Tourist crowds tend to spoil places and Begliktash is not an exception. Located near Primorsko, on Bulgaria's crowded southern Black Sea coast, the Thracian megalithic shrine gets crammed in the holiday season.
There are package tourists, there are independent visitors, and there are garish and sometimes rather kitschy reenactments of ancient Thracian rituals organised by the local authorities.
We are yet to learn (but probably never will) what the actual ancient Thracian rituals were like. The people that inhabited what is now Bulgaria from the 2nd millennium BC to Late Antiquity left no written heritage about their life, beliefs and gods. The only remaining witnesses of it are biased and/or misinformed Greek and Roman sources, a handful of rituals surviving in Bulgarian traditional culture, like the Nestinari firewalking, some amazing gold treasures and tombs, and a number of rock sanctuaries.
Begliktash is among the most impressive. Come in winter and you will find it austere, magnificent and full with the atmosphere it lacks with the summer crowds of tourists, history buffs and amateur actors stuttering to portray priests and priestesses.
Begliktash stands in a meadow that opens up dramatically before you after a 40-minute walk through the oak forest of the Strandzha. Scattered seemingly at random, like the abandoned building blocks of a giant baby, some of the rocks which make up Begliktash weigh up to 150 tonnes.
While millennia ago the Thracians used the site as a shrine, under the Ottomans it already meant no more to the local people than the rocks, or Taşlar, where the Beglik, or sheep tax, was collected. Hence the name Begliktash.
The site was first discovered by Czech historian and archaeologist Karel Škorpil at the end of the 19th century. However, the wider public only became aware of the existence of this fascinating place as late as the early 2000s. The reason? During Communism, Begliktash was in the grounds of the Perla Residence, the off-limits hunting-and-vacation resort for high-ranking Communist apparatchiks.
The first excavations of Begliktash began in 2003. Most of the artefacts pointed to fertility rites, solar and chthonic cults: stone axes, ceramic fragments, flint knives and arrows, charred deer bones. The researchers also tried to identify the different parts of the sanctuary and to give them meaning. Besides the hollows of ritual basins and canals over the surface of the sanctuary, some of the rocks and boulders were interpreted as being an altar, a throne, a menhir, a dolmen. A huge flat rock was identified as the bed where the priest would perform sacred sex in a ritual aimed at reviving nature. The so-called Great Dolmen, an imposing structure – 12m long, 9m wide and 5m high – is believed to be a royal tomb.
As in other places connected with the Thracian heritage, many historians disagree with these interpretations, but the claims are so fascinating that, combined with the sheer size of the boulders, they turned Begliktash into one of the most popular Thracian shrines in the country. Today the site is widely advertised as "The Bulgarian Stonehenge," repeated ad nauseam by tourist websites, blogs and the sensationalist media.
But did the ancient Thracians really make Begliktash, collecting the huge rocks from all over the forest to create an elaborate megalithic complex?
Well, actually not. Begliktash is a natural phenomenon. The Thracians made their shrine there only because they were impressed by it and saw in it the manifestation of divine powers.
Under Communism, Begliktash was a part of the Perla government residence where the Bulgarian Communist Party elite used to holiday and hunt. The shrine was off-limits to ordinary Bulgarians
The boulder to the left was cut in two under Communism, when someone decided that it was an excellent source for... pavement stones
According to modern legends told and retold by tour guides, only people without sin (or excess weight, or claustrophobia) can squeeze through this narrow crevice. Modern tourism and alternative history have come up with "explanations" for each and every part of the shrine, seeing an altar here, a sundial there and astronomy charts everywhere
High Beam 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.