SUN FORTRESS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Thracian rock sanctuary at Angel Voyvoda village mesmerises

asara fortress.jpg

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.

Until recently, this rocky hill was almost completely forgotten. Those who braved the brambles, the climb and the thick forest were rewarded with a maze of strangely shaped rocks and crevices, graves and altars, steps and niches made by the Ancient Thracians.

The Thracians inhabited what is now Bulgaria roughly between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD. To what extent their DNA is a part of the genome of modern Bulgarians is a matter of debate, but one thing is certain. This ancient people left a stunning heritage of royal tombs, gold treasures and rituals like the Nestinari firewalking. The Thracians also produced a number of rock shrines, niches and megaliths where they venerated their deities, the Great Goddess, mistress of the underworld and the rocks, and the Great God, who was the master of light and sun.

Asara Thracian rock shrine

The Thracians venerated oddly-shaped rocks, seeing them as a manifestation of their deities of light and darkness, the sky and the underground

Asara has all the hallmarks of a Thracian rock shrine. It is located at an impressive height and is guarded by forbidding rocks. The sacred precinct could accommodate a significant number of people, and three rock tombs were cut on three peaks. Only one of these survives today.

Even the most fascinating archaeological site would be just an accumulation of stones if we did not know its story and why was it created.

Recent archeological digs have tried to unravel what Asara was, although early Christian zealotry and modern-day treasure hunting have extensively damaged the site, leaving crucial gaps in information.

According to archaeologists, the Thracians created Asara shrine in the 1st millennium BC. Religious activity stopped in the 4th century AD, when the Christians took over. They destroyed all visible traces of "idolatry," built themselves a small church and turned the hill into a fortress. They abandoned it in the 6th century, when Thrace suffered from ongoing Barbarian invasions, and economic hardship as well as depopulation were rife. Life at Asara resumed in the 10th-14th century, but the invasion of the Ottomans put a final end to inhabitation on the hill.

So far, the history of Asara seems unexceptional. Bulgaria is crammed with places used, reused, demolished and transformed by successive generations.

Yet, archaeologists believe that Asara was special. Local legends suggest that there used to be a life-size rock relief depicting a god riding a horse. A huge flat rock covered with strange marks could have been an ancient calendar.

Asara Thracian rock shrine

Rock niches are among the sanctuary's defining features

And there is the size of Asara. When the site was active, it could rival the more famous rock city of Perperikon. Intriguingly, about 20 ancient gold mines have been discovered in the vicinity, so the hill was not only an important sanctuary, but also a fortress protecting and controlling the production and trade of gold.

The ancient Thracians had a penchant for gold not only because of its value, but also because of its symbolical connection to the sun and the Great God. This probably explains the existence of the three tombs carved into prominent rocks. They probably belonged to royals and represented the union of the Great Goddess and the Great God, and the supposed immortality of anyone who believed in them.

Until not that long ago exploring Asara was an adventure. Recently, the fortress where the Thracians venerated the sun has been cleared and information signs installed to guide the curious visitor.

  • 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.