Thracian heritage

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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STARA ZAGORA'  S MUSEUM OF RELIGIONS

The Romans believed that some places are inhabited and protected by their own spirit, a Genius loci, and consequently filled all the corners of their empire with altars and reliefs dedicated to these entities. The belief in Genii loci is no more, but if these spirits were real, one of them would definitely call a certain location in central Stara Zagora its own. For millennia, nations and religious have come and gone, and yet generations of people have continuously used a particular place as a sacred location.

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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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BEGLIKTASH, A MEGALITH IN WINTER

The ancient Thracian sanctuary known with the Turkish word Begliktash stands in a meadow that opens up dramatically before you after a 40-minute walk along an overgrown path through the oak forest of the Strandzha. Anticipation builds even before you start on the path because just where it begins is the Dragon's Houses, a Thracian dolmen hidden by a canopy of tree branches.

Scattered seemingly at random, like the abandoned building blocks of a giant baby, some of the rocks which make up Begliktash weigh up to 150 tonnes.

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VALLEY OF THRACIAN KINGS

By the turn of the 21st century, however, another name popped up and has stuck in the public's mind, evoking images of hidden treasures and untold mysteries – the Valley of the Thracian Kings. The term was coined by Dr Georgi Kitov, the archaeologist who worked in the area in the 1990s and 2000s and made some of the most fascinating discoveries there, obviously as a parallel with the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

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VOODOO CHRISTIANITY

Our sin? We had not lit candles when we entered the church. He, however, did not see any contradiction in the fact that the veneration of "healing" springs is a tradition that Eastern Orthodoxy in Bulgaria has inherited from paganism.

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THE ALLURE OF THE EASTERN RHODOPE

Even if you think you know this part of the mountain range, you are certain to come across strange landmarks and strange stories. Some of them are natural, others are man-made, and what they have in common is their ability to inspire the imagination.


Perperikon

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MYSTERIES OF MEZEK TOMB

However, apart from the destruction that it continues to bring, there are a few occasions where this illegal activity has led to extremely interesting discoveries. The Thracian tomb discovered near the Mezek village, in the region of modern Svilengrad, is one such story.

The mound that hides the tomb is a spectacular sight, at 14m high and about 90m wide. Its name, Mal Tepe, or Gold Hill, indicates that its secrets had long gripped the imagination of the locals.

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WHO WERE THE THRACIANS?

These people were the Thracians.

Today their name is barely known to anyone outside southeastern Europe. The Thracians built for eternity – especially tombs and shrines – but they lived in the moment and, underestimating the importance of writing down their deeds, they left next to nothing about their history, faith and beliefs. And so, bar the fascinating sites and treasures they created, the life of the Thracians remains more or less a mystery.

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THE SILENCE OF THE STONES

In 2002, a team led by the late Dr Georgi Kitov, whose flamboyant character and talent for discovering gold Thracian treasures made him one of the most famous Bulgarian archaeologists, started digging a relatively small and seemingly ordinary mound on the outskirts of the village of Staro Zhelezare, in Central Bulgaria.

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PERPERIKON: MAGICAL RHODOPE SITE

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.

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KARANOVO

If you have ever been to Troy, in present-day Turkey, you were probably a bit disappointed or even felt slightly cheated. The unremarkable ditches your tour guide dragged you through had little in common with the glorious pictures of passion, war and tragedy embedded in the popular imagination by Homer and the Brad Pitt movie. If you listened to your guide, however, you might have gathered that the settlement that is now portrayed to tourists as the Homeric Troy is important to historians for another reason.

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THRACIAN BULGARIA, PART 2

For many, Thracian culture's most alluring side are the gold treasures. They are the star exhibits in the national museums and travel the world to enthusiastic reception. Every pair of gold earrings found in Thracian graves make headlines.

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THRACIAN BULGARIA, PART 1

Three nations are considered the forefathers of modern Bulgarians; the Slavs, the Proto-Bulgarians, and the Thracians. It all began at the end of the 7th Century AD when land-tilling Slavs united with horse-riding Proto-Bulgarians against a common enemy, Byzantium. The lands where Bulgaria was born, however, were not empty, as the remains of the Thracians, the ancient people described by Herodotus as the most numerous after those of India, still lived there.

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MEGALITHIC BULGARIA

Bulgarian incentive tourism is usually presented to foreigners as a blend of picturesque Revival Period villages and monasteries, Thracian tombs and treasures, and of course Rosa Damascena, the Bulgarian rose. The country, however, is also the home of megalithic monuments often over-looked as they are known mostly to history buffs. But they do make up a strange, yet fascinating heritage: in Bulgaria you can wander Indiana Jones-style around rock shrines and tombs, stone circles and dolmens, and stare at the mysterious outlines of solar circles and rock niches.

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DEAF ROCKS

You have probably visited Perperikon, the mighty fortress inhabited for millennia and hailed as the site of the famous oracle of Dionysus, where the destinies of Alexander of Macedon and Augustus were foretold. It is now popular to use it as evidence of the ancient and sophisticated culture of what is now Bulgaria.

The Rhodope, however, is home to a site which can rival Perperikon in importance, grandeur and charm. Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks, about 13 kilometres by car from Lyubimets is much less crowded. There, the Thracians created a rock sanctuary about 3,000 years ago.

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ALEKSANDROVO TOMB

The archaeologists who were finishing off the excavation of two small Thracian burial mounds on the spot where the future Trakiya Motorway would bypass the village of Aleksandrovo, near Haskovo, felt that day was different from the very beginning. 17 December 2000 was the last day of the excavations and brought the first bright sun after a long and depressing series of mists so thick that visibility was often less than 10 metres.

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