WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE

WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE

Fri, 07/03/2020 - 10:57

Enigmatic man-made rock niches defy explanation

Rock niches near Zhenda village

Rock niches near Zhenda village

When travelling around the Eastern Rhodope, you are bound to encounter this strange sight: on certain precipitous rocks, here and there, are scattered small, dark niches. Some are on their own, others form groups of dozens.

What are these strange niches, you might wonder. Nobody knows for sure, is the honest answer. The mystery of the rock niches that indent major cliffs in the Eastern Rhodope remains unexplained.

Less than a metre high, the niches are usually trapezoid, although you can encounter circular, rectangular or square ones. The most spectacular niches are high above ground, forcing you to crane your neck to see them, though many are found at ground level. More than 200 groups of niches have been discovered so far, with the biggest concentration in the Gluhite Kamani, Madzharovo and Valche Pole areas. Rock niches are a regular feature at rock shrines created by the ancient Thracians in the 1st millennium BC, but not all seem to belong to such places.

Rock niches near Dzhanka village

Rock niches near Dzhanka village

Of course, lack of information opens the door to speculation. Some scientists believe that the rock niches were made to hold the burial urns of cremated Thracians who could not afford the more expensive and prestigious rock tombs. Yet, the bases of many of the niches are angled upwards, making it impossible to put anything inside them. Others claim that the niches were hewn by adolescent Thracian boys as part of an initiation ceremony. According to a third hypothesis, the niches depict the stars and the constellations in the heavens, while a fourth proposes that they were some sort of map, indicating the whereabouts of ancient gold mines. According to yet another idea, the niches are scaled-down models of dolmens and rock tombs or, more interestingly, of the cave symbolising the womb of the Great Goddess.

Here is another theory: the niches were symbolic doors into the realm of the Great Goddess and her son and lover, the Great God, who, according to some historians, were the Thracians' main deities. The great majority of niches look to the south and east, maybe suggesting a sun cult, but many face north and west and are in places that rarely see the sun, including caves, to make such an interpretation credible.

Orlovi Skali, or Eagles Rocks, near Ardino

Orlovi Skali, or Eagles Rocks, near Ardino

Whatever the explanation, the presence of these niches at rock shrines, together with other carvings such as rock tombs, rock stairs and rock altars, indicate some ritual or religious activity.

Their geographical location is also curious. Rock niches are concentrated in the Eastern Rhodope along the course of the River Arda. They are rare in the rest of Bulgaria, but some researchers find some parallels to (much bigger and better shaped) niches in what used to be the ancient land of Phrygia, now in western Asia Minor in Turkey.

How the niches were created is another open question. An experiment with tools from the period has shown that it would take a day to carve a single niche into the rock. Those high above the ground might have been created by people standing on scaffolding, rather than hanging on ropes. In certain groups, the shapes of some niches look so similar that they might have been made by the same person.

The niches near Dazhdovnitsa village were cut as high as 45 meters above ground. They are among the highest rock niches discovered in Bulgaria so far

The niches near Dazhdovnitsa village were cut as high as 45 meters above ground. They are among the highest rock niches discovered in Bulgaria so far

Whatever their purpose or construction method, by the 5th century BC the Thracians stopped making niches – in the same way they stopped carving rock tombs. Why the change? No one can tell. The last person who knew the answer died centuries ago. What is left to modern researchers is to pick over scraps of facts and evidence, and to try to create of them a coherent picture of the past.

Niches dot the rock shrine at Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks. The sanctuary also includes two tombs, a staircase and a water cistern cut in the rocks, together with some temple buildings

Niches dot the rock shrine at Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks. The sanctuary also includes two tombs, a staircase and a water cistern cut in the rocks, together with some temple buildings 

Rock niches and tombs dot the environs of Dolno Cherkovishte village

Rock niches and tombs dot the environs of Dolno Cherkovishte village

Rock niches near Nochevo village

Rock niches near Nochevo village


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners


Issue 165 America for Bulgaria Foundation The Rhodope Thracian heritage Archaeology Bulgaria
0 comments

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Discover More

Madara Horseman
MADARA HORSEMAN
Bulgaria as a country, if not a state, has been around for a while.

veliko tarnovo 5.jpg
VELIKO TARNOVO: CITY OF A THOUSAND VISTAS
Each country has a handful of it-places. They are instantly recognisable from millions of fridge magnets and Instagram posts, and their history, with its tragedies and triumphs, is part of the national consciousness.

wondrous bridges.jpg
RHODOPE: WONDROUS BRIDGES
Dragons are imaginary creatures and geological processes are real, but the Wondrous Bridges in the Rhodope make believing in imaginary creatures easier.

Donkey Bulgaria
BULGARIA'S DONKEYS
When was the last time you saw a donkey when travelling in rural Bulgaria? For many, Bulgarians included, this is a pointless question.

lions bridge sofia 5.jpg
LIONS BRIDGE
Unlike most great cities, Sofia is located neither at a sea, nor near an important river. The Perlovska and the Vladayska, the two rivulets that skirt the northern, eastern and southern boundaries of the city centre, are too small to count.

The remains of the 1981 secret digs at Golyamo Gradishte peak
LAND OF FAKE MYSTERIES
"I dislike bringing people here." The voice of the guide from the tourist office in Malko Tarnovo drops, as we approach the summit of Golyamo Gradishte, the highest peak in the Bulgarian part of the Strandzha mountains. It is summer.

poppy.jpg
TOP 5 INSTAGRAMMABLE LOCATIONS
As Bulgaria and the world slowly come back to life after the Covid-19 pandemic travellers, visitors and expats prepare to put into practice the plans they had so many stay-at-home days to draw. Many can't wait to get on the road again.

nestinari-3.jpg
BULGARIA'S FIREWALKERS
Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country

eliezer-papo-grave_0.jpg
19TH CENTURY RABBI HALTS MAJOR EPIDEMIC
The coronavirus outbreak has stopped the world in its tracks and made the word quarantine a part of everyday life, and vocabulary.

haberlea-rhodopensis2.jpg
FLOWER OF IMMORTALITY
In myths, science and fiction, people have searched for immortality since time immemorial – pun not intended. So far, as much as we know, to no avail. However, a plant that is found exclusively in Bulgaria solved the problem millions of years ago.

3e1d29b65e89b5e0b3c1385d51031f62_XL.jpg
VALLEY OF THRACIAN KINGS
The Valley of Roses: Until recently, the picturesque valley between the Stara Planina and the Sredna Gora mountain ranges was known by this name, as it is the centre for the production of the famous Bulgarian attar of roses.

cb0e1b464e3b5c1afaf2aa277dff6070_XL.jpg
SATIRE, MUSIC & TAIL-LESS CATS
Bulgaria is hardly on the list of the world's most famous carnival destinations such as Rio, Venice and New Orleans, and even less famous local ones such as the carnivals in Greece.