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xEurasia Odyssey

Breezing through Bulgaria

BULGARIA | Wednesday, 10 November 2021 | Views [179]

Thracian gold death mask, Kazanlak History Museum

Thracian gold death mask, Kazanlak History Museum

Breezing Through Bulgaria

Bulgaria is a land filled with mystery and beauty. I traveled to Bulgaria to visit the National Museums of Archeology in various cities in order to learn more about the ancient Thracians and their deities, but was hit with Covid – not me luckily, but the museums.  The museum websites had not been updated and though the internet said they were open, a sign on the museum in Sofia said it was closed from Nov. 1- 8; exactly coinciding with my visit. I had booked a flight to Varna for the following day just go to the museum there, but that one too was closed when I arrived– even though in both cities, the Tourist Information Centers said they were open. Luckily, both cities are filled with fascinating places that were open.

Varna, on the Black Sea, is the former Miletian city of Odessos, which was a contemporary of Tomis in what is now Romania. Some of the earliest findings in the region date back to a necropolis from about 4200 BCE in which a large horde of gold artifacts were found, that are now in the (closed while I was there) local National Museum. The city was established as a trade center by the Miletian Greeks around 570 BCE, but not much of the architecture from this period remains, although the museum is supposed to have a number of artifacts.  Roman ruins, from baths and residential sites, on the other hand dot the center of the city, and they were all open to the public as were the churches.  The main Cathedral Church Holy Assumption had scaffolding by the façade, but the interior with the iconostasis with paintings/icons from the early twentieth century was clearly visible. One of the smaller churches in the older part of town is the Holy Mother of God Church, which is quite tiny, but has beautiful paintings of the Madonna inside. There is also a monastery dedicated to Saints Constantine and Helene in a section of town of that same name that requires a bus ride on either the 9 or 31a busses leaving from across the street from the Cathedral (1 Lei which can be paid on the bus). This coastal area is interesting as it used to be a sacred sanctuary, (probably even a pre-Christian one) but over the past 50 years or so, (yes, even during the Soviet time), it has sprouted one massive hotel after another so that the original monastery is completely dwarfed and hidden behind the commercial endeavors. The church of the monastery is the size of a small bedroom, but again, the frescoes, which are recent, are beautifully painted.  The iconostasis is not nearly as elaborate as in most of the other churches in the region, but radiates a sense of peace from its simplicity. Varna is mostly known now for its beaches, and the sandy shoreline would surely beckon in the summer.  In the fall, however, the adjacent Sea Garden was where the locals were hanging out. This is a large and quite extensive park, with lots of trees, tended gardens and wilder more natural creek-beds, that borders the golden sandy shoreline. There is even a section which is dedicated to creative silence for poets and playwrights.  I liked that idea. Even though, I missed out on the museum, the day in Varna was filled with rich experiences.  The next day was given over to exploring Sofia.

Sofia – The goddess Sofia sits on a high perch overlooking Soviet styled government buildings on the main highway throughfare in the city. It seems appropriate for the goddess of holy wisdom to watch out for what politicians are doing – regardless of which land they are in. The capital city, like so many others in this amazing country, has a deep and diverse history. The Great Mother Goddess was worshipped here during the Chalcolithic to Greco-Roman periods, when she morphed into the spirit that guards the city today. The Thracians thrived here during the 5th to 1st C BCE prior to Hadrian’s conquest of the region.  Roman ruins are visible in a number of places around the center of town, which during Roman times was called Serdica, probably after the name of a Thracian tribe, the Serdis. The subway station of this name has cases with archeological finds from the area lining the walls.  From the subway station it is just a few steps to Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, a large round structure in the middle of a park. The building has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, the last during the 1970s. The vibrant and quite breath-taking frescoes inside were painted between 1971-1973 (yes, again, in the middle of the Soviet period). St. Nedelya is not a name that is recognizable in Central Europe, so I tried to find out more about her. Unfortunately, I was just told what the Wikipedia site says, which is that the name comes from the word Sunday, or Holy Day, and that she was someone who was persecuted during the pre-Christian Roman times. More information was simply not forthcoming, so suffice it to say she is a local Bulgarian saint as she appears in a number of their churches. St. George’s Rotunda, the oldest architectural structure in the city, ca. early 4th C CE, is just a short walk towards Alexander Nevsky Cathedral from Sveta Nedelya’s.  The original artwork in the Rotunda is long since gone, although a fragment of an angel is somewhat visible. There are also the outlines of Roman/Early Medieval walls abutting the church. Walking further down the street, there is a white and green painted sleek-lined church with golden onions as spires; this is the Russian Church, which like the Cathedral Sveta Nedelya, has recent frescoes covering the walls and iconostasis. The large centerpiece of the city, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, is architecturally reminiscent of the cathedral in Moscow. Personally, I was somewhat disappointed with the interior paintings as they didn’t resonate with me as much as those in Moscow or those of other Eastern Orthodox churches in the city. The church dedicated to St. Sophia, almost around the corner from Alexander Nevsky, is probably the second oldest after the Rotunda, ca. 4th -6th C. The plaster, and hence the original frescoes, has fallen away and most of the church interior today is brick. As with many other Christian churches, St. Sophia’s was built on the remains of a pre-Christian worship site. Whether intentional or not, on top of the earlier structures necropoli sites were placed.  Tombs, both rounded vaults and flat stoned topped, are beneath the church and the different sections span centuries.  A few Romanesque/Byzantine mosaic floors and wall coverings have been unearthed there, one with vines and birds is supposed to represent the door to paradise. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was quite uncomfortable in the necropolis and my back started to itch, which is never a good sign. It seemed like I was treading on souls who had died of various causes, including disease, and even through their bodies were no longer there, their spirits were.  It was a strange sensation and one that I have not had I any other cemetery or necropolis before. I happily left the undercroft to return to the church above. Next to St. Sophia’s is another Roman aristocrat’s tomb, but it was closed for viewing. Across the street, is a park that has a flea market most afternoons, and I was astounded at the number of watches, cameras, and lenses that were offered for sale. The park offers more permanent attractions, however, as it has a number of metal based modern sculptures, most of which showcase the struggle for freedom. It appeared to me that most of the parks in central Sofia had modern sculptures, indicting the importance of art to the people of the city. From the outside, the theater looks to be well-maintained, and one hopes, despite Covid, well visited. Most of the churches mentioned here are in the very center of the Old City.  Adjacent to Old Serdica is a pedestrian zone that is devoted to shopping and restaurants; it extends south of Sveta Nedelya’s quite a ways. At night, it seems most of Sofia is out strolling – all without masks.

