A journey to the sacred Thracian town of Perperikon
The rocky hill rises above the fertile valley of the Perpereshka River, a left tributary to the Arda. It was deified by the people of the Stone - Copper Age (late 5th - early 4th millennium BC). Then there was no low vegetation like today, so the ancients laid their donations to the Gods right on the stony surface. These were afterwards stored into the deep crevices, remnants of the numberless earthquakes during millennia. Archaeologists are uncovering the gifts in their excavations today - idols, ceramic vessels, stone and copper tools.
Later, during the Late Bronze and the Early Iron Age (18th c. - 6th c. BC), Perperikon turned into an impressive religious centre. Hundreds of rooms were hewn out in the rock; the stone mass excavated equalling thousands of tonnes. Shortly before the start of the first millennium AD and during its first few centuries the town development achieved completion. Generally speaking, its infrastructure included: a fortress on the summit - an Acropolis; to the southeast, immediately under the latter - a Palace-sanctuary, which was also fortified; North and South sub-town areas. The general construction principle was adhered to in all of them: the buildings' ground floor was dug into the stone.
The Palace-sanctuary used to be accessed via a 100m long pass, hewn into the magnificent rocks. A natural narrow path, with stone walls up to 7-8m high at some places, was made use of. Human tools gave the final touch to it and added stone stairs to climb the steep slope. At its end the path reaches the fortress wall, which encompasses the Palace-sanctuary and joins the one of the Acropolis. It is nearly 3m thick and has been erected with enormous, skillfully shaped blocks, "without any mortar. The inside can be entered through two consecutive gates, whose thresholds have been preserved.
Having passed the second gate, we find ourselves in the yard of the Palace-sanctuary. Entirely preserved gates lead us to dozens of rooms, dug up to 4 - 5 m deep in the rock. Where there was no more rock to be turned into a wall, the skilled hands of builders extended it by stone masonry and strong trimmer joists. Thus the majestic architectural wonder expanded to cover an area of 10 000 square metres in seven successive levels from west to east. The Palace-sanctuary has a terraced structure, nearly 30 m high. But the ensemble disposed of at least three more floors: holes for massive carrier beams testify to that. And at some places, the thresholds for doors to rooms on the upper floors have survived. Indeed, the Palace-sanctuary must have been a glorious sight from the river valley.
However, the well-preserved ground floor is enough to make us marvel at the grandeur of the complex. Its general plan includes several frames and resembles the letter T. Having stepped across the stone thresholds we enter various rooms and halls, climb stairs, walk along secret passages with sockets for the torches that used to light them once. From west to east two crypts can be seen, with 15 and 5 sarcophagi respectively. These were looted as early as the antiquity, but it is beyond any doubt that ancient Thracian kings and high priests were buried there. And there are also the indispensable servicing premises.
East of the inner yard, an enormous ceremonial hall is located, more than 30m long. One can enter it through two-leaved doors and a five-stairs staircase, which emphasizes the feeling of stateliness and solemnity. The other basic element of the Palace-sanctuary is the big oval, non-roofed hall, integrated in its north-west frame. A 3m high, 2m wide altar towers above the hall's centre. One can still see the traces of the repeated use of open fire. The finds point to the fact that this was the earliest megalith structure to be integrated later in the growing Palace-sanctuary. And this very hall has turned out to be the most important part of the ensemble because of the fact that it coincides with data from historical sources.
Even at the time of his life, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus related about a famous sanctuary with an oracular shrine, dedicated to the old Thracian god Dionysus - Zagreus, located somewhere in the Rhodope mountains. Its priestess was as renowned as the unsurpassed Pythia in the temple of Apollo Delphinium. Later, the Roman writer Svetonius added that Alexander the Great and Gaius Octavius, father of the first Roman Emperor, had come here themselves to learn about the future fate of their grand undertakings. The tales of old make it clear that the shrine to Dionysus - Zagreus was a rock - hewn megalith structure with a stone altar, where wine was poured and fires were lit. It was the height of the flames that helped the priests tell of the twists of fortune.
It turned out that of all sanctuaries, Perperikon was the one that archaeologists had been searching for so long. It appeared shortly before the end of the Bronze Era, but remained active as late as the times of Christian conversion in the Rhodopes at the very beginning of the 5th century. Herodotus wrote that the sacred site was guarded by the royal family of the Bessi tribe, inhabitants of the Great Mountain. Their king's palace was gradually erected around the shrine; it was the Thracian King's duty to be High Priest as well. It is known that the last of the Bessi kings and a priest to Dionysus was king Vologez. He led an uprising against the Roman conquerors in 11 BC.
Traces of the cult to Dionysus - Zagreus can be seen on the slopes of the palace hill and its vicinity. These are thousands of smaller rock-hewn altars, where the ancient Thracians used to squeeze out the grapes' juice, from which the sacred God wine was made. The precious liquid was then stored in big earthen jars, which were buried into the soil to keep cool.
