The Man Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Pyramid

A group of Bosnian hills might contain the world’s greatest pyramids—or its greatest pyramid scheme.

By John Bohannon|Wednesday, October 22, 2008
pyramid
pyramid
photo by Martin Fuchs

Believers say it is a discovery that will rewrite the history of the world. The steep hills outside the small Bosnian city of Visoko have been climbed, poked, and scraped by a small army of both trained and amateur archaeologists for the past three years in a quest to reveal a 12,000-year-old secret. Each balmy summer brings a swarm of volunteers, many wearing identical yellow T-shirts, who strip away soil and vegetation from the hillside while throngs of tourists hover at the edges, eager for a glimpse of what is said to lie beneath the dirt: the world’s oldest and largest pyramids, more vast and ancient than those in Egypt, built by a mysterious and highly advanced civilization that has been long forgotten—until now.

At the center of it all stands Sam Osmanagich, the charismatic head of the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Foundation and the originator of this big dig. Widely popular among Bosnians, he even hosts his own television program—Search for the Lost Civilizations—about archaeological mysteries. He is openly backed by many at the highest levels of Bosnia’s political leadership, and promotional offices in such places as the United States, Germany, Norway, and Croatia publicize his campaign around the globe.

“The Bosnian pyramid valley is the most monumental construction complex ever built on the face of the planet,” Osmanagich declared on a YouTube video. “It was built by the unknown civilization so many thousands of years ago…12,000 years ago. It was a very developed civilization, even more advanced than we are.”

At a time when Bosnia’s postwar morale is low, there is great appeal in Osmanagich’s message. According to his foundation’s Web site, 400,000 people visited the “pyramid valley” in 2007, although that figure is unverified. The pyramids provide the national myth that Bosnians have always lacked, plus an influx of money and an exciting new chapter in archaeology.

Except for one thing: Numerous top archaeologists and geologists point out that the pyramids are hills and nothing more.

Who is Sam Osmanagich, how has he become a national player in Bosnia’s heritage, and how have these pyramids—which so many experts believe are not pyramids at all—gained such a following?

Originally from Sarajevo, Osmanagich left Bosnia shortly before the 1992–1995 war in search of economic opportunities abroad. He ended up in Houston, changed his first name from Semir to Sam, and worked for a metal fabrication company, eventually becoming part owner.

A return visit to Bosnia in 2005 changed his life. Looking up at a hill that looms over the city of Visoko, Osmanagich recognized a shape he had seen many times while visiting Latin America. This was no natural formation, he thought, but a pyramid, exactly like the Mayan pyramids that had filled him with awe. Osmanagich, who says he has several degrees in economics and political science but lacks formal training as an archaeologist, concluded that this pyramid was so old it had become obscured by layers of soil and vegetation that had accumulated since the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. If he was right, it would be one of the oldest human-made structures in the world. It would also be one of the largest: At 720 feet, it is half again as tall as the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

After his revelation, Osmanagich roped off sections of the hill and started digging. He assembled a team that included publicists and a Web site designer and courted top Bosnian business and political figures. He then introduced numerous international journalists to the pyramids, for there was not just one pyramid, he had discovered, but a “complex” of two (now four) connected by a network of underground tunnels.

News of the Bosnian pyramids began spreading in late 2005. A report by the BBC described Osmanagich as a Bosnian archaeologist who had studied the pyramids of Latin America and characterized his statements as being supported by substantial evidence. A few days later, an Associated Press story titled “Experts Find Evidence of Bosnia Pyramid” was picked up by CBS, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and other media outlets.

By December 2006 archae­ologists and geologists around the world had begun weighing in. One group of archaeologists, led by Anthony Harding, president of the European Association of Archaeologists and a professor at the University of Exeter, wrote an open letter to the Bosnian government denouncing the pyramids as a “cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public.” A larger group comprising anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, and historians sent a protest letter to United Nations officials who had been approached on Osmanagich’s behalf in hopes of declaring the Bosnian pyramids a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Osmanagich’s popularity and influence have continued to grow, and as they do, the most significant criticism now comes from a ring of anonymous bloggers who keep a meticulous record of the pyramid phenomenon. Each time the pyramid foundation publishes a claim, the bloggers weigh in with charges of inconsistency and falsification. They regularly send e-mail updates of their investigation to a small group of international scientists and journalists, and this writer is one of them. I have followed Osmanagich’s rise for the past two years. I have visited the “pyramids” in Visoko and attended his presentations in London and Vienna. Even so, Osmanagich is difficult to pin down.

