by Hristo Matanov; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

A brief guide to Bulgaria`s controversial history

from thracians.jpg

You don't need to live long in Bulgaria to learn from your Bulgarian friends or from whatever scarce English language brochures you can get your hands on that the country boasts a rich history and an invaluable cultural heritage. It has been the birthplace of incredible generals and remarkable statesmen, an outpost against every foreign invasion into Europe and the cradle of at least a couple of great civilisations. The fact may be that before coming here you had never heard of Krum the Terrible, Simeon the Great, Seuthus III, Vasil Levski's progressive liberalism or the first computer invented by John Atanasoff.

In 12 successive issues, and one of Bulgaria's leading historians, Professor Hristo Matanov, will tell you about the key events in the country's history. Informative, objective and devoid of the pathetic patriotism of the kind that sadly prevails in Bulgaria of the 21st Century, Bulgaria: From Thracians to NDK is the ultimate guide to this country's turbulent and often controversial history.


Barbarians: this is what the Thracians were to the ancient Greeks, who could not fathom their habit of drinking undiluted wine from garish golden bowls. But they were also an important neighbour who could not be disregarded in the political and economic games of antiquity. Besides, their lands were the birthplace of Dionysus and mythical musician Orpheus. For the Romans, the Thracians were yet another people subdued by their power and a source of taxes, soldiers and slaves, some of whom, like Spartacus, however, were able to create quite a turmoil.

After such a turbulent history, though the Thracians were so exhausted demographically that the Slavs and the Proto-Bulgarians who settled on their territory in the 5th-7th Centuries faced little resistance and had no problem in assimilating the local population. Consequently, few people today, apart from the Bulgarians, know about the existence of this ancient people. The occasional moments of publicity, like the international exhibitions of their gold treasures, have not made the Thracians famous enough yet. This is also evident from the Hallmark TV movie about the quest of the Argonauts. In it, Orpheus was black!

The Oldest Gold in Europe

In 1972 a group of people working on the shores of Lake Varna noticed several strange gold objects in the earth dug out by their steam shovel. In those days the hysteria about the ancient roots of Bulgarian history, orchestrated by the Communist regime, still had not reached its peak and treasure hunting had not completely disappeared. The construction workers did not realise what they were looking at. Fortunately, they phoned the local musuem archaeologists. And there they had it - the oldest processed gold in the world, 7,000 years after it was crafted.

Varna gold treasure

The first finds unearthed at Varna were a hitherto unseen sceptre with a gold-plated hilt and huge golden bracelets. Thorough excavations began immediately and each day brought even more extraordinary discoveries. The scientific community was stunned: the artefacts from the Chalcolithic necropolis (c. 5000 BC) were revealing, piece by piece, astonising information about the people who'd owned them.

In fact, only a few of the 300 graves contained gold, but it was in impressive amounts. The skeletons' necks were sprinkled with hundreds of gold beads which were once necklaces and there were bracelets on their arms and tiaras on their heads. The graves were full of decorations which once adorned the clothes. There was also gold on the exterior of the earthenware pots left there as gifts. Archaeologists discovered that the people buried near Varna also valued bracelets made of the Mediterranean Spondilus shells, which could only have reached the shores of the Black Sea if imported intentionally.

The discoverer of the oldest gold, Ivan Ivanov

The discoverer of the oldest gold, Ivan Ivanov

Some of the richest graves, however, were not the resting places of people but of primitive clay masks, on top of which there was gold jewellery and ornamentation. Were these cenotaphs the symbolic tombs of gods or did they belong to monarchs who had died far from their native land? There is still no answer to this question but the finds from Varna show that the people who created the necropolis had a developed social and religious structure. On top of the social pyramid there was a king who had religious power too and a small group of trusted "aristocrats".

The common people were horsemen and stock-breeders, farmers, sailors and pottery and gold jewellery artisans.

These people, who inhabited the area of the present-day Black Sea coast 7,000 years ago and were skilled metal-workers and builders of well-planned and fortified settlements, were one of the earliest European civilisations. But what is their connection to the Thracians? Some theories claim that the Thracians, an Indo-European tribal group that was formed in 30th-20th Centuries BC, were the descendants of the mysterious people who inhabited the area around what is Varna today.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts

The Thracians did not have a written language, so most of the information we have about them comes from the Greeks.

