Roman obelisk remains one of Bulgaria's most enigmatic heritage sites
North-central Bulgaria is not famed for its historical landmarks. It is a region of rolling hills and soft valleys, of small forests and economically depressed villages and towns where, even on the brightest days, grey is the predominant colour. It is as if generations of people concluded that the landscape was good enough for farming, but not inspiring enough for the creation of something remarkable – a city, a temple, a legend.
As with most appearances, this one is deceptive. This region is the home of one of Bulgaria's most curious ancient monuments: an obelisk.
You will find it in a field near the road between the villages of Musina and Lesicheri, near the sleepy town of Pavlikeni.
The 13.8-metre column of carefully hewn blocks of local stone sits on a low height, protected by a wall of thick bushes. Nearby stands an overgrown mound.
The column is not signposted, but if you ask the locals they will tell you that it is Markov Kamak, or The Stone of Marko. A legend explains its existence: long ago Marko, the strongest and bravest man in Bulgarian folklore, fell in love with a girl. This girl fancied another man, but she nevertheless set a competition for her two suitors: the one who could construct the biggest and tallest stone pillar for her would be her husband. Marko, of course, outdid himself and his pillar dwarfed that of his rival. The girl, however, still wanted the other man, and named him the winner. Enraged, Marko smashed the smaller pillar and went on his way, leaving behind the larger obelisk, as a monument to a time when strength was just not enough to get the girl.
Until recently, the remains of another obelisk were clearly visible beside the pillar you see today.
Early on historians became interested in the obelisk, and in 1871 the Austro-Hungarian archaeologist Felix Kanitz surveyed the site and identified the pillars as the remains of the aqueduct that had brought water to the nearby Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum. Later in the 19th century, the Škorpil Brothers, the Czechs who became the fathers of Bulgarian archaeology, theorised that the pillars belonged to a colonnade built at the beginning of the 2nd century to honour the victory of Emperor Trajan (98-117) over the Dacians.
Several decades later, the enigmatic remains were almost lost forever. In 1937, locals used the broken pillar and the bits of architectural fragments that lay around to pave a local road. The larger pillar was targeted in 1948, as it was deemed to be an obstacle to the ploughing of the bigger plots of land in the newly established co-operative in Lesicheri. The villagers tried to pull it down with ox carts and, when they failed, they tried to blow it up it. Happily, they did not succeed.
Proper excavations of the site began in the 1990s, and it was then that the obelisk was properly explained.
It belonged, together with its lost twin, to the family mausoleum of Quintus Julius, a priest of the cult to the emperor, who lived in the 2nd century in Nicopolis ad Istrum, near the modern Nikyup village.
The mausoleum was an imposing building. It had a pediment of stone, and two statues of lions guarded its entrance. There were probably statues of the deceased, together with one of the Thracian God Rider. As time passed, and the memory of those interred in the mausoleum faded, the locals began to use the building as a heroon, or a small shrine to a mythical ancestor. The temple survived until the 4th century, when it was possibly destroyed by over-zealous Christians – and remained, alone and overlooked, remembered only in legends, until modern times.
Vibrant 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