RHODOPE'S CITY OF GODS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Carved out of rock, millennia-old pagan sanctuary of Perperikon became bishop's seat when Christianity arrived

rock city bulgaria air

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.

People began to come and pray there in the 6th millennium BC. It was nothing spectacular – they filled the crevices with pottery shards as offerings to the unknown deities or spirits they venerated. And yet, they started a trend. Those first believers disappeared from Perperikon and about 1,000 years passed without a trace of human presence there. However, at the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 4th millennia BC, the hill again began to attract worshippers.

In the 18th-12th centuries BC, ritual activity changed: people started hewing niches, altars and basins. Gradually, they built a whole settlement, complete with a fortified acropolis, a mighty palace and residential quarters. The foundations of the buildings, the ground floors and even the streets and sewage systems were all cut into the rock.

city of gods

The "Palace" with its supposed Throne Room has a splendid vista of the area

The most impressive building from this stage of Perperikon's existence is known as the Palace, a labyrinthine construction of more than 50 halls and rooms, corridors and covered staircases. It also had a ritual hall with a large circular altar made of rock. There, a supposed throne was hewn of stone, while the rocks all around were covered with oval, rectangular and circular pits. Some of them were sacrificial, others were storage spaces.

Perperikon went into decline in the 4th-1st centuries BC, but when the Romans took over Thrace, activity resumed and new buildings adorned the hill. The fortifications on the acropolis were reinforced.

The ancient glory of Perperikon and the evidence that it was a significant religious site has led some historians and archaeologists to speculate that the rock city was where the famed Oracle of Dionysus was located. According to ancient accounts, the shrine of the God of wine and divine madness was immensely popular and predicted the glorious future of both Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus. However, ancient accounts are ambiguous on the oracle's exact location.

city of gods

These holes were carved into the bedrock to support wood beams forming the walls of less permanent buildings

No matter whether Perperikon was the home of the Oracle of Dionysus or not, it was still a religious centre of such importance that Christianity simply took it over when it arrived. The adherents to the new faith moved into the empty temples of the old one, and Perperikon became the stronghold of local bishops.

The remains of an early Christian basilica are now clearly visible in Perperikon. Close to it are the ghostly remains of a monastic necropolis with graves cut into the bedrock.

Life at Perperikon all came to an end in 1362, when the Ottomans invaded and the rock city was abandoned for good. Nature soon swallowed up the remains of the churches and the Thracian shrines.

city of gods

The remains of medieval tower is the most prominent structure on site

The site was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1979-1982, but Perperikon only became a household name in the early 2000s, when excavations re-started and the hypothesis that it was the Oracle of Dionysus was promoted as an established fact.

Archaeological research on the hill continues to this day and there is hardly a summer without some discovery announced and happily promoted by the media. Interest is growing, with visitor numbers counted in the thousands. Still, the information on the official site is outdated and the tourist infrastructure is hardly sufficient. 

city of gods

As research continues, Perperikon's appearance changes with each archaeological season 

  • 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

TOP MUST-SEES IN 2024
When wanderlust grabs you in 2024 but deciding on your next destination is hard, here is a list of places to whet your appetite. Some of them are millennia old and others are new, but they are all remarkable and most are one-of-a-kind.

BRUTALIST BULGARIA
A white mammoth dominates the upper part of Boulevard Todor Aleksandrov in central Sofia. Its massive, concrete surfaces are imposing.

LES FRANÇAIS EN BULGARIE
Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

WINTER NESEBAR
Winter is not only the time to head to Bulgaria's ski resorts. It is also the best time to enjoy some of this nation's most crowded tourist spots, such as Nesebar.

DEMON CHURCH
Crooked, horned and large-toothed, happily dragging sinners to Hell: demons make some of the most interesting, if slightly unrefined, characters of 19th century Bulgarian religious art.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY
It has become a commonplace that a nation can be understood best by the sort of treatment it give its poets rather by its military victories or GDP levels.

HISTORY, ROSES, AND WATER BUFFALOES
Years ago, if you'd asked me what I know about Bulgaria, I'd have said, "Not much. It's in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, I think." Indeed, it was behind the Iron Curtain when that dark metaphor described a very real feature of the World Order.

DOORS WIDE SHUT
Ancient Thracian tombs, lighthouses, abandoned industrial facilities, Communist-era monuments... Bulgaria is crammed with sites of interest that ordinary travellers can marvel at only... from a distance.

WHAT WAS THE SEPTEMBER UPRISING?
Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

IVANOVO'S MEDIEVAL FACES
Churches and monasteries hewn into rocks at often precipitous heights were a clever solution that Christians from the Balkans and the Middle East employed for centuries to achieve a crucial goal: the creation of abodes far from the crowds in places where co

WHERE IS GOD'S BRIDGE?
Lilyashka Bara, the brook that flows near the village of Lilyache, a few kilometres from Vratsa, is a quiet and peaceful stream.

SOFIA'S TOP 10
Thanks to cheap flights or business travel, for many foreigners Sofia is their first, and last, glimpse of this country.