Shrines, stone cities, tombs and rock sanctuaries make up strange yet fascinating heritage
Bulgarian incentive tourism is usually presented to foreigners as a blend of picturesque Revival Period villages and monasteries, Thracian tombs and treasures, and of course Rosa Damascena, the Bulgarian rose. The country, however, is also the home of megalithic monuments often over-looked as they are known mostly to history buffs. But they do make up a strange, yet fascinating heritage: in Bulgaria you can wander Indiana Jones-style around rock shrines and tombs, stone circles and dolmens, and stare at the mysterious outlines of solar circles and rock niches.
The earliest Bulgarian megaliths were created around 7,000-3,000 BC. Most historians are certain that the majority of the megaliths were built by the Thracians between the 2nd Millennium BC and the end of Antiquity in the 6th Century AD. The megaliths represent the Thracians religious beliefs that the universe is the creation of a Great Goddess and her divine son and lover, the Great God. Caves and darkness embodied her powers, as light and erect rocks did his. The Thracians also believed in Dionysus as the master of darkness, the underworld and divine madness. There was also a tiny elite of followers of Orpheus, who spread the faith in light and the sun.
The Thracians built their sanctuaries in places deemed to have special properties – odd-looking rocky hills or womb-shaped caves where they carved altars, niches and suns on the rocky surfaces. They buried their dead in rock tombs, dolmens or boulder graves. Rock was sacred, water was sacred, air was sacred, and the combination of all three was sacred, too.
The Thracians inhabited the eastern parts of the Balkans, between the Danube, the Carpathians and the Aegean. Many of their megalithic shrines were destroyed in Antiquity, and a great number were also plundered as late as the 20th Century. Today most of the survivors are preserved in the mountains of the Rhodope, the Sakar and the Strandzha.
Thracian megaliths have been known to historians for the past two centuries. Interest in them took off in the 1970s and became fashionable among history buffs in the 2000s, spread by archaeologists who made megaliths their cause célèbre.
Yet, most of the megalithic sites are still off the beaten track and finding them still has the aura of discovery.
Curiously, some rocks are still deemed sacred by Bulgarians of all religions. There are many chapels and Muslim shrines where Thracian ones used to exist, close to springs believed to have healing powers and strange rock formations, usually interpreted as the imprint of the foot of the Mother of Christ or of a Muslim sage in the rock.
The megalith near Buzovgrad is thought to have been used as an astronomical observatory
Rocky hills and plateaus were sacred for Thracians as manifestations of the divine principles of the universe. They carved steps and temple foundations on the most spectacular, and hewed canals and altars out of the rocky surface. Here, the pilgrims would pour wine, blood or water, and would insert in the rock crevices their offerings to the gods.
Probably the best known rock shrine in Bulgaria is Tatul near Kardzhali, where supposedly the head of Orpheus foretold the future. Others are Belantash near Asenovgrad; and Begliktash, in the Strandzha. Outside the south-east, there is the rock sanctuary on the Zaychi Vrah, or Rabbits Hill, above the ancient city of Cabyle, near Yambol. The megalith at Buzovgrad, in the Sredna Gora mountains, near Kazanlak, is another example, although archaeologists doubt it is man-made.
Thracians deified caves, too. The best evidence is a cave tellingly named The Womb. Situated near Kardzhali, it has a vagina-shaped entrance. The altar at the end of a 20-odd metre stone tunnel is lit by a ray of sunlight only in winter, a symbolical representation of the rebirth of spring.
An obvious question is what would Thracians do on the plain? The answer is: pit sanctuaries. These were huge places where devotees poured wine and blood, made offerings and sacrificed animals in pits in the ground. One of the biggest was discovered near Lyubimets during the construction of the highway to Istanbul, and was illegally destroyed by builders eager to continue work. Another victim is a rock shrine in Plovdiv, demolished in the 1990s by a developer to make room for a shopping centre.
The rock city near Kardzhali is an oddity. Situated on a peak overlooking a plain, it saw the first offerings placed in crevices here and there as early as the Neolithic times. In the Bronze Age, it had connections with the Minoan civilisation on Crete, and grew into a city and a shrine.
Whether Perperikon was the place of the famous oracle of Dionysus, where the glorious future of Alexander the Great and of Octavian Augustus was foretold, is a matter of speculation. What is certain is that Perperikon was a place of such importance that life here did not cease when Antiquity ended and Christianity arrived. Instead, the ancient sacred city was transformed into a bishop's residence. Perperikon remained a stronghold of Christianity until the Ottoman invasion.
