Friday, 28 July 2017

Perperikon, Bulgaria's Delphi: the Ancient City of Excessive Pleasures

Text by Kalina Yankova | Photographs by Albena Shkodrova   
A rival of Delphi or the fruit of archaeologists’ fantasies, the half-ruined Thracian city of Perperikon is one of Bulgaria’s most interesting destinations. Discovered 20 years ago, it is still undergoing excavations and every consecutive step of the digs provides new food for the imagination of Bulgarian historians.

Located in the Eastern Rodopi Mountains, Perperikon is perched on one of the low hills, 15 kilometres north-east of the town of Kurdzhali. On the hill, 470 metres above sea level, one can make out various, overgrown-with-grass but nonetheless impressive elements: stone steps, half-destroyed walls, tombs, food depositories, mosaics and stone equipment which – according to archaeologists, was used for making wine and sacred rituals.

Scattered around the hill, the ruins outline an acropolis, a fortress and a sanctuary, housing structures, halls, rooms, corridors, staircases and streets, which were probably the boulevards of their time. Down below, the gold-bearing Perpereshka River runs, its valley strewn with dozens of archaeological finds from various eras, grouped around Perperikon.

Perperikon (changed through the years from the Greek name Hyperperakion) is the most significant archaeological find on Bulgarian territory for the last 20 years. Scientists believe that it was precisely Perperikon that was the temple of Dionysus described by Herodotus, which used to rival Delphi in Antiquity.

According to ancient chronicles, two of the most fateful prophecies in the history of modern civilization were made here: the oracle of the Rodopi, which told fortunes with wine and fire, foretold Alexander the Great that that he shall conquer the world, and the Romans – that they shall become an empire spanning over the entire known world.

During Antiquity Perperikon was inhabited by the Thracians – an ancient tribe which research supposes settled on the Balkan Peninsula around 2000 BC. The mythical singer Orpheus belonged to these people and according to historians, Orpheusism originated here, which spread as a philosophy among the Hellenes, and later in Rome.

The Bulgarian lands have preserved an exceptional amount of traces from the ancient Thracians and the gold and silver objects made by them make a significant part of the country’s historical heritage. A collection of nearly 3,000 Thracian artefacts found on Bulgarian territory was presented in some European cities in the last few years.

Many of the finds lead historians to believe that it was precisely Perperikon that was the sanctuary of Dionysus, mentioned by Herodotus. The prophetic place whose oracle made the two fateful predictions belonged to the Thracians and was located in a Holy Mountain – the Rodopi. The wine presses, hewn into the rocks around Perperikon, are used as another testament. The complicated system of pools, overflow drains and canals suggest that during Antiquity wine was made in a lot of places here but in small amounts – for ritual purposes. Archaeologists believe that the ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus, the prophecies and the rituals, some of which were wild bacchanalias, performed by crazed, intoxicated followers of the ancient Greek god of wine, were a daily occurrence here.

The eccentric, scandalous-from-a-modern-point-of-view rituals of the Thracians were performed by unmarried men, usually in places inaccessible to others, like cliffs and caves. Their culmination included the symbolic death of the king priest – linked to the legend of Dionysus’s being ripped to pieces by the Titans, and usually the offering as sacrifice of large animals and sometimes people. The second part of the ritual included the symbolic conception of the goddess mother, which turned into copulations en masse – a custom, which led Herodotus to accuse the Thracians of loose morals.

One of the most sensational finds around Perperikon was connected to the Orpheus mysteries. Led by fuzzy historical records, in 2001 archaeologists discovered an amazing site: a cave in the uninhabited area of Tangarduk kaya not far from Kurdzhali, which has been turned with the help of human effort into an exact copy of a female vulva. The cave was artificially deepened to 22 metres and its form is reminiscent to that of a womb, with water constantly running down its inside. At the far end, an altar symbolises the uterus. The real surprise, however, comes at around noon, when – though a specially hewn opening enter the sun rays in the shape of a perfectly formed phallus, which gradually grows bigger and turns in the direction of the altar-uterus. Only in January and February the angle of the light allows the rays to “impregnate” the “womb.”

Ancient authors described such a temple on the island of Samothrace, in which they claimed that initiated, unmarried men performed sexual rituals with Thracian girls. There are also sources that claim the ritual used to be performed in Delphi.

Besides written historical sources, Bulgarian anthropologists were also led in their search by a strange ritual preserved in the sparsely populated Strandzha Mountain in south-eastern Bulgaria. According to a belief that has been preserved until today, Saint Marina inhabited a cave, in which water ran like sperm flowing into a uterus, while Marina herself was conceived with the help of the Sun. Some sources say that during the Middle Ages, families that honoured the saint would send their sons and daughters in such caves so that they can participate in the sacrament of conception.

An important occupation for the inhabitants of ancient Perperikon was the extraction of gold and silver. One of the biggest gold mines of the ancient world was just two kilometres away from the settlement – nowadays, about ten of its entrances have been preserved and more than 500 metres of galleries are accessible. Archaeologists found an entire hill – eaten through by tunnels in all directions, as if from a fairytale about forest dwarfs. During the Pleistocene, the bed of a river went through here, which left behind sand rich in native gold and this pedantically studied mine must have turned out to be exceptionally fruitful.

The remains of Perperikon itself now consist of a large fortress, an acropolis in the hill’s highest part, a sanctuary and two adjoining settlements from the north and south. About 30 metres underneath the acropolis is located the grandiose sanctuary structure. The “road to the temple” is of special interest – a 100-metre trail broken through the rock up to its entry.

An enormous oval hall hewn into the rocks, which never had a roof, concurs quite literally with writings by ancient authors about the temple of Dionysus in the Rodopi Mountains. In its centre is hewn a round, two-metre altar, which rises nearly three metres from the floor of the room.

Similarly to Apollo’s sanctuary in Delphi, towards the end of the Hellenistic period, Perperikon lost its functions as a centre for the Dionysus cult. There are traces that during the first century, the Romans restored it just like they did with Delphi.

Later, Christianity was established here. Historians believe that during the early Middle Ages, Byzantium went against the rules and allowed the Thracians to do religious services in their own language and so, the strange bible was created here known as ‘Besika’ – of the Bessi, one of the Thracian tribes. One of the interesting finds is a large cross containing several chambers for the preservation of relics. Very small pieces of wood were discovered in one of them. Archaeologists say they could be little pieces of Jesus’s cross, brought over by Crusaders during the first Crusades to Jerusalem.

Perperikon could turn out to be the event of the century for Bulgarian archaeology. Its best quality, however, is the fact that it continues to hide layers and layers of history, filled with promising mysteries.

Read more about the archaeological and natural sites around Perperikon and the nearby town of Kurdzhali on
Read more about Bulgaria on
tips to organize your trip to Bulgaria




Foreign Wines Outnumbered Bulgarian Ones on Vinaria 2014 Competition

11 March 2014 | National wine tastings, preceding Bulgaria’s biggest wine fair, Vinaria 2014, started today with a surprise: foreign wines exceeded in number Bulgarian ones first time in history of the competition. Full Story

Curiosity Chest

Dimitur, who visualisеd the Bulgarian expression “Pumpkin Head!”

26 February 2014 | He is 26 and he tried to enroll in the national Fine Arts academy. Academics, though, refused to recognize his talents, and this is how he searched for consolation in food carving. Full Story


Bansko Jazz Festival in Bulgaria: The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music

Although Bankso is still best known as Bulgaria’s biggest and most modern winter resort and a skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts’ favourite, the town – nestled in the Pirin Mountain, has also established a reputation among music lovers as the host town of one of the country’s biggest jazz festivals. Full Story