Magnificent horses and rich armour: this is enough for the Thracian king Rhesus to be given a place in Homer's Iliad. Thus the ruler of the lands between Gallipoli and the lower reaches of the Maritsa became a man of whom the ethnonym "Thracian" was used. Today it is thought that this race of people inhabited the area between the South Carpathian Mountains, the Aegean Sea and northwest Asia Minor.

According to Homer, "Rhesus is the son of Eioneus. His horses are the finest and strongest that I have ever seen. They are whiter than snow and fleeter than any wind that blows. His chariot is bedecked with silver and gold, and he has brought his marvellous golden armour, of the rarest workmanship - too splendid for any mortal man to carry, and meant only for the gods." (Iliad, X, 435) Despite his impressive weapons, the king, who fought on the side of the Trojans, was apparently a poor warrior, because he was easy prey for the cunning of Odysseus and Diomedes.

Bellicosity was only one of the qualities the Thracian kings must have had at the time the Mycenaean Civilisation flourished in neighbouring Greece (18th-12th Centuries BC). Besides political, they also had priestly rights which had to be validated every year. The rituals included ceremonies with rain water, blood of a sacred animal, honey, milk and olive oil and were carried out in special shrines.

The social and religious structure of the Greek and Thracian societies in the second half of the second millennium BC was very similar. But the two nations did not feel a part of the same community, as is obvious from the fact that in the war for Ilion the Thracians took the side of the Trojans, who were the archenemies and competitors of the Greeks. The reason for this political decision is thought to have been their cultural and linguistic kinship with the Asia Minor people. The same thing happened in the 5th Century BC in the Greco-Persian Wars, when the Thracian tribes living on the Aegean coasts allied with the Persians.

After the end of the Mycenaean era, during the so-called Dark Age of Greece, the relations between the two peoples remain unclear. But their association obviously became more active with the Greek colonisation of the coasts of the Aegean, Marmora and Black Seas in the 8th-6th Centuries BC, when grain, slaves, timber and precious metals from their territories proved vital because of the limited natural resources of Greece. As a result of this involvement a cultural and economic symbiosis was formed, which saw its height in the Hellenistic age. The Thracians gradually became part of the economic, political and cultural life of the ancient world, but remained "barbarians" to the Greeks and Romans till their end.

The Tip of the Iceberg

4,000 years ago the Thracian king and musician Orpheus went down to Hades's kingdom of the underworld to claim back his beloved Eurydice and thus made such an impression on the Greeks that he found a place in their mythology. The Thracians never developed a written language of their own and for this reason the only source of information about their early kings is the Greeks. They often distorted this information and recorded only what they found scandalous or curious.

In 1860, Goustave Moreau imagined Orpheaus in a very different way from the Thracians

In 1860, Goustave Moreau imagined Orpheaus in a very different way from the Thracians

This is why the only Thracian kings from the Mycenaean age mentioned in Homer's saga and mythological tales went through extraordinary trials. iomedes of Thrace won his 15 minutes of glory when Heracles stole his mares as the eighth of his Twelve Labours; Lycurgus was blinded by Dionysus because he ordered his men to uproot all vine plants; and Phineus was harassed by the Harpies on orders from the gods until Jason and his Argonauts freed him from the curse.

It may be argued how real these semi-mythical characters were. The first relatively reliable accounts of the Thracian rulers appeared with the access that Greek merchants and military leaders gained to inland Thrace and the increased contacts between the two peoples. Thracian kings would often fight with one another involving the Greek poleis in their conflicts. Sometimes, a better politician and general amongst them would manage to unite several tribes under his rule and become a factor that the ancient world had to take into account. Such was the case with the Bessi, who lived in the Rhodope Mountains. In the 6th Century BC they consolidated the territories of almost all of present-day south Bulgaria and the northern shore of the Aegean Sea.

The most remarkable example in this respect is the Odrysian Kingdom, which appeared capable of uniting the Thracians for a short period after the Greco-Persian Wars of 490-480 BC. The Odrysians lived in the area between the Rhodope, Sakar, Strandzha and the eastern part of the Balkan Mountains and the valleys of the Maritsa and the Tundzha and, according to Thucydides, the first ambitious ruler of this tribe was King Teres. He lived for 92 years, an unbelievable age in those days, and after his death the throne passed consecutively to his sons Sparadokos and Sitalkes. The latter was not afraid to lead an active foreign policy and took part in the Peloponnesian War in alliance with Athens. But the real growth of the kingdom came in the reign of Kotys (383-360 BC). After establishing control over Hellespont (the present-day Dardanelles) and the Thracian Chersonese (the Gallipoli Peninsula) and thus over the shipments of grain from the Black Sea area to Athens, he became one of the most important and hated people in Greece.

