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Tatul - Orpheus sanctuary

Pilgrimage to the grave of Orpheus

On the next day the roads will take us to another extraordinary place in the Eastern Rhodopes. This time we will have to reach Momchilgrad, which is also about 50 km from Zlatograd. From there we are following an asphalt road, well designated with boards that lead to another big Thracian temple, belonging to the "civilization of the rock people". This is the shrine to the oracle Orpheus near today's village of Tatul.

   One is overwhelmed by the sight, even from a distance. The area around Tatul, Bivolyane, Raven, and Nanovitsa villages is one of the richest in megalithic structures in the Eastern Rhodopes. The landscape is weird and unreal - the canyons of little fast-running rivers cut into the low hills. There are massive rocks everywhere, all of them "perforated" by ensembles of trapeze-shaped niches and cemeteries of unknown Thracian chieftains. However, the skyline of one of these structures can be seen from as far as dozens of kilometers. This is the shrine near Tatul.

   The stony summit of the low but otherwise impressively protruding hill has been cut by human tools in the shape of a truncated pyramid. On a flattened site at the top, a quadrangular sarcophagus, oriented to the east, has been hewn. It will have been looted even in antiquity, but the grooves where the covering plate used to lie, are still visible. On the south side of the truncated pyramid, there is a second sarcophagus, but this one is covered by a high vault. It is curious that there is an opening in the wall of the upper chamber, obviously intended to let out some kind of unidentified liquid through a grooved drain into the lower chamber.

   Other structures have been made in the rocks as well - stairs, mounting grooves for walls that no longer exist, niches for laying the gifts. In the immediate vicinity, on the west side, the terrace has been made perfectly flat and a quadrangular bed has been hewn for the main altar of the shrine. Fragments from the clay altar rim, beautifully decorated with animal figures and floral ornaments, were discovered during the excavations. It bears a close resemblance to the artefacts from the main temple of the Odryssian Thracians, found in the 1950s in their capital Seutopolis near today's town of Kazanlak.

   Another important part of the megalithic complex is a three-metre deep well with a small square opening on top, dug into the very rock. Archaeological research indicates this was a sacred well, where the ancient priests laid the offerings to the Gods. Later, during Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the cavity was coated with waterproof mortar and turned into a foodstuffs depot. And not far from it, between two cliffs, the architects of old erected a square watchtower, whose underground floor is also coated with waterproof mortar in order to preserve the drinking water, so highly valued in the mountains.

   During the archaeological excavations the researchers came across the remains of an imposing Thracian temple, only a few metres away from the truncated pyramid. Its base is practically square and it is built from perfectly shaped stone blocks. The facades are constructed with precision and one can look inside at a window. This architectural monument has been preserved up to nearly 6m high. Until now, apart from the shrines to the Great Deities of Samothrace in Seuthopolis, no such terrestrial Thracian cult structure has been discovered.

   A beautifully preserved eight-stepped staircase was discovered between the shrine and the truncated pyramid. Passing through a grand entrance, the Thracian Priests once stalked on it. The staircase leads to a large altar, hewn in the rock in front of the main megalithic monument. The whole sacred space of the hill is encompassed by a high stone wall. Parts of it have been well preserved and there are also the mounting grooves in the cliffs to testify to its position, following the almost vertical rock at places.

   Like all megalithic sites, the sanctuary near Tatul was created in the remote past, and then continuously inhabited until as late as the Middle Ages. The spectacular rock massif was deified even by the people of the Stone-Copper Age at the end of the 5th millennium B.C. The first stone work was performed here either in the Late Bronze Age, or in the second half of the 2nd millennium B.C., simultaneously with the creation of the other Eastern Rhodopean megalithic monuments. Shaping of the rocks continued during the Iron Age and the complex kept on expanding. In the last few centuries B.C. the magnificent shrine was built, whose architectural style would do credit even to Hellenic cities. Archaeological finds also testify to the flourishing of the Tatul sanctuary after the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century A.D. Until the adoption of Christianity, the place had been repeatedly reconstructed and facilities - developed. After the 5th century A.D. the shrine was turned into a Byzantine worldly domain. There is a family graveyard from this period, in which the deceased had been buried with a plentitude of adornments - bronze bracelets, earrings, and buttons. The uncovered lead seals reveal that during 10th and llth centuries the domain was owned by the first representatives of the Palaiologos family, whose blood runs in the veins of the royal dynasties of Byzantium, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia.

