Aug 10th 2006 | VISOKO
From The Economist print edition
Crank or genius, a Bosnian history buff makes a small town smile
BOSNIANS have a salty, cynical attitude to life and their recent experience of warmongers and demagogues has given them a healthy immunity to anybody who makes extravagant claims about the past or the future. But occasionally, somebody convinces them that something new and exciting is going on.
Take the little town of Visoko, a normally sleepy place that is enjoying an improvement in its fortunes because a self-taught archaeologist is convinced that he has discovered real pyramids—yes, man-made structures similar to the ones in Egypt and Mexico.
Semir Osmanagic is a Bosnian-American who runs a firm that makes steel components in Houston. He is an amateur historian who loves pyramids. To guffaws from conventional academics, Mr Osmanagic says he has found some of his favourite things in his homeland.
Even if that proves to be nonsense, Visoko is enjoying the fuss. Dario Pekic, a hotelier, says it was dead until “the Pharoah” came along. “In the past five years we have not had 12,000 tourists—now we can have 5,000 a day.”
Mr Osmanagic says it struck him in April 2005 that a pyramid-shaped hill in Visoko was in fact a real pyramid. Then, he says, he realised that there were two others nearby. Digging began in earnest this April, and the discoveries certainly give rise to some interesting questions.
On one “pyramid” Mr Osmanagic appears to have unearthed large slabs of what he says is ancient concrete, and on another what look like paved walkways. Bosnians have overcome their usual scepticism, and happy coachloads of them are descending on Visoko. Stalls sell “Pharaoh Osmanagic” T-shirts and model pyramids. Restaurants serve pyramid-shaped pizzas.
Mr Osmanagic's theories sound fantastical. He believes that the biggest pyramid is one-third taller than Egypt's Great Pyramid, and that they were built by an ancient civilisation 12,500 years ago. “Yes,” says Mr Osmanagic, who has been denounced by Bosnian archaeologists as a hallucinating lunatic, “we are rewriting the history of the world.” Indeed. Mr Osmanagic, who has also written about survivors from the mythical island of Atlantis who built pyramids in Central America—and about Hitler escaping in the direction of the Antarctic in 1945—says his enemies are just jealous.
In Sarajevo, sophisticated Bosnians squirm with embarrassment over the pyramid story. “It makes me ashamed to be Bosnian,” says Hrvoje Batinic, of the Open Society Fund, an NGO. But others say that, even if Mr Osmanagic has not discovered pyramids, he is on to something. And Elma Kovacevic, a volunteer in Mr Osmanagic's team, says breezily: “The pyramids will help us speed the development of the economy, and when we have done that the EU will accept us.” Stranger things have happened.