In its heyday the Odrysian Kingdom reigned over most of the lands inhabited by Thracians. The only tribes outside its rule were the Bessi, the Triballi in what is today northwestern Bulgaria, the Medi in southwestern Bulgaria and the Thracians in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor. The gradual decline of the state began with Kotys' successor, Cersobleptes, who found it hard to repel the attacks of the new power rising in the west, Philip II's Macedonian army. However, the Odrysian Kingdom managed to survive until 45 AD, when it was incorporated in the Roman Empire.

The Thracians had the potential to establish a large and strong kingdom, but the unwillingness of the numerous aristocratic dynasties to cede their power to another, proved stronger than the benefit to all. This was noted by Herodotus in the 5th century BC. According to him, the Thracian people were the most numerous in the world after the Indians and if they had one head or were agreed among themselves, they would greatly surpass all other nations. "But such union is impossible for them, and there are no means of ever bringing it about. Herein therefore lies their weakness."

Valley? What Valley?

Even if you haven't been to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, you have certainly heard of it - at least because of Tutankhamun's golden mask discovered in his untouched burial chamber. But you may not know that Bulgaria also has its Valley of the Thracian Kings, where hundreds of monarchs are entombed. The golden mask of one of them, who was buried in the Svetitsata tumulus, was found in 2004.

Burial mounds near Kazanlak

Burial mounds near Kazanlak

The Valley of the Thracian Kings is in fact a nickname coined by the media to designate the area around present-day Kazanlak because of the large number of barrows with rich tombs in them. Many of them, however, just like in Egypt, have been robbed by treasure hunters and for this reason often the only sign of past luxury is the murals, such as those in the Kazanlak and Ostrusha tombs.

One of the largest and richest tombs was discovered in the Golyamata Kosmatka tumulus near Shipka. It was built at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 4th Century BC and with its three chambers and a corridor (called "dromos") is 25 m, or 76 ft, long. When the archaeologists excavating the barrow in 2004 entered the first chamber of the tomb, they gasped at the rare sight - the intact burial of a noble Thracian, probably a king. The finds were breathtaking: over 70 bronze and noble metal artefacts, amongst which were a golden wreath with oak leaves and a silver clam-shaped receptacle.

The most astounding one, however, was unearthed in the burial mound, under a pile of stones. It was the bronze head of a man with eyes of semi-precious stones. Some experts claim that such an exceptional work of art could only have been made by Phidias, the sculptor who created one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, or at least a master from his school.

The incredible luck that the archaeologists had had became evident in the excavations of the other two chambers. Both of them were robbed, probably in antiquity. A large fire had also irrevocably damaged the frescoes on the walls of the corridor, which was full of gravel and earth when the tomb was discovered. The majestic facade, however, was completely intact and though it can't compare to the architectural achievements of the Greeks, it reveals that the Thracians were skilful builders too.

Georgi Kitov, "Indiana Jones"

Any time that archaeologist Professor Georgi Kitov makes one of his stunning discoveries in the Thracian tombs, for which he has been dubbed "Bulgaria's Indiana Jones", it gives rise to a heated public debate.

Georgi Kitov

Georgi Kitov with what is believed to be the gold burial mask of Thracian King Theres

Over the past 35 years, the controversial scientist has excavated dozens of tombs on Cape Kaliakra, in the areas of Troyan, Teteven, Lukovit and Maglizh and brought to light some of the most astounding monuments in recent years: the tomb/temple near Starosel, the mural-covered tomb in Aleksandrovo and the treasures from Svetitsata and Golyamata Kosmatka near Kazanlak. An outspoken enemy of treasure hunters, Kitov often publicly accuses the Bulgarian governments of not doing anything about them.

He is ready to go to extremes to save the Thracian cultural heritage - even if this means breaking the rules of archaeology, where slow, meticulous work with a brush and a trowel is particularly important for preserving everything, including the tiniest pieces of information. Some of Kitov's colleagues can't accept his methods of digging the barrows with excavators and bulldozers.

