnia will become a giant on the world archaeological map."