Thracian heritage

AFTERLIFE IN KAZANLAK TOMB

What happens after death has fascinated people since the dawn of humanity. The earliest accounts of what they thought was the answer paint a glum picture. According to the ancient Mesopotamians, the dead inhabited a grim realm where they had only dust to eat and drink. Ancient Egyptians striving for an afterlife had to be mummified and to undergo a strict vetting process, under threat of being eaten by a monster in case they failed. The ancient Greeks were aware that even the greatest heroes would be reduced to nameless shadows in the Kingdom of Hades.

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BULGARIA'S BEST ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES

Bulgaria has the greatest number of archaeological sites in Europe after Greece and Italy. Every tour guide worth their badge has proclaimed this at least once to Bulgarian and foreign tourists. The adage is a compelling image of the country, but it is misleading. The great majority of Bulgaria's archaeological sites are interesting to archaeologists only and/or are in a condition that is hardly inspirational or Instagram-friendly: overgrown, looted by treasure hunters, devoid of tourist infrastructure and even signage.

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SILENCE OF THE CARYATIDS

No matter how diverse and interesting Thracian heritage is, time, destruction and rebuilding in war and peace, continual habitation and treasure-hunting have wiped out a lot of it – reducing it to a tomb here, a treasure there, and a shrine in what today appears to be the middle of nowhere. 

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FIRST KINGS OF EUROPE

Who were the first kings of Europe? Homer heroes such as Agamemnon are the first to pop up in the minds of educated Westerners, but hierarchical societies on the continent predate the ancient Greeks. Millennia before them, people in southeastern Europe went on the long and often tortuous transition from simple farming communities to complex political organisations.

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ALL AROUND KARDZHALI

When you have a long weekend ahead and the weather looks good for a trip, heading to Kardzhali is a great option. The Rhodope mountains are beautiful – pleasant and refreshing in all seasons – and this city is the perfect base to explore some interesting sites.

Kardzhali itself is hardly an attraction. It is a relatively new city dominated by faceless Communist and post-Communist architecture. Besides its Regional History Museum, located in a beautiful building initially constructed in the 1920s for a Muslim religious school, there is nothing more to see.

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DISCOVERING STRANDZHA'S COAST

The Strandzha mountains coast, roughly everything along the Black Sea south of Burgas, is about 100 km long as the crow flies. Yet it is very varied. You will discover smaller and bigger bays, old towns and purpose-built modern resorts, a campsite or two, a number of picturesque rivers, inlets and... islands. In fact all of Bulgaria's islands are along the Strandzha coast. You will probably be underwhelmed, however. There are just four of them, not counting the St Kirik Isle north of Sozopol which was appended to the mainland, in the 20th century, with a quay.

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THRACIAN BULGARIA

There are places in the world where you can get to know long-vanished nations and their former glory: Egypt, China, Greece... Bulgaria also makes it on this list. Long before this country appeared on Europe's map, an ancient nation inhabited its lands, and left behind rich remains – tombs and burial mounds, rock shrines and forts, fortifications and mysterious rock niches.

These people were the ancient Thracians.

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TOMBS, TREASURES AND ROSES

Everyone has heard about the Valley of the Egyptian Kings, but Bulgaria has its equivalent. The Valley of the Thracian Kings is a region where you can explore the tombs, mounds and treasures of what many historians consider to be the forefathers of modern Bulgarians.

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SEARCHING FOR ORPHEUS

Huddled deep among the hills of the Eastern Rhodope, Tatul could be any one of the many hamlets that you pass through while travelling in this area. Yet, it is not an ordinary Rhodope village. A high rocky hill rises about 300m south of it, crowned by one of the most peculiar megalithic structures the Thracians ever made.

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RHODOPE'S CITY OF GODS

Deep in the heart of the Rhodope, Perperikon is an ancient town that over the course of millennia perched, Machu Picchu-like, atop a rocky hill. Commanding stupendous views of the valleys below, it covers over 1,200 acres – supposedly the largest megalithic site in the Balkans.

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TOP 10 SPIRITUAL VORTEXES IN BULGARIA

"This place has a special aura." Sooner rather than later you will hear this sentence applied to somewhere in Bulgaria: an old monastery, an ancient shrine – or an ugly post-Communist church. There, locals and visitors claim to have felt the presence of "cosmic energy" or a supernatural "entity." Those who have an ailment seek healing. Pure-blooded Bulgarians "connect" to their true ancestors, the ancient Thracians, the wisest people ever to walk the earth. UFO sightings may also be reported.

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WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE

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.

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RHODOPE'S 'SACRED TRIANGLE'

Triangles fascinate the imagination. Throughout history, the geometric shape defined by Euclides as three points that do not lie on the same line has been laden with religious and spiritual symbolism. It has also been connected to topography, such as the Egyptians pyramids, the so-called ley lines, and the Bermuda triangle, supposedly marking energy vortices.

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RAIDERS OF TREASURE MOUND

Large and small, isolated or in groups, you will see mounds all over Bulgaria: atop rolling hills and amid farming fields, by old village graveyards and motorways, even on the outskirts of Sofia. The ancient Thracians who lived in the Bulgarian lands between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD created most of them. They buried their dead there, interring noblemen and women with expensive personal possessions. In many cases the tombs were very impressive, such as those in Kazanlak, Aleksandrovo and Sboryanovo.

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FORTIFIED BULGARIA, PART 1

Why there are no old forts and fortresses in Bulgaria on the scale of Romania, Greece, Italy or the Western Balkans is a controversial issue. The sort of answers you will be getting will depend on who does the talking. Some will assert the "Turks" destroyed everything when they ruled over these territories in the 14-19th centuries. Others will, more level-headedly, point out that when the Ottomans were in control the Bulgarians lands were no longer a border zone and consequently forts and fortresses were no longer needed for defence purposes.

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BELINTASH SHRINE

In a dismal present with little hope of a bright future, Bulgarians are increasingly searching for solace in their nation's glorious past.

Both mediaeval military might and the 19th century National Revival Period have been the darlings of the nation in the past few years. Reenactments of historical battles take place by the over-restored ruins of ancient forts, traditional peasant costumes are now de rigueur at weddings and proms, and the Horo is danced at every imaginable and unimaginable location and time.

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SUN FORTRESS

Overgrown remains of forts and temples, mysterious rock shrines: Bulgaria's historical heritage often makes you feel like an explorer. Long forgotten and known only to die-hard history enthusiasts, they bear witness to the vibrant communities that created them millennia ago.

Asara, near the village of Angel Voyvoda in the southeast of the country, is one of these.

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BIZARRE BULGARIA

There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth. But there is a number of places that defy being so easily pigeon-holed. Some of them were created by nature, others are manmade, their age ranging from the prehistory to the recent past. What unites them is that the first reaction they provoke in the viewer is "That looks weird. How did it come to be?".

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SVESHTARI TOMB: UNESCO-LISTED THRACIAN SITE PRESERVES RARE ARTWORKS

One place, however, reveals more about Thracian history than anywhere else in Bulgaria. Situated on some hills along the bends of the Teketo River, Sboryanovo Reserve offers a glimpse of a Thracian city and citadel, plus several necropoli and shrines, and reveals astonishing building skills, gold treasures and important information about the religion, economy and social life of the Thracians.

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