Kitov himself says: "I am a hero for some and a villain for others. There are people who extol me because of doing so much for the Thracians; there are also people who think I destroy the mounds. Anybody who has come to my excavations has seen that I work very carefully and I do not endanger the archaeological material in any way."

Silver shell

A silver ''shell'' unearthed near Kazanluk. Thracian elders loved luxury

The King Is Having Fun

If we ignore the tedious duties of Thracian kings, like waging wars or conducting negotiations with Greek poleis, their lifestyle can be defined as particularly pleasurable.

Here is how the Greek writer Athenaeus described the diversions of Kotys I, King of the Odrysians: "Kotys, more than any other king that had arisen in Thrace, directed his career towards the enjoyment of pleasures and luxuries, and as he went about the country, wherever he discovered places shaded with trees and watered with running streams, he turned these into banqueting places." He made a most sumptuous feast, as if the goddess Athena was to marry him, and even prepared a nuptial bed in a fine chamber and, "well gone in drink", waited for the coming of the goddess. Befuddled, he sent one of his guards to see whether she had come into the chamber. When he told the king she had not yet come, Kotys shot him to death with an arrow. The same happened to the second guard he sent, but the third was clever enough to lie that Athena was there and waiting for him.

The common banquets that the kings gave for their guests and followers could seldom be defined as refined, despite the fact that they used gold and silver dishes. The host himself divided the bread into pieces and gave it out, then cut and handed out the meat and treated his guests to dark wine undiluted with water, which the guests usually drank from a single large vessel.

The amusements of the non-aristocrats sometimes also overstepped the bounds of decency - or at least the Greek idea of it. Solinus wrote: "When feasting, both men and women dance around the fire and throw the seeds of some Thracian herbs into it. Befuddled by the fumes, they consider it fun to imitate the drunk, their senses sharp with pain."

Paying Taxes

When you have a state to guard you against invaders, there is always a downside to the deal: taxes. The lands of the Thracians were rich enough to provide their rulers with a reasonable revenue, as Thucydides recorded: "The tribute from all the barbarian districts and the Hellenic cities, taking what they brought in under Seuthes, the successor of Sitalkes, who raised it to its greatest height, amounted to about 400 talents* in gold and silver." Along with taxes, there also appeared resourceful people who knew how to prompt the rulers into favourable action: a way of dealing with problems that has survived for centuries and still exists in present-day Bulgaria. "There were also presents in gold and silver to no less an amount, as well as fabric, plain and embroidered, and other articles, made not only for the king, but also for the Odrysian lords and nobles. For (with the Odrysians) it was impossible to get anything done without a 'present'."

*400 talents were equal to 10.5 tonnes of silver or 1.050 tonnes of gold at a rate of 1:10, gold to silver.

A Large Happy Family

The polygamy of the Thracians was one of the things that the Greeks did not (or did not want to) accept as civilised behaviour. Aristotle wrote: "Each Thracian has three or four wives and some have up to thirty, whom they use as slaves. They have intercourse with them regularly and in rotation: the one whose turn it is washes and serves her husband. Afterwards most wives sleep on the floor. If any wife is not content with her husband, her parents take her away and return the money he gave them on marriage. When the man dies, his heirs inherit his wives among other things."

Marriage was not a matter of love or romantic feelings. "Those who surpass the others with their beauty," Solinus wrote, "insist on being presented at public auction and marry not because of a man's character, but because of the price he pays. The less attractive women use their dowry to buy the man they want to form a bond with."

Beglik Tash, near Primorsko on the Black Sea coast, used to be off limits under Communism owing to the nearby party rest home

Beglik Tash, near Primorsko on the Black Sea coast, used to be off limits under Communism owing to the nearby party rest home

Not Exactly Stonehenge

Megaliths and dolmens might be distinctive of the Celts, but despite a certain lack of capacity, the Thracians knew how to build them too. There are still numerous traces of their penchant for this type of construction in the Strandzha and Rhodope Mountains. The reasons for this are related to their religion, attitude to death and the views of the local kings, who, like any ruler from any era and from any part of the world, needed something imposing to demonstrate their status.

The most common monuments of Mycenaean age Thrace were the dolmens: tombs with one or two chambers built of large stone blocks. They hardly compare to Stonehenge, but if you come across one of them, like the Dragon's Houses dolmen by the Begliktash rock sanctuary near Primorsko, for example, you will feel like an intrepid explorer.

