Archaeology Bulgaria

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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(RE)BUILDING BULGARIA'S PAST

When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the expectation was that membership would bring the struggling former Communist country closer to the more developed economies in Europe. Amazingly, one of the first things Bulgarians started spending EU money on was not on much needed infrastructure such as new roads, industries and businesses, or on modernising the education and healthcare systems. Instead, Bulgarian municipalities across the nation rushed to use EU funding to build... ruins.

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EXPLORING ROMAN PLOVDIV

Plovdiv claims 7,000 years of uninterrupted history, starting from prehistoric times, but the earliest visible traces of this long past are much younger. They date back to the times when the city was called Philippopolis and was a major centre of government and commerce in the Roman province of Thrace.

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BULGARIA'S FIRST CAPITALS

If power and the economy were gravity, the gravitational centre of modern Bulgaria would be Sofia, where the population and the important agencies of the state, economy and culture are located. If we go back to the Middle Ages, when Bulgaria was still young, the country's centre of gravity would be elsewhere – in the northeast, close to the city of Shumen. There, the remains of Bulgaria's first capitals, Pliska and Preslav, still survive – next to an astonishing piece of medieval art, the Madara Horseman.

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BULGARIA'S TOP 10 FORTS

Castle-wise, Bulgaria is nothing to compare with Scotland – and many other European countries. There is little reminiscent of Transylvania's menacing fortifications, Bavaria's fairy tale confections, or the Loire Valley's romantic châteaux. Fortresses were built in Bulgaria from Antiquity to the 19th century and, although many were lost in war-time destruction and postwar turbulence, the country still has several sites that combine stunning scenery with relatively well-preserved fortifications.

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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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CITY OF SALT

Today's doctors urge less salt, but such an advice would have sounded at least odd to the people of yore who had to do with preindustrial food. Ever since the dawn of civilisation salt was a rare and valued product. Its extraction was difficult, trading it often entailed travel of hundreds of miles, the control of salt extraction sites generated wars. Long before gold and silver became measures of wealth salt was used as a universal currency.

A prehistoric site in northeastern Bulgaria now reveals the role salt played in founding the first urban centre in Europe.

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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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BULGARIA'S DOLMENS: PREHISTORIC MEGALITHS SLOWLY DISAPPEAR FROM SOUTHEAST

Yes, there are dolmens in Bulgaria, and it was the Thracians who constructed them. This ancient people had a predilection for megaliths, the prehistoric manmade structures found all over Europe, whose most famous example is Stonehenge. The term megalith, a derivative of the Greek for "big stone," traditionally applies to the single standing stones called menhirs, the stone circles called cromlechs, and the dolmens, which are low, heavy structures often used as tombs.

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CHURCH OF BIRDS

A mosaic peacock, its majestic tail opened in full display, used to greet believers entering one of the most formidable buildings in the Late Antiquity Balkans: the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis. In 2019, the 1,500-year-old bird, restored to its former glory, will meet visitors again, after centuries of oblivion caused by earthquakes, invasions, wars, changes of population and history itself.

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SECRETS OF MAGURATA CAVE

However, when travelling in this region, you should not forego the opportunity to peer into the dark, mysterious underground.

Magurata Cave, about 18km northwest of Belogradchik, is a place that takes you not only far from the sun, but also far back into the past.

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AUGUSTA TRAIANA

It is the result of a tragedy and a necessity. In the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War, Stara Zagora was razed to the ground after a vicious battle. Rebuilding began in 1878 according to a plan by an Austro-Hungarian architect.

But no one was aware then that beneath the debris of houses, churches and mosques lay the remains of an ancient city with meticulous straight-street planning.

It was the Roman city of Augusta Traiana.

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BRINGING ANTIQUITY BACK TO LIFE

In October 2016, a thick layer of soil and debris covering an ancient mosaic for centuries was removed to reveal a stunning mosaic of a peacock with a tail fanned to show all of its majestic colours. But the marvellous bird is only a speck of the archaeology, history and art treasures of the Bishop's Basilica in Plovdiv. For a second year now, they are being surveyed by archaeologists from Plovdiv Archaeological Museum led by Zheni Tankova, with funding by the America for Bulgaria Foundation.

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THE SECRET OF MISHKOVA NIVA LOCALITY

Until recently, no one was able to visit one of Bulgaria's most interesting sites, the dark grey remains of a tomb near Malko Tarnovo. Under Communism, people needed special permits to enter this small town in the Strandzha mountains, as it was only a few metres from the border with Turkey, a member of a hostile NATO member. Even if tourists had somehow obtained permits, it was impossible for them to cross the border fence and take a look at the tomb in the Mishkova Niva area.

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ROMAN CITY OF ABRITUS

In July 251, the swamps at an all but forgotten corner in the Balkan realms of the Roman Empire were about to become the witness of a devastating event. Two armies stood against one another, in the summer heat. The legions of Emperor Decius (249-251) and his son and co-ruler, Herennius Etruscus, stood against the army of the Goth leader, Cniva, in the final meeting of a long cat-and-mouse game.

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