Thracians in the Strandzha and the Sakar buried their dead in dolmens or in cheaper boulder graves. Many of these can be seen in the Propada necropolis and the Mishkova Niva locality, both near Malko Tarnovo.
Dolmen at Hlyabovo
Some of the dolmens were huge structures, with several chambers, antechambers and corridors. The best example is the dolmen near the village of Hlyabovo, near Topolovgrad. A strange dolmen, which is much higher than it is wide, can be seen at Begliktash.
Thracian dolmen entrances are very narrow, and it is still a mystery how the dead were squeezed inside. Thracians gave up dolmen-building during the 1st Millennium BC (although they continued with boulder graves until the end of Antiquity). As the centuries passed, however, the dolmens were not completely forgotten. Later generations robbed them, and with the advance of modern agriculture many dolmens were destroyed because they were an "obstacle" for tractors and ploughs. Dolmens also sneaked into local lore – not that long ago Bulgarians believed that benevolent dragons lived in them.
Until the discovery of a stone circle on a ridge by the Rhodope village of Dolni Glavanak in 1999, no one knew there was a cromleh in Bulgaria. Made of 15 rocks about 1.5 meters high, the stone circle at Dolni Glavanak is not extensive and was created in the 6-5th centuries BC. Why was it built is still unclear. Watching the sunrise to calculate sacred dates in the Thracian calendar is the usual explanation given to tourists.
Lone stones rising from the plain: the Thracians saw them as manifestations of the "male principle" in the universe and turned them into places of veneration. Even when the Thracians disappeared, an air of sanctity lingered around the stones, and today there are many localities called Pobit Kamak or Dikilitaş, both with the meaning in Bulgarian and Turkish of Set Up Rock. In Christian times, many were turned into votive stones dedicated to the patron saint of the village and local gatherings combining prayers and the slaughter of a lamb are still held around them.
You can find interesting menhirs at the village of Ovcharovo, near Simeonovgrad, and near Haskovo Spa. There are some in northern Bulgaria as well, by the villages of Petokladentsi, Stezherovo and Staroselovo. These are not signposted, so it is essential to ask locals for directions.
For some unknown reason, the Thracians in the eastern Rhodope hewed trapezoid niches in vertical rocks. Many of these are on precipitous heights, and method of their creation is as mysterious as their purpose. There are many theories for their existence, from coming of age initiation rites to star maps to indications of gold mines. The most unlikely answer to the question of how the rock niches were made is levitation.
Hundreds of niche clusters have been identified. Some of the most spectacular are Hambar Kaya locality near Madzharovo, Dazhdovnitsa near Kardzhali, Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks, near Lyubimets, and Orlovi Skali, or Eagles Rocks, near Ardino.
These are almost everywhere – from places like Paleokastro near Yambol to the Kamaka, near Malko Tarnovo. They all look the same: great circles hewn in the rocks. Often they form groups, and it is not unusual to find circles overlapping one another. Why were they made? Most probably they are yet another way to show devotion to the light of the sun and the Great God, and the union between the mighty rocks and the Great Goddess.
Thracians, in common with many other ancient peoples, venerated caves as the representation of the womb of the Great Goddess, as places signifying the eternal rebirth of the world and – hopefully – of the souls of those initiated into the Orphic mysteries. When there were no caves, they carved graves and tombs in the rocks, and buried initiates in them. Few could afford to indulge in the "secret knowledge", and this explains why many rock tombs form part of sanctuaries.
The most famous are in Tatul. You can find more in the Gluhite Kamani rock shrine and around Hambar Kaya near Madzharovo.
Faces, turtles, stars
Archaeologists are still unconvinced, but history buffs claim that Thracians were into monumental sculpture. They would spot a particularly curious-looking rock, deify it and carve it further, making its peculiar shape more pronounced. This was how the strong and sturdy faces of men appeared on the rocks of Belantash and of the recently discovered rock shrine by the village of Dolno Dryanovo, near Gotse Delchev.
Thracians not only indulged in humanoid forms. They carved whole menageries of snakes, frogs, fish and birds as in Dolno Dryanovo, or created larger than life stone turtles like these near the village of Fotinovo.
Star maps and constellations have also been discovered by people with overzealous imaginations on rock sites and sanctuaries, most notably the Belantash plateau.
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.