In the age after the end of Mycenaean Thrace, the cult to the sun came into fashion. According to some theories, it was the result of a reform attributed to Orpheus and for this reason Thracian religion is referred to as "Orphism". Traces from the sun cult can still be found in the rock sanctuaries in the Rhodope Mountains, which are covered with circles chiselled in the stone. The best-known of them is on the outskirts of the village of Tatul near Momchilgrad.

The thousands of trapezoidal niches on the face of steep and solitary rocks in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, however, are still unexplained by science. One theory claims that the cutting of such a niche was a compulsory part of the rituals of giving Thracian boys the status of men.

The most popular monuments of Thracian culture are the tombs, covered with mounds of earth which may rise up to 10 m, or 30 ft. Built for the aristocracy, they were often used for the interment of several generations. Though not impressive in size, some of them boast remarkable architecture, like the tombs in Mezek near Svilengrad and Starosel near Hisarya. Others, like the tombs in Aleksandrovo and Kazanlak, feature rare examples of Thracian murals and the tomb in Sveshtari near Isperih has the most charming caryatids you could ever see.

Unfortunately, little is left of the fortified residences from where the Thracian aristocrats exercised their power. In the 4th Century BC the kings took the fashion of establishing cities named after themselves which was started by Alexander the Great and his successors. This is how Seuthopolis, the city of Seuthes III, got its name. Unfortunately, today you can't take a stroll in this Thracian city, designed in the Greek way with streets lined with buildings and crossing at right angles and with a strong citadel. Since 1954 Seuthopolis has been lying on the bottom of the Georgi Dimitrov, or as it is now called, Koprinka reservoir.

It took decades for archaeologists to begin work on two other Thracian cities, Cabyle near Yambol and the city by Sboryanovo near Isperih.

How to Meet Death

The bereavement of those we love is never a pleasant experience, but if we are to trust The Histories of Herodotus, the Thracian tribe of the Trausi, which inhabited the southern parts of the Rhodopes, was of the opposite opinion. "When a child is born all its kindred sit round it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that befalls mankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicing, and say that now he is free from a host of suffering, and enjoys complete happiness." The other Thracian tribes, however, buried their dead without rejoicing. "The wealthy ones are buried in the following fashion. The body is laid out for three days and during this time they kill animals of all kinds, and feast upon them, after first bewailing the departed," Herodotus wrote. "Then they either burn the body or else bury it in the ground. Lastly, they raise a mound over the grave, and hold games of all sorts, wherein a single combatant is awarded the highest prize."

The Slave Who Stirred Up the Empire

During one of the battles that marked the Roman conquest of Thrace, there was a young and strong nobleman among the captured local warriors. For these qualities he was sent to the gladiatorial school in Capua. His fate seemed clear: Spartacus was to take part in the gladiatorial games to amuse the citizens of a state governed according to the principle of panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses".

In 74 AD, however, Spartacus did something unpredictable. The improvised escape of several gladiators from the school soon escalated into a slave uprising which threatened the very existence of Rome, whose economy depended on the free labour. Some historians estimate that about 120,000 people took part in the rebellion - a huge force which under Spartacus' leadership won the battles against the Roman legions. But their bad organisation and the decision to remain in Italy instead of returning to their homelands doomed the slaves. Gradually a second Marcus Licinius Crassus drew away and isolated Spartacus' army in southwestern Italy, cutting off all escape routes with sturdy fortifications.

Spartacus and his army managed to overcome them, albeit suffering heavy losses. When he saw that defeat was inevitable, the former gladiator killed his horse and rushed to the Roman legionaries and thus met his death. The 6,000 captured insurgents, who were not lucky enough to die in the battle, were crucified along the road from Capua to Rome.

Is There Water in the Wine?

The gift that Odysseus received from the Thracian priest Maron was twelve amphorae with undiluted wine. "And whenever he drank the honeyed red wine, filling a cup he poured it into twenty measures of water, and a marvellous sweet smell rose from the mixture." This fact was notable enough to be recorded by Homer not only because Maron had overcome his notorious parsimony which made him keep the amphorae for himself, but also because of the good reputation that the "barbarian" wines had with the Greeks. After all, they believed that Dionysus, the god of wine, was born in Thrace.

