Perperikon, the Holy City of the Thracians

This, probably the most famous archaeological site in Bulgaria in the past few years, is located about 20 km northeast of the town of Kardjali. It has been intensively studied by my team since 2000. The rocky hill was worshipped by people as far back as the Stone and Copper Age. In late bonze, early iron age Perperikon had turned into an impressive cult centre. Hundreds of premises had been cut into the rocks, whereby thousands of tons of stone had been removed. By the end of the Old and the early centuries of the New Age the town reached its completed form. Its infrastructure covers most generally a fortress on the peak, and an Acropolis; a fortified Palace-Sanctuary, located directly under it to the southeast, as well as northern and southern substructures.

The Palace-Sanctuary can be reached along a 100 m long passage, cut into the impressive crags. A natural pass, up to 7-8 m high at places, was used there. Man-operated tools processed it further, whereby stone steps were additionally shaped for climbing up the steep road. Finally one gets to the fortress wall, encircling the Palace-Sanctuary on all sides and connected with the fortress wall of the Acropolis. It is nearly 3 m thick and was built out of huge, skillfully chiseled blocks of stone and no masonry. Two consecutive entrances with preserved thresholds lead into the interior.
Passing through the second entrance, the visitor enters into the Palace and Sanctuary. Completely preserved gates lead into dozens of premises, chiseled out into the stone up to 4-5 m deep. Crossing the stone thresholds, one enters different rooms, halls and mysterious underground tombs, climbs up stairs, and follows hidden corridors with places, chiseled out for the torches which once illumined them. The grandiose architectural facility spreads on an area of 10 000 sq m on seven consecutive levels, alternating from West to East. The palace and sanctuary has a step-like structure, whereby the displacement reaches close to 30 m. In height the ensemble developed on at least three more floors, traces of which were evidenced by the holes cut for the solid carrying planks. At one time, viewed from the valley of the river, the Palace and Sanctuary must indeed have been an impressive sight.

East of the inner courtyard unfolds a huge ceremonial hall, more than 30 m long. To gain access to it, you cross a two-winged gate and climb a five-step staircase, enhancing the feeling of solemnity and grandeur. The other main element of the Palace and Sanctuary is the big oval hall with no roof on top, included in its northwest corpus. Rising in its centre at a height of 3m is a round stone altar with a diameter of 2 m. Numerous fires on it have left traces.
Far back in history, the Old Greek historian Herodotus referred to a famous sanctuary of the ancient Thracian god Dionysus-Zagreus with premises where prophesies had been made, which was located somewhere in the Rhodope Mountains. The Priestess there was as famous as the unsurpassed Pythia in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The later Roman author Suetonius added that Alexander the Great, himself, and Gaius Octavius, the father of the First Roman Emperor, had used to come here to learn the fate of their grand undertakings. The Temple of Dionysus-Zagreus was cut into the rocks and had a stone altar, on which wine was poured and fires were lit. Precisely by the height of the fire, priests made prophesies about the whims of fate.

Perperikon has turned out to be the sanctuary, long-sought searched for by archaeologists. It emerged circa the end of the Bronze Age and functioned until the beginning of the 5th century A.D. Herodotus wrote that the holy site had been guarded by the royal clan of the Thracians – the Bessi, inhabiting the Rhodope Mountains. The palace of their ruler had gradually taken shape around it, because among the Thracians the king had also been the chief priest. The last king of the Bessi and priest of Dionysus was Vologaises, who had organised a revolt against the Roman conquerors during the 11th century B.C.
Italics honoured the ancient Thracian cult and lent it even greater brilliance. Streets, cut into the rocks, appeared in the Acropolis, fenced off by mighty colonnades. Representative architectural compounds, temples and housing buildings developed around. Exceptionally rich finds come to light from the 1 st-4th century: artistic pottery, numerous coins, bronze sculptures, silver mirrors and metal appliques with depictions of ancient deities. The Palace and Sanctuary flowered and the later built architectural monuments made up an entire huge city, amazingly cut into the rocks.

The spread of Christianity in the Rhodope Mountains started also from Perperikon in the early 5th century A.D. In 2005 archaeologists succeeded in uncovering the earliest church in this part of the mountains. During the Middle Ages the rock city remained an important administrative centre, for which Bulgaria fought repeatedly against Byzantium. In 1362 it was captured and destroyed by fire by the Ottoman Turks, never reviving afterwards.


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