Much of this difficulty comes from his adaptability and charisma, says Vuk Bacanovic´, a reporter with Dani magazine in Sarajevo and one of the few Bosnian journalists who openly criticize the pyramid movement. “Osmanagich wears a thousand faces,” he says. For the press “he plays the scientist.” For the politicians “he is the generous businessman who wants to help Bosnia develop.” And for a fast-growing number of his supporters, Bacanovic´ says, he is “something like a messiah figure.”

osmanagich
osmanagich
photo by Martin Fuchs

For me Osmanagich played the role of therapist and seer. I first met him in London in December 2006 at a presentation he gave at the Bosnian embassy, where I was granted an hour to talk to him one-on-one. I had been the only member of the audience to challenge him about the validity of his scientific assertions. For example, his claims of having found human-made “pavement” on the pyramids continued even after a team of geologists from nearby Tuzla University led by Sejfudin Vrabac examined it and concluded that it was nothing but sandstone and a natural stone called conglomerate. After his London talk Osmanagich turned the tables and interviewed me. How old was I? Was I married? What did I want out of life? My “aura” revealed an inner turmoil, Osmanagich explained. He invited me to come back to Bosnia so he could show me the pyramids himself. I found Osmanagich’s charm and wit impressive, but I got no substantive answers to what I asked.

Scientists worldwide have questions for Osmanagich. Geologists in both the United States and Europe who have visited the site or studied the reports of others cast doubt on the existence of the pyramids, saying the four hills were created by natural tectonic uplift rather than human hands. The flat plates of rock that Osmanagich and a number of his experts—including an Egyptian geologist—claim were handmade at least 12,000 years ago are actually the natural remains of a 7-million-year-old lake bed, the dissenting geologists say. And archaeologists such as Harding point out that Europe was in the grip of an Ice Age 12,000 years ago, with civilization consisting of nothing more than small bands of hunter-gatherers.

The slopes where huge swaths of soil have been cleared away now resemble the stone-paved terraces of a Latin American pyramid, but that look, says archaeologist Brian Stewart of the University of Cambridge, may be the result of this recent dig, not the work of an ancient civilization.

If so many prominent scientists hold that there are no Bosnian pyramids, why is Osmanagich’s project so successful? One reason is that at the time of his return to Bosnia in 2005, there was a knowledge vacuum unlike any the country had ever experienced before. The legions of archaeologists who would have challenged his theory before the 1992–1995 war, says Cambridge archaeologist Preston Miracle, were not around. In the prewar years, “archaeology in Bosnia was truly world-class,” he says. But by the time of the war, many of these leading scholars had died, and during the war many promising Bosnian archaeology students fled, settling into permanent positions at universities abroad. Today, many experts say, Bosnia’s real archaeological record is, at best, neglected—and at worst, endangered.

To walk through Bosnia’s countryside is to take a tour through “an extremely rich record of human civilization,” Miracle says, one that goes back 40,000 to 100,000 years. For the past two decades, Miracle has researched human occupation of the region through the Ice Age, the very period in which Osmanagich has planted his flag.

Bosnia “has always been a crucial route in and out of Europe,” he says, so it is no surprise that the region has been continuously occupied since the days of the Neanderthal. Miracle and Tonko Rajkovaca, a native Bosnian and fellow Cambridge archaeologist, are leading a team of researchers in piecing together a map of who lived in the area, using clues found in the Bosnian landscape including a scattering of stone tools going back some 100,000 years. “There are still many gaps in our knowledge of the region’s Paleolithic history,” Miracle says, “and that makes Bosnia a wonderful place to work.”

Bosnia is also home to one of the most exciting archaeological finds of the Neolithic, a 7,000-year-old settlement of 3,000 people living in a village surrounded by battlements and trenches, perhaps larger than any other known settlement of that age. Archaeologists have known of Bosnia’s so-called Butmir culture for more than a century, but the extent of this earliest flourishing of settlement and agriculture was discovered only in 2002 by a joint German-Bosnian team. Ironically, it lies only a short distance from the newly mythologized hills of Visoko.

Today a good slice of Bosnian public funding goes to Osmanagich’s foundation. But apparently it is not enough. In an April interview in a Bosnian magazine, Osmanagich called on the government to devote $100 million to the pyramid project, pointing out that this figure is “only 5 percent of the federal budget.”

Visoko is just the beginning for Osmanagich. Evidence of the ancient civilization he is exploring can be seen everywhere in Bosnia, he says, and should be preserved and shared with the public through a series of “archaeological parks” across the country. One park will feature “underground stone temples”—simply shallow caves, according to the dissenting geologists. Another already features large stone spheres, “relics” of the earlier advanced civilization, Osmanagich says. These stone balls were weathered naturally, though, these geologists say.

