A Trip to the Rhodopian Mountain - photostory part 2
Elli Stoyanova, 22 August 2005
« See the first part of this photostory here
The village of Tatoul ( Tatul ) is situated about 15 km from Momchilgrad. It has recently become extremely popular with the Thracian sanctuary discovered 200-300 m to the south of it. We reach the village in the late afternoon. It consists of a few houses and is very quiet. No-one seems interested in the newcomers except a few turkeys so we decide to take the path to the sanctuary without losing more time.
The hill is only a 10-minute walk from the village. When observed from a distance it really resembles a truncated pyramid. Two piles of stones at its foot suggest that a great deal of work has been done by archaeologists before the imposing ancient construction at the hilltop was uncovered. When we climb up the slope we find ourselves among a multitude of stone platforms and stairs. Then suddenly a 15-year boy appears from the village and seems eager to explain to us everything he knows about the history of the place. His name is Adem and he has helped the archaeologists with their work throughout the summer. He explains to us that we are standing among the ruins of and ancient pagan shrine and a medieval fortress. The fortress was built later by the Byzantines when they conquered the lands.
We climb the last stairs to the top of the hill. It is a massive piece of rock in which two graves are carved. One of them is in its southern side and is semicircular in shape. The other one is at the top of the rock and is open to the sky. It has the shape of a rectangle with a furrow suggesting that it was covered by a lid. Adem says that the Thracians used the sanctuary for sacrifices and for observation of the sunrise and the sunset on the days of the spring and the autumnal equinox. Archaeologists have found many pieces of ceramic and many tombs in the northern slope of the hill. Nickolay Ovcharov, who leads the excavations, proposes the hypothesis that the grave at the top belongs to the Thracian king Orpheus deified after his death.
Old legends say that he was such a talented singer that he could enchant wild beasts, rivers and stones with his songs. According to the hypothesis of prof. Venedikov the grave of Orpheus has to be on a high rock so that he can become an intermediary between Gods and humans. There is still no written evidence whether he really existed or was just a mythical figure. However, the recent discovery of a bronze statuette of Orpheus near the hill came as another proof that the sanctuary was dedicated to him. We are sitting on the rock together with Adem and watching the sunset just as the Thracians did thousands of years ago. It is so strange to know that somebody was here and touched the same stones so long before you. The view from the hill is magnificent. You feel really close to the sky. It is a magical place, charged with so much energy.
We can sit here for hours but it is getting dark and grey clouds are gathering in the sky above us. Adem gives us directions to the nearby guesthouse. We arrive there just in time to avoid the thunderstorm.
The last day of our journey is dedicated to Perperikon – a magnificent Thracian sanctuary located 14km from Kardjali. Nickolay Ovacharov leads the excavations there as well.
The road to the hill is signed and well-maintained, only the last part of it is somewhat difficult because it is not asphalted. We leave the car where a couple of other cars are parked and head for the hill. At the foot of the hill we meet people who offer us maps of the place. We decide it would be wise to buy one because there aren’t any signs for orientation in the stone complex.
The climbing is exhausting because of the heat, shadow is scarce until we reach the Stone Passage which is built between 7-meter-high rocks. A strong stone wall appears before us at the end of the passage. This is the fortification wall of the palace. Behind the remnants of the wall there is a small court which was used as a strategical place for attacking invaders.
Once a double gate leaded to the court and another one leaded into the fortress. We are crossing the threshold of the fortress. Our adventure starts here. As we are stepping inside the inner court we are stunned by the magnificence of the palace. It is huge and all built of stone blocks. Some rooms are even carved in the rocks. More than 50 rooms with preserved stone doorsteps were found from west to east.
Five stairs lead to the Great Hall in which marvelous ceremonies took place. The enormous 30-meter-long hall was carved in the rock in its western part. Its wooden floor in the eastern part was supported by two massive stone walls.
On the lower level you can see a small tomb with sarcophagi where ancient rulers and priests were buried. There is a big tomb in the complex as well also used for the burial of important people. Unfortunately both tombs were looted in the past and archaeologists didn't find any precious objects left in them.
Following the directions on the map, we find an impressive round hall at the west end of the fortress. The hall was obviously roofless because there are no niches for wooden beams in the walls. We are standing filled with awe at the centre of the Shrine of Dionisius. A big round stone altar is rising right before us. The Thracian priests carried out their rituals in the shrine, spilled sacred wine on the altar, made fire and predicted the future by the height of the smoke which was rising to the sky. The prophecy that Alexander the Great would conquer the world was made in this shrine. Mystic rituals connected with the cult of Dionisius and Orphism took place here.
Leaving the palace through the southern gate we start climbing for another 30 meters. We reach the ruins of the Acropolis – a stronghold which once protected the inhabitants of the sacred place. We are in front of the remnants of a big basilica. It was a pagan temple at first and later was transformed into a Christian church.
Next we are heading to the Small Palace. The first level of the houses was carved in the rock and it is well-preserved. We can easily imagine these streets and rooms teeming with life.
Our next discovery is a water cistern which was also carved in the rock. There are two such cisterns in Perperikon and archaeologists think that there was even a primitive water-supply system made of clay tubes. From here we can see that the work on the excavations continues full steam. Many archaeologists and workers are digging on the northern slope where a great number of small altars were found. They were used either for blood sacrifice or for the production of sacred wine.
Finally we reach the tower- it rises up in the sky as a symbol of the power and the glory of Perperikon. We decide to take a short rest here in its shadow before we descend the hill filled with admiration and totally enchanted.
For the rest of the afternoon we need a quiet beautiful place to rest and calm down a bit before we leave for Sofia. We have enough time to visit two of the famous rock formations in the Eastern Rhodopes – the Stone Mushrooms situated to the north of the village of Beli Plast and the Stone Wedding Party – between the villages of Zimzelen and Panchevo, to the east of Kardjali. They were both formed as a result of intense underwater volcanic activity during the Paleocene. The riolithic volcanic tuffs were later sculpted by the sun, the wind and the rains. The rocks are of different colours because they contain iron, manganese and other oxides. The mushrooms have pink stumps and greenish hoods which reach 2,5 m in diameter. They form a fantastic composition over a territory of 3ha.
The Stone Wedding Party (also called The Stone Pyramids) occupies a mmuch greater territory. The rocks coloured in pink, yellow and rusty red have whimsical shapes – some resemble pyramids and others – birds, animals and human figures. The light of the sunset intensifies their colours so that we think for a moment that the petrified figures will become alive.
Now it’s time to wave goodbye to the mountain with all its treasures and return to the city. I honestly envy everyone who has more than three days to explore the Rhodopes – the sights worth visiting are countless. But even three days spent there now seem to me as a whole week because of the many exciting experiences. Probably the Thracian gods use this small trick of time only to remind us of the magic of their mountain.