One of Bulgaria's most surreal landscapes is just a few kilometres outside Varna
Viktor Teplyakov, a "special missions officer" in the Russian army during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829, abruptly reined in his horse at the sight of the six stone pillars. Huge in size, they emerged from the sandy, shrub-covered wilderness by the village of Gebedzhi, now a town called Beloslav, near Varna. Being a true child of the Romantic age, he was stunned. He wanted to dismount and look over the strange stone pillars. But Colonel L., who was leading the march, had no time to waste. Teplyakov managed to convince him to spare a few minutes and allow him to dig around the foundations of one of the columns only when they realised that the stone pillars around them stretched for miles.
Teplyakov did not succeed in unearthing the base of the column. It was stuck too deep in the ground. "When you emerge from the depths of the surrounding forest, you are faced with an expanse of land with a pile of gigantic columns sticking up in front of you. Their location does not follow any order or common architectural pattern. The thousands of splendid columns will strike you with their most weird forms. In some places, they rise in the form of perfect cylinders, while in others they look like towers or broken pyramids or truncated cones; some are wide at their base and seem as if encircled with broad cornices. There are hillocks so thick with pillars that they remind me of the ruins of an ancient gallery. Some of them are hollow and their core is filled with a grey sandy mass," he wrote to his friend, Ret Col Grigoriy Rimsky-Korsakov.
Teplyakov's enthusiastic description was the first of the Pobiti Kamani natural phenomenon, located a few kilometres west of Varna. It is among the most popular tourist sites in the vicinity. The area with the stone pillars, some of which are over 9 m, or 30 ft tall, covers more than 70 sq km, or 27 sq miles. There are seven main groups of rocks, the best-known being Dikilitash. This name comes from the Turkish and means the same as in Bulgarian, "Stones Beaten Into the Ground." Situated on both sides of the old road to Sofia, it comprises over 300 stone pillars. In the summer, you will be hard pushed to find the mystical charm that attracted Teplyakov. There will be busloads of tourists plus the inevitable litter.
In winter, however, the Dikilitash group is all yours. You just have to be able to withstand the sharp, biting wind, which is unavoidable in this part of Bulgaria at this time of year. The other option is to go looking for other rock groups: they are situated near the villages of Strashimirovo, Banovo or Slanchevo, as well as south of Beloslav.
Teplyakov was the first to excavate one of the pillars. He also took samples of the sand filling its hollow core and smashed one of the columns to study the rock composition. When he returned to Russia, he devoted one of his poems, "Fourth Thracian Elegy: the Ruins of Gebedzhi," to Pobiti Kamani. Reputedly, Pushkin himself liked it.
But despite all his enthusiasm, Teplyakov was not a scholar. He believed till his dying day that Pobiti Kamani was the remains of an unknown prehistoric civilisation – probably the same one that created the massive structures at Tiryns and Mycenae.
The man who made the first scientific evaluation of Dikilitash had no such misconceptions. He realised that Pobiti Kamani was an act of nature. Like Teplyakov, he was a foreigner, an army officer and visiting the area because of a war. He was not Russian and was past the age of youthful euphoria. Thomas Spratt, a 43-year-old captain in the British Royal Navy, saw Pobiti Kamani in 1854, during the Crimean War.
At the beginning of the 20th Century the Pobiti Kamani were a local celebrity, and in 1937 were declared the first protected area in Bulgaria
"On the whole, they were believed to be artificially created, perhaps the remains of a huge temple of some earlier people, for example. A perfunctory glance might certainly suggest that they were shaped for some such purpose by man. But a more careful eye would notice their irregular position, shape and height, which shows clearly that they were not made artificially. Because there are several which are partially formed in the rocks in the area, the similarity of this stone mass to a cromlech or a druidic altar naturally leads to the idea that they have some connection with the early beliefs of the East. They might have been used in this way and adapted to the religious ideas and services of earlier people, but they are certainly not a construction or creation of man. They are, in my opinion, natural creations," wrote Spratt in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London in 1857. There, he also published the first engraving of the rock phenomenon.
Geologists are still not unanimous about how the sandstone pillars of Pobiti Kamani were formed. Some say that they are the remains of primeval organisms: prehistoric coral reefs or petrified trees.
According to the most popular theory, however, Pobiti Kamani is not of organic origin. The pillars began to form 50 million years ago, when what is today northeastern Bulgaria was the bottom of a lake. There were natural gas deposits under the earth's crust, which began to rise up to the surface. While passing through the water, the bubbles began to oxidise the methane present in some of the bacteria in the water. Gradually, calcium carbonate pillars formed around the outflows. Then everything became petrified over the millennia. When the lake dried up, the columns were left on the surface. The wind, rain, cold and heat continued working on them.
When the first humans appeared in these lands, Pobiti Kamani was already standing – fully formed and a challenge to the imagination.
Teplyakov was right to a certain extent when he believed that the rocks were the columns of ancient temples. The prehistoric of Bulgaria made a shrine by one group of the stone pillars.
Petrified titans, according to one of the legends
For modern Bulgarians, the rocks are the stuff of legend. Thousands of years ago, when the area was on the coast, it was said to be inhabited by a race of cruel titans. Nearby, there was a village where a young man lived. God liked this lad so much that He had granted him immortality and revealed His greatest secret to him: His name. There was one condition to the gift: if the lad told God's true name to anyone, he would die.
Everything seemed fine until the day this young man saw a beautiful girl and fell head over heels in love with her. Unfortunately, he learnt that the girl was promised to the lord of the titans, as his bride. The young man went to the giant to talk to him and received the following offer: he would get the girl only if he revealed God's name to the titan.
The lad pondered carefully and agreed. He called the titans to the sea shore and ordered each of them to take up the position he showed them. When he had finished arranging them, God's name was revealed, as the titan's bodies spelled out the name like a gigantic puzzle. But it was visible only from above.
God saw what his favourite had done and was very pleased. He turned the deceived titans into stone and a spring of healing water appeared where the lovers stood.
The spring is still there.
In 1937, Pobiti Kamani was declared a protected natural area, the first one in Bulgaria. It is not included in the UNESCO world heritage list, but now that a Bulgarian, Irina Bokova, is head of the organisation this may change.
So hurry up! When the crowds of tourists hungry to see UNESCO's landmarks come flocking, it will be almost impossible to experience that mystical feeling that struck Teplyakov in 1829.
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.