Тhe Panaguyrishte treasure weighs over 6 kilos

Тhe Panaguyrishte treasure weighs over 6 kilos

What the Greeks could not swallow was the "uncivilised" habit of the Thracians of drinking their wine undiluted with water. The "barbarians" had other deviations from good manners too: they drank from wide bowls trying to down the contents in one gulp.

Besides wine, the Thracians also made a low-alcoholic drink from barley. Similar to beer, it was called bryton by the Greeks. In some areas they also brewed parabie, a drink from millet resembling in taste the boza you can buy in any pastry shop today.

Cruel Genes

The culture shock felt by the Greeks on meeting the barbaric Thracians is sometimes hard to explain away as mere prejudice. Athenaeus told of a cruel diversion: "Some of the Thracians play a game of hanging at their drinking parties. They fix a round noose to a high point, exactly beneath which they place a stone which is easily turned round when any one stands upon it and then they cast lots. He who draws the lot stands upon the stone holding a sickle in his hand, puts his neck into the halter and then another person comes and moves the stone. If the man who is suspended is not quick enough in cutting the rope with his sickle when the stone moves from under him, he is killed: and the rest laugh, thinking his death good sport."

Gods with Greek Names

Ares, Dionysus, Artemis, Apollo And Hermes: the Greek names hide gods from the Thracian pantheon. The reason is again the lack of a Thracian writing system. When the Greeks tried to describe the Orphic religion, they discovered some similarities between their gods and those of the Thracians. This is why Herodotus said that the Thracians worshipped Ares, Dionysus and Artemis, whom they called Bendis. Hermes was the deity of the kings who "always swear by his name and declare that they are themselves sprung from him." However, the Greek historian failed to mention the sun god Apollo, whose cult was widely popular, or the Thracian Zeus who was undoubtedly worshipped in the 1st Century BC.

At the end of the Hellenistic age and the enforcement of Roman rule, another deity became popular too: the Thracian horseman. Named with the collective Greek name Heros in accompanying inscriptions, it appeared on votive tablets and tombstones throughout Thrace. The Greeks themselves believed that some of their own gods had Thracian origin. Amongst them were Ares, the blood-thirsty god of war; Dionysus, the god of vegetation and fertility; Artemis (Bendis), the goddess of the animal world; and Orpheus. The Thracian pantheon, as it seems, was closely linked to the Greek one, but this does not mean that the two religious systems were identical.

One way of illustrating the differences is the attitudes that the Greeks and the Thracians had towards sacrifice. It was the basic way to communicate with the gods for both peoples, but, according to Greek sources, besides fruit and animals, the Thracians sometimes offered human sacrifices. "The offering, whether man or beast, was hung from a tree and they threw spears at it. Those who managed to hit it believed that the god had accepted their offering: those who didn't, had to prepare another sacrifice," tells Xenophon of Ephesus (2nd Century AD).

Fortunately, the part of the Thracian beliefs which has survived in Bulgarian folk culture despite the Slavic and Proto-Bulgarian invasions and the adoption of Christianity in the 9th Century, is not so cruel. The kukeri, who dance in winter to bring about good health and fertility, and Trifon's Day, the holiday to celebrate wine and vine-growing, are leftovers from the cult of Dionysus. The belief in the Thracian horseman has transformed into the worship of another horseman and a most popular saint, St. George. In more isolated areas in the country the tradition of leaving a small part of the crop without reaping it, as a sacrifice for the guardian spirit, has been active until only recently. The fire-dancers who step on live embers in restaurants along the southern Black Sea coast and in the villages of Brodilovo and Kosti in the Strandzha Mountain also recreate an ancient Thracian ritual for establishing contact with the gods.


Who Wants To Live Forever?

The Thracian belief that death was only the transition to a future immortality made them send messengers to the gods, even if this meant killing them first.

Kazanlak Tomb murals possibly depict bliss in the afterlife

Kazanlak Tomb murals possibly depict bliss in the afterlife

Herodotus told: "They think they do not really die, but that when they depart this life they go to Zalmoxis, who is also called Gebeleizis by some among them. To this god every five years they send a messenger, who is chosen by lot out of the whole nation, and charged to bear him their several requests. Their mode of sending him is this. A number of them stand in line, each holding in his hand three darts; others take the man who is to be sent to Zalmoxis, and swinging him by his hands and feet, toss him into the air so that he falls upon the points of the weapons. If he is pierced and dies, they think that the god is propitious to them but if not, they lay the fault on the messenger, who (they then say) is a wicked man: and so they choose another to send. The messages are given while the man is still alive."

