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A Bulgarian in the lands of Assyria, Babylon and Chaldea

June 3, 2015

165 years since the birth of Peter Mateev

Peter Mateev was born on the 10th of February 1850 in the town of Kotel. When he was 11 years old he left for Istanbul, where he lived in his grandfather’s office. At first, Mateev studied at the Protestant college in Malta. After the college there was closed in 1865, he continued his education at Robert College. Mateev graduated from the Robert College in 1869 and immediately started work at the English post office in Istanbul. In 1876 Peter Mateev met George Smith, a specialist from the Department of Oriental studies at the British museum, who had deciphered “The Legend of Gilgamesh”. Smith had been sent as a correspondent of the British museum to undertake archaeological excavations in the capital of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh, at that time a part of the Ottoman Empire. In order to accomplish his work there, Smith needed an assistant and a translator, who was well grounded in the local administration. The Consulate-General of England recommended Peter Mateev to George Smith as the most appropriate person who would be able to accomplish this task.  Because of the fear for problems with the Ottoman authority due to his Bulgarian nationality, Peter Mateev was issued a passport with an English citizenship under the name Peter Mathewson. He accompanied George Smith in his last expedition to the lands of the ancient Assyria, Babylon and Chaldea.

On the 8th of March 1876 they sailed off the harbor in Istanbul passing through Izmir to reach the port of Alexandretta. They continued by land to the city of Aleppo in which surroundings, George Smith localized the ancient city of Carchemish. Floating downstream the Euphrates River, Smith and Mateev arrived in Baghdad on the 20th of April 1876. From there they bought a large quantity of tablets with cuneiform texts. The occurrence of political cataclysms in the Ottoman Empire at that time did the archaeological excavations in Nineveh impossible to be undertaken. After a month stay in Baghdad, Smith and Mateev were ready to sail off the port Basrah via the Suez channel. They were put under quarantine in Kurna due to the bursting out of epidemic cholera in the region. However, their stay there worsened the health of George Smith. Since the crates with the bought off cuneiform tablets had not been arrived yet until the day of their departure, Smith and Mateev returned to Baghdad. The crates were sent to the British museum by ship after the solving of the problems with the customs. Due to the Smith’s will to cross Nineveh anyway, together with Matteev they rode on horses to Aleppo. Passing through Mosul and Diyarbakir they met Bulgarian refugees. The tough journey, however, made George Smith to feel very exhausted and weak to move on. Peter Mateev went to Aleppo on his own, where he got in touch with the Consulate-General of England, and later together with a doctor Mateev went back to help Smith. He was transported to Aleppo but his body was too weak to withstand. George Smith died on the 19th of August 1876. After his return to Istanbul, Peter Mateev sent a detailed report on the George Smith’s activities done during their joint expedition to the British museum.    

At the end of the Russo-Turkish War Peter Matteev returned to Bulgaria where he took an active part in the social life. In 1887 he collaborated with Dr. Konstantin Stoilov in the selection of a Bulgarian Royal prince. He was a director of the Bulgarian posts and telegraphs until 1894. Mateev was a consul in Odrin for a short period. In 1904 he took a part in the World’s Fair in Saint Louise, the United States as a Bulgarian commissioner. Mateev was a diplomatist in Athena for a short period of time. After the end of the Balkan Wars and the World War I, Peter Matteev actively used his professional and private acquaintances in the attraction of the European and American public to support the Bulgarian idea. Peter Mateev donated resources for the erection of a community center and a library with a museum in his home town of Kotel. He died on the 28th of November 1943 at the age of 93.