It is hardly a coincidence that the prophecy about the first Roman emperor was not made anywhere else, but on the sacred summit of Perperikon. The Italic population respected the ancient Thracian cult, so they added to its glorious appearance. An unusual plentitude of finds has been discovered, dating from 1st - 4th centuries AD - numerous coins, bronze figures, silver mirrors, and metal applications, representing various ancient deities. The Palace-sanctuary flourished and lots of newly-built architectural monuments formed an enormous town, hewn in the rocks in an amazing way.
A considerable part of the summit fortress, the Acropolis, has been studied over the last few years. In its eastern portion there is a heathen shrine, turned later into a church by the Christians. It is connected to the main square by a rock-hewn street and close to it there is a portico with an exquisite colonnade. It is beautifully surrounded by buildings from different epochs. The street goes past the fortress wall and reaches a second palace, located near the centre of the Acropolis. There are two monumental entrances to it, from north and south, and the perfectly preserved ground floor reveals no less than 17 premises. There are also dozens of buildings from the ancient epoch in the northwest part and the fortress wall has been preserved up to 8m high.
The skill of the old-time architects and constructors should be mentioned here. They built a perfect system of sewers to drain the yards and ground floors of the rock-hewn complex in case of torrential rain. The water went down numerous carved gutters, which passed through the stone thresholds in specially-made openings, and down the hill slopes to cesspits. There are lots of access shafts in the pavement that were used for cleaning the gutters from fallen leaves. And drinking water was kept in enormous tanks, which were also hewn in the rock mass. These were filled by rainwater or from sources of their own.
Just a few metres from the Palace, the archaeologists came across the oldest church, found so far in the Rhodopes. All evidence points to the conclusion that this was the place where the well-known mission of bishop Nicetas of Remesiana started, converting the Great Mountain to Christianity. It happened immediately after the invasion of the Goths, who conquered the town and set it to fire in the last decades of the 4th century. It was exactly here that the celebrated bishop translated the Holy Scriptures into the Bessi language, which enabled them to get closer to the Word of God. It was as early as then that Perperikon became a bishop's centre, to remain such until its fall under Ottoman rule.
The Sacred Town retained its glamour during the Middle Ages. The fortress was an important military, secular, and spiritual stronghold. And it was during 9th - 12th centuries that a new administrative complex was erected at the foot of Perperikon. The state government of Achridos province (the name of the Eastern Phodopes in those centuries) was concentrated here. At that time the gold mines in the immediate vicinity, previously used by the Bessi Thracians, were revived and exploited anew. Even today the endless extraction galleries of these mines are an incredible landmark, testifying to the skill of the ancients.
The new centre was a complex architectural ensemble with series of premises, a beautiful mosaic-covered church, and chapels. The excavation finds are extremely diverse and only comparable to the brilliance of the Byzantine capital Constantinople. The numerous lead seals, discovered here, bear the addresses of the senders, thus revealing the functions of this complex. It turned out to be the centre of the Emperor's personal lands, and it was precisely the Eastern Rhodopes that belonged to him in the Middle Ages. Estates were conferred on high aristocracy from here and gold-mining in the whole of the mineral-rich mountain was controlled.
In 13th-14th centuries the riches and the gold of Perperikon was the cause of frequent wars between Bulgaria and Byzantium. No matter who the fortress belonged to, they attended to its development and reinforcement. New towers were added to the walls of the ancient Acropolis and a strong citadel was built at the highest spot to serve as last defence. A lot of stone buildings, typical of the epoch, forming residential blocks, have been uncovered in many places. The old water storage tanks, hewn in the rocks in Thracian times, were made effective use of. A new church made of broken rock, joined by mortar, was erected upon the ruins of an old heathen temple. Life was also bustling in the north and south sub-town areas.
During the reign of the tsars Kaloyan (1197 -1207) and Ivan Asen 2nd (1218 - 1241), Perperikon and the Eastern Rhodopes were within the borders of Bulgaria only to be unluckily lost by their successors. In 1254 - 1255 Tsar Mihail Asen 2nd made an unsuccessful attempt to regain Achridos. In 1343 tsar Ivan Aleksandar managed to do so, but only for a short period. Then a real war broke out over Perperikon and eventually the Bulgarians lost the important fortification. Shortly after that the Ottoman Turks conquered the town and put it to fire. The archaeological excavations located the precise spot where the invaders penetrated the citadel, the last refuge of the surviving Christians.
Thus the ancient fortress ceased to function but the ancestors of its last defenders lived on in the small villages at the foot of the sacred hill until as late as 17th century. A Turkish register from 1626/1627 testifies to the fact that the population there was entirely made up of Christians. After 18th century a mass colonization by newly settling Muslims followed, whose descendants still live in the villages at the foot of the ancient Perperikon.
If one wants to feel the ambience of the Sacred Town really and truly, they should spare at least several hours on that. Then simply sit on the rocks and try to sense the omnipresent spirit of time, like we do. When it is time to go, we will get back to Zlatograd to have a good rest and be ready for the adventures to come.