The Holy City

Some 20 km, or 13 miles, northeast of Kurdzhali, 2,400 years ago Dionysus told Alexander the Great that he would conquer the world. Four centuries later, he made the same prophesy for the son of a Roman general and was right again: Octavian grew up to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

Archeologist Nikolay Ovcharov propounds it was at Perperikon that Dyonisus' orachcle foresaw the bright future of both Alexander the Great and Augustus

Archeologist Nikolay Ovcharov propounds it was at Perperikon that Dyonisus' orachcle foresaw the bright future of both Alexander the Great and Augustus

Or at least this is what some Bulgarian scholars believe. Cut in the rock, Perperikon had functioned as a shrine since the Chalcolithic Age in the 5th millennium BC, and is now regarded as one of the most probable sites of the Temple of Dionysus, which was famous in antiquity.

No matter whether this theory is correct, the rock complex with a hall, an altar, a water reservoir and a hundred-metre-long stairway hewn in stone was certainly an important political, economic and religious centre. It retained its significance in the Roman age too, when it was transformed into a city with fortified walls, palaces and outbuildings. Supposedly, it was the royal capital of the Thracian tribe of the Bessi. Perperikon was destroyed and burnt down by the Goths during their invasion in 378 AD and, though its walls were rebuilt by Emperor Justinian, in the 8th-9th Centuries, the city, which was already the centre of a diocese, was gradually moved to the foot of the hill.

Hidden Treasures of Thrace

Golden rhytons and drinking vessels and silver bowls: the Greeks regarded them as a "barbarian" luxury, but for the Thracian kings valuable dishes were part of their royal status. Besides, the golden vessels were used in their rituals too.

This is why the workshops of the local artisans and the best craftsmen in the Greek poleis often got commissions for expensive celebratory weapons; armour and helmets which were of no use in battle, chariot decorations, horse harness trimmings and dish sets. Their clients probably did not worry much about the price of precious metals. The extraction of gold and silver from the Thracian mountains and rivers, like the Iskar, the Struma, the Ogosta and those in the area of Chirpan and Ivaylovgrad, was developed to impressive heights and was one of the reasons for the Macedonian invasion plans.

Thracian treasure

Most Thracian treasures were found by chance and at a relatively low depth, a sign that they were hidden during a war or another calamity or buried for ritual purposes, as a sacrifice or to be used by the dead in their afterlife. The latest discoveries, however, such as those made by Georgi Kitov in the Valley of the Thracian Kings in 2004 and by Daniela Agre in the tumulus near Sinemorets in 2006, are the result of planned excavations.

When in 1924 two brothers from Valchitran near Pleven found 13 strange-looking objects, seemingly made of copper because of the dirt on them, they brought to light one of the most mysterious Thracian treasures. Scientists still wonder about the use of the large kantharos, the one-handled cups, the five discs and the strange three-part vessel, all made of pure gold in 1400-1100 BC. Some believe the objects were used in a ritual related to the sun cult.

Equally mystifying is the treasure of horse tack made of gilded silver which was found in a bronze vessel in 1963 in the village of Letnitsa near Lovech. The love and sex scenes depicted on some of the plates can be interpreted as a symbolic tale of the lifestyle of Thracian kings. But because the treasure, crafted at the time of King Kotys (383-360 BC) is incomplete (the villagers who discovered it divided the finds amongst themselves and only 23 of them were located and recovered by the police later), such interpretations are largely speculative.

Silver wine drinking vessel from Borovo treasure

Silver wine drinking vessel from Borovo treasure

At first glance, the seven gold rhytons, an amphora and a phiale with a total weight of 6.164 kg, or 217 oz, discovered in 1949 near Panagyurishte look simply like a beautiful dish set for the feasts of a Thracian king. Their owner, who lived in the 4th Century BC, probably used them for ritual purposes too. Whatever their function was, he deemed the set so important that he ordered it made in a goldsmith's workshop in the town of Lampsakos on the Asian coast of the Dardanelles.

