WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE

WONDERS OF STONE IN RHODOPE

Fri, 07/03/2020 - 10:57

Enigmatic man-made rock niches defy explanation

Rock niches near Zhenda village

When travelling around the Eastern Rhodope, you are bound to encounter this strange sight: on certain precipitous rocks, here and there, are scattered small, dark niches. Some are on their own, others form groups of dozens.

What are these strange niches, you might wonder. Nobody knows for sure, is the honest answer. The mystery of the rock niches that indent major cliffs in the Eastern Rhodope remains unexplained.

Less than a metre high, the niches are usually trapezoid, although you can encounter circular, rectangular or square ones. The most spectacular niches are high above ground, forcing you to crane your neck to see them, though many are found at ground level. More than 200 groups of niches have been discovered so far, with the biggest concentration in the Gluhite Kamani, Madzharovo and Valche Pole areas. Rock niches are a regular feature at rock shrines created by the ancient Thracians in the 1st millennium BC, but not all seem to belong to such places.

Rock niches near Dzhanka village

Rock niches near Dzhanka village

Of course, lack of information opens the door to speculation. Some scientists believe that the rock niches were made to hold the burial urns of cremated Thracians who could not afford the more expensive and prestigious rock tombs. Yet, the bases of many of the niches are angled upwards, making it impossible to put anything inside them. Others claim that the niches were hewn by adolescent Thracian boys as part of an initiation ceremony. According to a third hypothesis, the niches depict the stars and the constellations in the heavens, while a fourth proposes that they were some sort of map, indicating the whereabouts of ancient gold mines. According to yet another idea, the niches are scaled-down models of dolmens and rock tombs or, more interestingly, of the cave symbolising the womb of the Great Goddess.

Here is another theory: the niches were symbolic doors into the realm of the Great Goddess and her son and lover, the Great God, who, according to some historians, were the Thracians' main deities. The great majority of niches look to the south and east, maybe suggesting a sun cult, but many face north and west and are in places that rarely see the sun, including caves, to make such an interpretation credible.

Orlovi Skali, or Eagles Rocks, near Ardino

Orlovi Skali, or Eagles Rocks, near Ardino

Whatever the explanation, the presence of these niches at rock shrines, together with other carvings such as rock tombs, rock stairs and rock altars, indicate some ritual or religious activity.

Their geographical location is also curious. Rock niches are concentrated in the Eastern Rhodope along the course of the River Arda. They are rare in the rest of Bulgaria, but some researchers find some parallels to (much bigger and better shaped) niches in what used to be the ancient land of Phrygia, now in western Asia Minor in Turkey.

How the niches were created is another open question. An experiment with tools from the period has shown that it would take a day to carve a single niche into the rock. Those high above the ground might have been created by people standing on scaffolding, rather than hanging on ropes. In certain groups, the shapes of some niches look so similar that they might have been made by the same person.

The niches near Dazhdovnitsa village were cut as high as 45 meters above ground. They are among the highest rock niches discovered in Bulgaria so far

The niches near Dazhdovnitsa village were cut as high as 45 meters above ground. They are among the highest rock niches discovered in Bulgaria so far

Whatever their purpose or construction method, by the 5th century BC the Thracians stopped making niches – in the same way they stopped carving rock tombs. Why the change? No one can tell. The last person who knew the answer died centuries ago. What is left to modern researchers is to pick over scraps of facts and evidence, and to try to create of them a coherent picture of the past.

Niches dot the rock shrine at Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks. The sanctuary also includes two tombs, a staircase and a water cistern cut in the rocks, together with some temple buildings

Niches dot the rock shrine at Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks. The sanctuary also includes two tombs, a staircase and a water cistern cut in the rocks, together with some temple buildings 

Rock niches and tombs dot the environs of Dolno Cherkovishte village

Rock niches and tombs dot the environs of Dolno Cherkovishte village

Rock niches near Nochevo village

Rock niches near Nochevo village


us4bg-logo-reversal.pngVibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine and realised by the Free Speech Foundation, 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 opinions expressed herein are solely those of the FSI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the America for Bulgaria Foundation or its affiliates.

Подкрепата за Фондация "Фрий спийч интернешънъл" е осигурена от Фондация "Америка за България". Изявленията и мненията, изразени тук, принадлежат единствено на ФСИ и не отразяват непременно вижданията на Фондация Америка за България или нейните партньори.


Issue 165 America for Bulgaria Foundation The Rhodope Thracian heritage Archaeology Bulgaria

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.

0 comments

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

sboryanovo tomb entrance.jpg
SILENCE OF THE CARYATIDS
No matter how diverse and interesting Thracian heritage is, time, destruction and rebuilding in war and peace, continual habitation and treasure-hunting have wiped out a lot of it – reducing it to a tomb here, a treasure there, and a shrine in what today ap

tryavna old bridge
WINTER TALES IN TRYAVNA
Wood-beamed houses, cobbled streets, mystic religious art and even some snow... you do not need to travel to France or Germany to immerse in the atmosphere of Christmas in a cosy town that has changed little over the centuries. 

musicians bulgaria
ST NICHOLAS DAY, SOZOPOL STYLE
In Western Europe, the 6th of December, or St Nicholas Day, is a time where the first whiff of Christmas gets felt. After all, the saint with his white beard and penchant for bringing gifts to good children is the draft of the modern Santa Claus. 

thracian gold wreath
FIRST KINGS OF EUROPE
Who were the first kings of Europe? Homer heroes such as Agamemnon are the first to pop up in the minds of educated Westerners, but hierarchical societies on the continent predate the ancient Greeks.

fishermen settlement bulgaria sunset
BULGARIA'S VERSION OF CANNERY ROW IS IN CHENGENE SKELE
Any chance visitor who has detoured midway from the Burgas-Sozopol highway, on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast, will end up in an odd location.

industrial ruins bulgaria
SURPRISE, SURPRISE IN... PERNIK
When you plan a trip in Bulgaria, Pernik is rarely on the list (except for one event, more on this below).

Monument to Aleksandar Stamboliyski in front of the Sofia Opera and Ballet house
WHO WAS ALEKSANDAR STAMBOLIYSKI?
When you visit the Sofia Opera and Ballet House you will see an imposing bronze statue of a heavy-set man beside the grand entrance.

Kardzhali Dam is a preferred spot for picnic, photos and some water fun
ALL AROUND KARDZHALI
When you have a long weekend ahead and the weather looks good for a trip, heading to Kardzhali is a great option.

veliko tarnovo fortress.jpg
(RE)BUILDING BULGARIA'S PAST
When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, the expectation was that membership would bring the struggling former Communist country closer to the more developed economies in Europe.

uzundzhovo church mosque gate
SILENCED FAIR EN ROUTE TO STAMBOUL
Notwithstanding online shopping, it is hard to imagine what the experience of purchasing goods from far and wide in a highly cosmopolitan society was like in pre-industrial times. A quiet village in southern Bulgaria offers some illumination.

gorge bulgaria mystic
WESTERN RHODOPE WONDERS
Bulgaria's most stunning caves and gorges, along with thick forests and sites to discover and explore: the Western Rhodope is one of the best places in Bulgaria for a summer escape for both dedicated hikers and chance travellers.

russian church bulgaria
FAIRYTALE CHURCH
When travelling near Kazanlak in the Valley of Roses (also known as the Valley of Thracian Kings), your attention will be drawn to three monuments on the slopes of the Stara Planina mountain range.