As the museums were closed, I was on overload from church frescoes, and my back still itched, I decided to take the metro and bus to the Mt. Vitosha Ski resort outside of the city for some clean air.  The metro goes to the Paradise Mall, where the 66 bus stops. It goes up to the Morena Hotel, near where the gondola departs for the top of the mountain. The gondola only works on weekends in the off-season, so I couldn’t take it up, but I did have a chance to go for a nice fall hike across the boreal moss landscape above the treeline.  Mt. Vitosha isn’t that high, only about 7200 ft., which is about the elevation of Flagstaff, Arizona, but it starts at about 500 ft. so the hike up is substantial if one doesn’t take a car or bus.  The metro and bus combined cost 1.60 Lei, but they need to be purchased as an all city green ticket, not the regular blue Metro ticket as that doesn’t include the special 66 bus. I made the mistake of buying the wrong one and had a bit of trouble getting ahold of the right one for the return trip as they don’t sell them on the mountain. Luckily the owner of the Morena Hotel came to my rescue with an extra ticket. The other place on Mt. Vitosha that most people visit is the Boyana Church and waterfall. This church was built in stages, the first probably 10th C, then in the 12th, and then the final frescoes in the 13th/14th. The church is small, but the frescoes are original and for the most part in very good condition.  The door to the church is squat and is the original 10th C door.  From the church it is just about a half a kilometer to the Boyana Lake and Waterfall trailhead.  The trail meanders through the forest snaking uphill with only a couple of steeper sections. The ‘lake’ is really a misnomer as it is a pond, and in the dry autumn there is hardly any water visible in the waterfall, but the fall mountain hike amid golden trees and paths covered with golden brown leaves scrunching underfoot was a good break from the cities. I visited Boyana on my last full day in Bulgaria after coming from Plovdiv and was glad I did. I had contemplated driving all the way to the Rila Monastery, but decided that I just didn’t want to spend the extra probably four hours in the rental car.
I picked up the rental car at the airport after my day in Sofia to drive to Veliko Tarnovo, the medieval Bulgar capital of the region. I chose to drive myself rather than go on one of the excursions from Sofia or from Plovdiv, for three reasons: 1) I like to stop when I see something interesting and that’s not possible on a group trip 2) I needed to stay healthy as I am going to be on the road for another 6-7 weeks, and it is more likely to catch something from a group on a bus with the windows closed than it is alone in a rental car with the windows open and 3) the excursions would have individually cost twice what I paid for the week with the rental car.  (& the 3rd was perhaps the most convincing…)


Veliko Tarnovo is in central Bulgaria about two and a half hours from Sofia. The town is on three hills with the Yantra River winding around them.  Like Sofia and Varna, humans have lived in the region for millennia, but the city’s glory years were during the second Bulgarian Empire when two brothers, Asen and Peter determinedly ended Byzantine rule and made the Tsarevets Fortress with its Patriarch’s Complex the capital of the new regime. The first Bulgarian Empire was formed when Khan Krum broke away from the Byzantines; they retook the territory in 1018.  The brothers wrested control back in the 12th C. Today the Fortress is the leading tourist attraction in the area. The paths around the hill and historical site are well marked and maintained.  The church at the top of the hill, St. Demetrius, amazes with modern, somewhat Cubist abstract, paintings on the walls rather than the typical icons. They are all done in brown, black, and grey tones rather than the traditionally bright colors for Eastern Orthodox paintings. Just down the hill from the Patriarchal Complex in which the church is situated is the Palace Asen and Peter built, the Bulgar Palace. While I was there a herd of goats were grazing in the courtyard and when I came closer three large horned goats dared me to cross them.  The Three Billy Goats Gruff don’t need a bridge, they live in a medieval palace courtyard. 