   But what was the original cause to build the sanctuary? No doubt, it must be looked for in the earliest rock to be processed by human hand - the truncated pyramid with the cemetery on top. Even the prominent historian Ivan Venedikov suggested that a great Thracian king must have been laid to rest here. In fact this is no ordinary burial custom; it is entirely different from the later tradition of laying the deceased kings in cemeteries under huge earthen mounds. It originates in the dark epoch around the times of the Troyan War and is linked with the boundless ridges and recesses of the Rhodopes. Such burials aimed at the continuation of the role of the King - High Priest as a mediator between Gods and ordinary people even after his death. In the Thracians' concept, a dead man of such rank is first transformed into a semi-god (anthropodaemon) and consequently - into a deity proper. The sites, where the remains of the rulers rest, used to be of special importance. They were immediately turned into sanctuaries (heroa), and were thought to protect the local population from disease and natural calamities.

   According to Venedikov, the most relevant testimony to the ritual, once performed at Tatul, are the legends about the burial of the celebrated king-priest, musician and oracle Orpheus, who was born in the Rhodope Mountains. Ancient writers relate that after being torn apart by the bacchantes of Dionysus (whose High Priest he was himself), his dust was put in an urn and laid to rest on top of a high column. Thus the anthropodaemon Orpheus was close to the gods even in his death, and at the same time - his bones were not disturbed by the rays of the Sun. A similar custom has been described regarding another well-known Rhodopean king, the one who took part in the Troyan war, Rhezos. Having found his death from the hand of the cunning Odysseus, he was buried by his mother in a murky cave, high in the cliffs of the Great Mountain. He went on to live there as a semi-god and oracle to Dionysus-Zagreus. Ancient historians maintained that the Rhodopean sanctuaries of Orpheus and Rhezos repelled the plague and protected the local people from whatever misfortune there might be.

   Rhezos is known to have reigned somewhere in the southern Rhodopes, in the vicinity of the gold and silver rich Pangeus Mountain, whereas we are not even able to tell if Orheus was a real person or simply a mythological figure. His kingdom has been sought for in southeast Thrace, the Aegean, and the Rhodopes. Generally, various hypotheses outline his domain to have stretched between The Struma and Maritsa rivers, as well as in the Rhodopes and the adjoining coast of the Aegean. The time of his life is thought to be that of the Late Bronze Era, the epoch of Troy and Mycenae, and of Achilles, Hector, Paris, and Odysseus - the legendary heroes of the war that was to become best known in all history.

   Not long ago a dispute arose between Bulgaria and Greece on the origin of Orpheus. What makes settling this problem so difficult, is the fact that the Thracians did not put their ancient tales in writing and it was only one thousand years later that the Hellenes did so. The Greek author Ibycus was the one to mention this name for the first time in the 6th century B.C. All ancient authors after him mention the Thracian origin of Orpheus. The great Aeschylus named him "Orpheus the Thracian" while Conoh and Strabo even defined the tribes that his kingdom incorporated: Aedon, Odryss, and the Kikonae, who used to live in the immediate vicinity of the Eastern Rhodopes. As legend has it, Dionysus bestowed the Thracian kingdom on Orpheus's grandfather, Charops, in return for his help. He also taught him the secret mysteries and rites, which were to be mastered to perfection by his grandson.

   A Thracian from the Rhodopes and the Aegean as he was, Orpheus became a great hero of Greece. Towards the end of the 4th century BC the writers of the Museon of Alexandria revised the old Thracian myths, creating the legends that are known to all: the journey with the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, the descent into the subterranean world after his beloved Eurydice, and the tale of the bacchantes of Dionysus, tearing him apart. Perhaps the myth of Orpheus's death reveals most eloquently the fusion of Thracian and Greek motifs. According to it, the musician was tormented by the Thracian women because he was in the habit of abducting their men for days on end. After tearing him, they threw his head and the "Thracian lyre" into The Maritsa River, which carried them to the Isle of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. It was namely there that the Greeks created a strong cult to the hero of Thrace.

   The monumental sanctuary, discovered by the archaeologists near Tatul, is definitely linked to the worship of the great hero. As a matter of fact it is the only one of those discovered so far, that we can positively associate with Orpheus. And its magnificent architecture, the various coins, along with the discovered pottery, which is not only Thracian, but imported from Greece as well - all this testifies to the fact that the sanctuary, created by Thracians, was also revered by their Hellenic neighbours.


An ascent to the womb of the great mother goddess >>

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