Many of these supposed ancient cultural features lie uncomfortably close to established archaeological sites being studied by Miracle and others. And Miracle is concerned that “the real archaeological heritage” is crumbling. For this reason, the European Commission recently published a list of 20 Bosnian heritage sites that “urgently require conservation and/or restoration.” Pyramid mania is “a threat to the existing cultural and historical heritage of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” according to the 2006 letter of protest to the United Nations. Determining the true history of human occupation in the hills around Visoko may now be impossible, some of Osmanagich’s critics say.

In the chaotic jumble of postwar Bosnia, probably no one is busier than Sam Osmanagich. In recent months, while on a lecture tour through North America and Europe, he wrote and published his 10th book on the history of civilizations and still managed to find time to attend lectures and conferences back in Bosnia. In December there was the launch of a book of poetry dedicated to his work, written by one of his fans. In January he addressed a packed audience in the old town hall of the capital, Sarajevo, at the invitation of the mayor and was repeatedly interrupted by roaring applause. Such is the life of a national hero.

Now Osmanagich’s mission may be taking him beyond Bosnia—indeed, beyond earth. At least since the spring of 2007, the pyramids have been the site of a number of reportedly miraculous phenomena. In a lengthy editorial published in a state-run Bosnian newspaper last December, Osmanagich described a “healing stone,” high on the slope of the largest pyramid, that could lower blood pressure and heal back pain. There have also been reports of a crystal skull from a pyramid in South America releasing a “burst of energy” at the Bosnian site, an event captured by special photography.

As claims of the supernatural at the pyramids have gained momentum, increased wrath toward skeptics and critics has also emerged. Harding of the University of Exeter encountered it whenever he criticized Osmanagich’s project in the press. Vitriolic e-mails poured into his in-box, calling him a “stinking ally of the Serbs.” The implication was clear: “Believing in the Bosnian pyramids is tantamount to patriotism, and dissent is betrayal,” Harding says. “The pyramids have become a cause for ultranationalism.”

However, neither of these issues—the supernatural aspects or the treatment of critics—was raised during Osmanagich’s spring 2008 lecture in Vienna. In English with German translation, Osmanagich described the glory of the pyramids and their ancient builders to hundreds of wide-eyed listeners filling the seats and standing in the aisles. Afterward a pyramid-shaped cake was presented and devoured. I wanted to interview Osmanagich and tried to get his attention, but he was mobbed like a rock star. Before the crowd dragged him away to drinks and dinner, I managed to ask him why his presentation did not include any mention of crystal skulls or healing stones. He smiled, recognizing me, and changed the subject.

In a telephone interview in May, Osmanagich was more forthcoming. He was in Saudi Arabia, on his way to meet with government officials about the Bosnian pyramids. When I asked him about their supernatural properties, he answered that he was interested only in scientific research, saying, “I have never written about these aspects and the connection with the Bosnian pyramids.” I reminded Osmanagich that he had written a newspaper article claiming that the Bosnian pyramids have healing powers due to their “bioenergetic” effects and that he was quoted in a 2006 magazine interview as saying that the Bosnian pyramids were the key to avoiding a long-foretold apocalypse in 2012. Osmanagich told me that the former article referred to anecdotes based on other people’s experiences, not his, and that the latter article misquoted him. He even distanced himself from the pyramid foundation’s Web site, saying that anyone is free to express his or her opinion, and supernatural claims are “never endorsed by the board of directors.”

Osmanagich’s supernatural beliefs are, in fact, easily located on YouTube. In one video Osmanagich explains that “it is proven that pyramids have the most beneficial influence on the environment. If you place a piece of raw meat in a pyramid, it will not become corrupted. If you place a blunt razor in it, it will sharpen itself. If a man enters a pyramid, energy levels increase and he becomes immune to illness.”

Pseudo-archaeology seems to be giving way to religion, says Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist who is considered Europe’s leading academic expert on religious minorities. The Bosnian pyramid-worshipping “looks like an embryonic New Age religion,” he says. Introvigne has long studied one of the most famous of the New Age groups, the Federation of Damanhur, which emerged in northern Italy in the late 1970s and has gained considerable wealth and flocks of followers around the world.

The use of pseudoscience is “a classic feature of New Age,” he says. “New Agers prefer to have the appearance of making decisions based on empirical evidence, like scientists.”

Introvigne notes that New Age groups develop along similar trajectories. “The Damanhur movement began small, with large variation in the ideas and voices,” he says, “but it grew quickly and became more unified.” After growing large enough to attract media attention, such organizations generally reach a critical juncture that leads either to extinction or to further growth. Introvigne says Osmanagich’s group will need to expand aggressively and achieve financial stability in order to survive.

But as the pyramid foundation continues to dominate what passes for Bosnian archaeology, collecting public money, courting international support, and planning parks across the nation, many scientists around the globe are watching closely, hoping for the end of Osmanagich’s grip on a small country’s consciousness.

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