But Thracian treasures are not only beautiful exhibits used by Bulgaria to publicise its ancient history with travelling exhibitions. They are a valuable source of information. Some of the 165 gold and silver jugs, phiales and cups from the treasure of Rogozen, near Vratsa, as well as the silver rhytons and a jug from Borovo, near Ruse, bear the name of the Odrysian king Kotys. Because these lands were never under the control of the Odrysian Kingdom, the silver vessels were probably a gift from Kotys to the local kings.

Under Roman Sandal

When the Roams began their invasion in the Thracian lands in the 2nd Century BC, the independent nature of the tribes went against them. Unable to form even a temporary union against their common enemy, they would gradually become the next population conquered by the ambitious empire.

The beginning of the end had begun, however, back in the second half of the 4th Century, when, though only for a short while, Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great subdued the Thracians. The tribes overthrew the foreign rule straight after Alexander's death, only to start fighting with varying success against Lysimachus, the general who received the Balkans upon the division of the Macedonian superstate.

Peace and cooperation were not on the list of objectives of the Thracian kings after Lysimachus died, either - a fact that the Romans readily took advantage of.

The stubborn resistance of the Thracian tribes could not overcome the Roman war machine. Thus Herodotus' words were proved again: though numerous, the Thracians could not repel a ruthless and well organised aggressor. The first to fall were the Thracian lands in the south, but the north soon followed suit. The glory of becoming their final conqueror went to a Marcus Licinius Crassus in the years 29-27 BC, and complete Roman control was established during the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), the same Augustus whose future was predicted in the Thracian Temple of Dionysus.

In the 1st Century AD the Thracian lands were divided into Roman provinces. Their names and boundaries changed over the centuries, but generally the area between the Balkan Mountains and the Danube was known as Moesia and the one south of the mountains as the province of Thrace. The good organisation enforced by the Romans allowed them to have control over the Thracian territories much longer than the Macedonian kings. The legions deployed along the Danube proved not only a reliable defence against external enemies and internal rebellions, but also a promoter of Roman civilisation. Soon cities of mixed populations inhabited by people from across the Empire sprang up by the military camps.

Gradually, two new languages became established and used by all official institutions: Latin in Moesia and Greek in Thrace. Under the influence of the central government, the Thracian aristocrats were Romanised and included in the local authorities. This wise Roman policy provided peace in this part of the empire.

It continued until the 3rd Century when the first barbarian raids (like the Greeks, the Romans also considered anybody not part of their civilisation a "barbarian") of the Marcomanni, the Quadi, the Sarmatians, the Crimean Goths and the Heruli across the Danube began. The empire was gripped by a crisis, which despite the temporary stability under Diocletian and Constantine the Great, led to its disintegration into a western and eastern part at the end of the 4th Century. As a result of this as well as the continuing barbarian invasions and plagues, the Thracians were too weak to resist their new conquerors: the Slavs and the Proto-Bulgarians. They gradually settled in the Thracian lands in the 5th-7th Century to establish their own state and in turn begin incessant wars over the Thracian territories with the successor to the Roman Empire, Byzantium.



c. 4000 BC The earliest cities appear in South Mesopotamia

3000-2800 BC Upper and Lower Egypt unite

c. 2800 BC The first pyramid is built, that of Djoser

2500-1500 BC The Mohenjo-daro culture flourishes in India

Middle of the 2nd millennium BC Flourish of the Mycenaean culture Linear A and B scripts employed

18th-12th Century BC The first dynasty in China

c. 1500-1000 BC The Vedas written in India

c. 1275 BC The Mycenaean Greeks conquer Troy

10th Century BC An Israeli kingdom in Judea. King David. Israel and Judea unite

11th-10th Century BC The first poleis in Greece

8th-7th Century BC The first Olympic Games and the beginning of Greek colonisation of Thracian coasts

753 BC Rome established

6th Century BC The first states in North and Northeast India established

587-586 BC Jerusalem destroyed by the Assyrians

557-479 BC Confucius lives and works in China

525 BC Egypt is conquered by the Persians

450-445 BC The Celts cross the English Channel and colonise the British Isles

431 BC The Peloponnesian Wars begin

356 BC Philip II's son, Alexander the Great, is born

54 BC Julius Caesar's campaign in Britain

14 AD Roman Emperor Augustus dies

114 AD Emperor Trajan ordered the construction of Trajan's Column in Rome to commemorate his victories over the Dacians

313 AD With a special edict, Emperor Constantine the Great declares that Christianity has equal rights with other religions in the Roman Empire


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