PERPERIKON: MAGICAL RHODOPE SITE

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Stories of Dionysus, Alexander the Great and Augustus

perperikon rock city.jpg

The priestess raised the gold bowl and the strong, dark Thracian wine in it reflected the light of the fire burning on the altar. There was only her and the nervous Roman officer standing in the oval-shaped roofless inner sanctum of the shrine of Dionysus, yet the place seemed filled with an invisible presence.

The officer swallowed his fear and moved closer to the priestess. Dionysus was about to reveal the future of his son, Octavianus.

The priestess closed her eyes and poured the wine over the fire.

The coals hissed, and strong smoke rose, and rose, and rose, as if it were trying to reach the sky.

Perperikon, BulgariaRemains of cult pits and graves in the bedrock. Perperikon was built on solid rock, so the bases of each building and even the graves were hewn in the stone

The priestess gasped, then smiled.

"What does that mean?," the Roman officer asked.

"Your son shall rule the world, just as did Alexander called also the Great," the priestess said. "And it will happen. Three centuries ago, here, in this place, Dionysus foretold the same to young Alexander, and Alexander reached India."

This was how, according to Suetonius, the fate of Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was foretold by the remote but famous Oracle of Dionysus.

The existence of a prestigious Oracle of Dionysus in the Rhodope is known from many ancient sources. The sanctuary rivalled that of Delphi, in both fame and prediction accuracy, and was controlled by the Satri, a Thracian tribe. Its ownership, however, was contested by other Thracians and the Romans meddled eagerly in these feuds, applying their Divide-and-Rule strategy.

Perperikon, BulgariaDeciphering the traces in the bedrock is not easy. Some believe that the pits covering the surface of Perperikon were only for ritual purposes. Actually, most were made to support columns of buildings, or to store food and liquids

The exact location of the sanctuary is still unknown, but since the early 2000s an archaeological site near Kardzhali has been actively promoted as the seat of the Oracle of Dionysus.

Perperikon, BulgariaThe 15-metre medieval tower is the best preserved structure on Perperikon. It was built over the remains of a living quarter from the Roman era

Rising 470 metres above the picturesque valley of the Perpereshka River, Perperikon is an arresting site. The rocky hill is covered with woods that still hide remains of previous lives, but its top has been intensively excavated, revealing walls, stairs, cisterns, churches, palace buildings, a necropolis and even the remains of a medieval fort. Covering more than 5 square kilometres, Perperikon is the biggest megalithic site in the Balkans.

The first people arrived here 8,000 years ago and carved the rocks so they could fill the crevices with fragments of pots as offerings to the unknown deities or spirits they believed in. Then these people disappeared from Perperikon. After a hiatus of about 1,000 years, at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 4th millennia BC, the hill again became the focal point of religious activity. In the 18th-12th centuries BC the sanctuary was already so extensive and famous that artefacts belonging to the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations are now found there.

Perperikon experienced a decline in the 4th-1st centuries BC, but when the Romans took over Thrace, activity resumed and new buildings adorned the hill. In the 6th Century, however, Christianity took over and the sanctuary was abandoned. Unlike other pagan sacred places in the Balkans, Perperikon did not fall completely silent.

The so-called Palace Building supposedly combined residence with sanctuaryThe so-called Palace Building supposedly combined residence with sanctuary

Christians moved into the empty shrines, built churches over them and turned Perperikon into the stronghold of local bishops. It all came to an end in 1362, when the Ottomans invaded and people left Perperikon for good, leaving the hill to nature, which soon swallowed up the remains of the churches and the Thracian shrines.

The site was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 20th Century, but Perperikon only became a household name in the early 2000s, when excavations started again and the theory that it had belonged to the Oracle of Dionysus was promoted as a proven fact.

Archaeological research on the hill continues to this day and there is hardly a summer without some discovery announced to and happily swallowed by media. Interest is growing, with visitors counted in the thousands, yet the information at the official site is outdated and the tourist infrastructure is insufficient.

Perperikon, BulgariaEach summer, archaeologists discover new bits of Perperikon's past. Last August, they announced that they had found the horse of the Ottoman lord who occupied Perperikon in 1362. The animal was buried close to the tomb of its owner, which was discovered three years ago

Constant excavations at Perperikon mean that what you see on the hill is constantly changing. After an easy climb, you reach the lower end of the stone road which once led to the citadel. On both sides it is guarded by high cliffs and now largely demolished walls. Once at the top, you pass by the oval-shaped "room" carved in the rock, the supposed inner sanctum of the Oracle of Dionysus.

Perperikon, BulgariaPerched atop a hill commanding the strategic valley of the Perpereshka River, Perperikon was both a sacred place and a strategic fortress

The most popular spot on the top of the hill is the so-called Palace Building, with its supposed throne hewn in its rocky wall. Tourists love to have their picture taken while sitting in it. Do pay attention to the tiny canal in the floor in the same room. According to some theories, it was used for astronomical observations.

The rocks all around are covered with oval, rectangular and circular pits hewn in the stone. Some of them were sacrificial or were used for the production of sacred wine, but others were used as storage spaces.

Further along the hill are the remains of an early-Christian basilica. A replica of its marble pulpit now stands on the site of the original, which is exhibited in the Kardzhali Historical Museum. Close to it are the ghostly remains of a monastic necropolis with graves excavated from the bedrock.

From here the remains of a medieval tower are visible, a picturesque addition to the scenery.

In spite of its popularity, however, Perperikon also abounds with lesser known but interesting details. One is the faded graffiti of a shaman, carved into a rock between the Thracian shrine and the basilica. It was probably the deed of a medieval Bulgarian.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh 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.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?
Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

CATHOLIC BULGARIA
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

RHODOPE IN FULL BLOSSOM
The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

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.

KARLOVO
Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

SILENCE OF SHARDS
Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

BULGARIAN EASTER
How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

BULGARIA'S TOP 10 SMALL TOWNS
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

BORDER ZONE VILLAGE
Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

WHO WAS GEO MILEV?
Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

SEEING DEVIL IN DEVIL'S BRIDGE
In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

URBEX BG, PART 2
If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.