Temple of the Legendary Orpheus

A small stone hill rises in the depths of the Rhodope Mountains, next to the village of Tatoul. Its top was shaped by the tools of man as a truncated pyramid. A rectangular sarcophagus was cut out onto the levelled platform, oriented eastwards. Laterally, on the southern part of the truncated pyramid, a second sarcophagus was cut out this time under a high arch-shaped vault. Other details were also cut into the rocks – staircases, sticking points of now non-existing walls, niches and deep sacred wells for gifts. The platform was levelled out directly westwards and a quadrangular bed was cut out for the main altar of the sanctuary. Fragments of its clay rim have been uncovered with beautiful animal figures and floral ornaments.

The bulk of the premises were cut during the late Bronze Age (18th-11th century B.C.). By the side of the truncated pyramid and the tomb on top of it, a whole circle of clay fireplaces-altars was formed, on which sacrificial offerings and ablations were performed for the deities. A total of about 30 such altars have been uncovered, which sometimes functioned for a long time. Hundreds of objects associated with the ancient cults have been found in the ashes. These are clay human idols and shafts of spindles and bronze objects. Dozens of intact vessels for drinking holy wine and numerous bones from the sacrificial offerings have been found by the side of the altars. The uncovered clay wheels for models of Holy Chariots, as well as the peak of a priest’s sceptre are unique. Part of a gold mask, resembling those uncovered from the time of the royal tombs in Mycenae has also been unearthed.

During that time the main deity in the Eastern Mediterranean region was the Sun-God. The entire sanctuary is oriented precisely to the east to the heavenly source of light. Early in the morning sunrays shine inside and illumine the holy space. The depiction of the God-Sun can be found everywhere in various forms. The earthenware vessels are spotted with its symbols. Ornaments incised and filled with white paste cover their entire walls. Together with the Thracian pottery, pottery from far away lands has also been found – from Asia Minor, the islands in the Aegean Sea, even from the Archipelago of Cyprus. This goes to show that as far back as during the Late Bronze Age, the sanctuary at Tatoul was worshipped throughout the entire Eastern Mediterranean Region.

All these finds support historian Ivan Venedikov’s guess that Orpheus, the legendary patron of the Rhodope Mountains, was worshipped near the present-day village of Tatoul. The tomb on the top of the rock is his symbolic tomb, so that he might be the mediator between the Gods and people. No doubt, this is the oldest hero worship site, a sanctuary of a deified ruler, found in Thrace. The archaeological investigations have shown that the cult had its apogee during the late part of the Bronze Age, when the well-known myths and legends took shape. Everything uncovered so far testifies to the fact that a hero, familiar not only in Thrace, but in faraway lands too, was worshipped in that site of worship.

During the last centuries of the Old and at the very start of the New Age, the shrine was surrounded by a strong stone wall, while a magnificent temple and mausoleum was built to the north. It has been preserved up to 6 m and has a rectangular plan, built out of big and superbly shaped stone blocks. They were cut with such precision that even the blade of a sharp knife cannot be inserted into their joints. From the north one can enter the temple through a comparatively narrow entrance, whereas from the south, a rectangular window opens onto the interior of the sanctuary. The building was visited by just a very small number of devoted. This is practically the first temple in Thrace built above ground to be discovered by archaeologists.

During the period following the Roman conquest of Thrace (1st-4th century B.C.), the shrine experienced an extraordinary upsurge. New buildings appeared, already built out of broken stone and mortar. One of them was the refectory, where ablations and feasts started to be held, earlier performed in the open in front of the truncated rock pyramid. Dozens of glasses and jugs for wine have been found in the interior of this building. Most of them were made out of fine Roman red-lacquered ceramics. As in the earlier periods, imports from faraway lands could be identified, testifying to the great importance of the sanctuary beyond the frameworks of Thrace. The sanctuary declined when Christianity was adopted during the 5th century, and later on a Byzantine secular estate was built there.

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