A Soviet undercover agent tries to decipher an ancient inscription protected by a stone guardian… this could be the beginning of a Dan Brown novel but is, in fact, a true story set not in Rome, Paris or Washington, but near the village of Sitovo, on the northern slopes of the Rhodope.
Less than 20 miles from Plovdiv, Sitovo is not among the famous attractions of the Rhodope. The name of the village is not even on Google Maps, although you can easily identify it as the unnamed group of houses east of Lilkovo. In fact, Sitovo has enough to recommend it that it was declared one of the most beautiful and least known areas in Bulgaria in a campaign organised by the now defunct State Agency for Tourism at the beginning of 2009. The village has preserved some of its traditional architecture, has a charming church and the nearby Mount Shtut is topped by a mediaeval fortress. The mysterious Sitovo inscription is located by the road to the village.
Most Bulgarians are not aware that this very area and, in particular, the village of Tamrash on the Sitovska River, was the site of an independent Pomak republic, which existed from 1878 until 1912. Pomaks are Bulgarians who, for various reasons, converted to Islam under Ottoman rule. When the Treaty of Berlin in July 1878 established the independent Principality of Bulgaria and the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia, which was to remain under the sultan's rule, the Pomaks of Tamrash were less than happy. They did not want to be the subjects of a Christian governor, but that was not their chief concern. The Bulgarian Muslims from Tamrash and the surrounding area had been responsible for the brutal massacre of the Bulgarian Christians in Batak during the suppression of the 1876 April Uprising. Not without justification, they were afraid of reprisals. But they felt safe in their self-proclaimed Tamrash Republic, which lasted until the beginning of the 1912 Balkan War. Apprehensive that the local Christians would now take the law in their own hands, the Pomaks left Tamrash and the village was destroyed. All that remains today is the cemetery.
The Sitovo inscription is not completely unknown. There is even a sign directing you to it: a homemade notice propped on a pile of stones by the road but, while there is a lot of concrete historical information about Tamrash, including a lengthy report by The Times correspondent James Bourchier, the Sitovo inscription is veiled in mystery. It is so puzzling that serious scholars have thrown in the towel and given up proposing any hypotheses, leaving the door wide open for all sorts of incredible theories.
Getting to the inscribed stone is a vertiginous experience. It involves climbing up a steep, 160 ft high hill. The path to the inscription will have you clutching at every acacia branch, piece of rock or tuft of grass within arm's reach.
The actual inscription will not overwhelm you with its size, but the view is impressive. Rising from a small rocky ledge, two great stone cliffs form a right angle and above them, like a roof, lies a third, pyramid-shaped rock. The whole megalith looks as if it would tumble down the slope if it were not supported by several stone pillars. These seem to be the product of nature, though one of them has a strikingly human-like appearance. It is called the Keeper.
The inscription is right under the "roof," on the south wall of the megalith, on a narrow patch of rock that seems to have been smoothed for the purpose. To view the strange runic signs you have to be either very tall or stand on a boulder. The inscription is about 6.5 ft from the ground.
The author of the inscription, its meaning and the date of carving are unknown. So is the language it is written in.
Its closest equivalent in the Balkans is probably the two runic inscriptions scribbled on the parapet of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the 9th Century by the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors. They have not been deciphered either, apart from the name Halfdan, who was probably a Danish Viking.
Naturally, the supporters of the different theories about the origin and the meaning of the Sitovo inscription are ready to argue for hours to prove that it was made by the Slavs, Thracians, Proto-Bulgarians, Celts, Sarmatians or any of the other ancient peoples who passed through the Balkans, even for a short time (except for the Greeks and the Ottomans). As most other things in the Balkans, which theory prevails is contingent on current attitudes and the politics of the day. Under Communism, when everything good was attributed to the Slavs because this linked the Bulgarians with their "Big Brother" Russia, the advocates of the idea that the Sitovo inscription was Slavic were quite vociferous. This was really important, because it refuted the accounts of ancient historians that the Slavs had no written language, and elevated them to the rank of people who had their own script, developing a civilisation of their own. Various "translations" were being promulgated. One of them interpreted the beginning as "I, Prince of the Runhines…," who were one of the Slavic tribes inhabiting this part of the Rhodope. The second translation was more comprehensive: "In 6050 [542 AD] I studied language and how to write ancient letters prince (?) elania Veslanid (probably Thessalonic)."
Today both translations are mentioned only as oddities.
After the 1989 democratic changes, the Proto-Bulgarians and the Thracians came into vogue as the possible authors of the Sitovo inscription. The most radical "researchers" blended the two theories. In their view, the Proto-Bulgarians and the Thracians were the same people that had been living in the Balkans since the origin of Homo sapiens and had established the world's first civilisation on this very soil some 40,000 to 20,000 years previously (opinions vary).
The only people who have ever been unanimous about their interpretation of the Sitovo inscription are the ones who discovered it in modern times.
In the spring of 1928, a group of woodcutters came across the strange cliffs and the mysterious signs on them. For them, the inscription marked a hidden treasure.
The newly-fledged treasure hunters did not, however, find any gold in the natural megalith, which they named "The Jewish Workshop." Soon, rumours of their discovery reached the ears of the teacher in Sitovo and he, in turn, informed the archaeological society in Plovdiv.
The villagers of Sitovo will often discuss what the Sitovo Letters say
The villagers of Sitovo will often discuss what the Sitovo Letters say
In the summer of that same year, a real scientific expedition visited the site of the inscription. Like the woodcutters, the archaeologists found nothing. In 1939, the head of the expedition, Dr Alexander Peev, showed the Sitovo inscription to Hungarian archaeologist Géza Fehér, an expert on Proto-Bulgarian culture. The specialist's opinion was categorical: the inscription could not be deciphered.
If it were not for Peev, the Sitovo inscription would have remained simply a curiosity or a puzzle waiting to be solved. However, Peev turned the Sitovo inscription into what is probably Bulgaria's most famous spy story.
Peev last visited the site of the inscription in 1940 and, the following year, became a secret agent of the Soviet military intelligence in Bulgaria, which was then part of the Axis and therefore an ally of Nazi Germany. The Boevoy group that he founded sent information to the USSR so efficiently that it soon attracted the attention of counterintelligence. In 1943 Peev was arrested and executed.
Among the materials that the prosecution presented in court was a strange series of signs that Peev had sent to Kiev. The defendant tried to explain that he had sent a copy of the Sitovo inscription for consultation with fellow researchers, but to no avail. Everybody believed that the inscription was a cryptographic message.
Nobody knows the exact truth. You can never be sure when espionage or the deciphering of inscriptions written in an unknown language are involved.
Of course, there is also one more theory a about the origin of the Sitovo inscription. According to some geologists, it is but a natural formation.