Walking back into town from the fortress one goes up a small hill to a local church on top, which is not well maintained, but clearly meant as the parish for the local people. The difference between that and the ones that are open to tourists is quite remarkable. There are three monasteries near the Yantra River which were closed while I was there; they include the Peter and Paul Church and the Church of the Forty Holy Martyrs, both of which are fairly famous for their architecture and paintings. Back up on the main street is the Historical Museum which is mainly devoted to 19th C items. On the other side of the street a cobble-stoned road gently slopes up to a typical Old Bulgarian merchant’s street, which is also one of the main tourist attractions in town.  Restaurants and cafes along the main street from Tsarevets into the modern city often have terraces that look out over the meandering Yantra below.  In the middle of a horseshoe bend is an art gallery and a monument to Asen and Peter. There was much more to explore in Veliko Tarnovo than I had time to do as the next day I wanted to visit the Valley of the Thracian Kings.

The drive between Veliko Tarnovo and Kazanlak winds through the Balkan Mountains. The road gently switchbacked up and down passes amid hillsides covered with brightly sun-light autumn leaves rustling in the breeze.  The mountains themselves reminded me of the Appalachians, i.e., not particularly tall, but wild in their own way.  It is a beautiful and well maintained excursion in and of itself as there were hiking trailheads to waterfalls and other natural wonders throughout. 

 The Valley of the Kings, Bulgaria’s version of the Egyptian region, is in the middle of the country. Tumuli rise like bubbles all across the flat agricultural lands, only some of which have been professionally excavated while most have probably been plundered over the past two millennia. The actual treasures that the museums now have were located not just in the tumuli tombs, but hidden in caves and in the mountains adjacent to the settlements in the flat lands. There are a number of tombs that can be visited along the highway from Sofia to Kazanlak, but in the interests of time, of which I didn’t have a lot, I opted for just going to the most famous, the 4th -3rd C BCE Thracian Tomb in Kazanlak.  The original tomb is on a slight hill/bump above the main town and is now protected by an outer building. The original is not open to the public, but an exact replica right next door is. The tomb has a narrow passage leading to a beehive-like tomb chamber.  The walls slope from about neck height slightly inward to meet at an almost Mycenean shaped doorway. The beehive tomb is also reminiscent of a Mycenean one. What is different and unique about this structure is the intact frescoes. The hallway is painted red, with an almond colored background frieze near the ceiling and the painted scenes in the middle of the domed beehive.  Interpreting the paintings can be tricky, but regardless of their symbolism, the artistry involved in creating them is amazing. Thracian artistry is apparent in many of the artifacts in the Kazanlak Historical Museum. This museum has a fabulous collection of prehistoric and Thracian votive items, tools, and daily utensils. It has a gold death mask and a beautifully crafted gold leaf crown that demonstrate the richness and creativity of the Thracian royalty. This museum is not just focused on ancient peoples, but also on more modern ones. It has the obligatory icon selection, but also a whole room dedicated to violin and lute making, another just on cameras and lenses, and an upper floor that is devoted to regional modern artists. I no longer felt so bad about not getting into the museums in Varna and Sofia as this one was simply amazing.

The Valley of the Thracian Kings is also known as the Valley of Roses.  Rose products make up a sizeable portion of the country’s economy and Kazanlak has its own Rose Museum. It is in a rotunda with placards describing the history of rose oil production accompanied by examples of the tools.

From Kazanlak, I headed back in time to Stara Zagora and the Neolithic Dwelling Museum. This museum’s ground floor has one room with the remains of a Neolithic residential building. It was originally two stories high, but nothing of the second floor remains as the building was burnt down at some point.  The remains of pottery chards and cooking tools can still be seen in the dirt. Downstairs the museum has two smallish rooms that are filled with Neolithic artifacts and the best collection of goddess figurines I have ever found. I was allowed to take photos in this museum, but was not in the Regional Museum of History. As Stara Zagora was a major town, called Augusta Trajana, during the Roman period, the museum has a decent collection of Roman pillars, statues, busts, grave stele etc. found at the archeological site in town by that name. What I hadn’t seen before and what I wish I’d been allowed to take a photograph of was a replica of a Thracian chariot. The front was covered with cowhide and the chariot was much bigger and sturdier/heavier than the typical Roman chariots as it had a larger wooden frame and box. It looked like it was meant for fighting, not for speed. The second floor was dedicated to the Middle Ages, the Ottoman and Revivalist periods. The top floor had a special exhibition of early 20th Bulgarian Flapper dresses. They didn’t seem much different from Flapper dresses elsewhere. There was one more museum in Stara Zagora that I wanted to visit and that was the Museum of Religions.  This is housed in a building that used to be a mosque, but before that was a church, and before that a Thracian worship site.  The original (?) stone outlines of both the pagan and Christian sites are on the ground. The continuity of prayer, regardless to whom, was steeped in the walls of this one room museum.

The Museum of Religions backs onto the pedestrian zone, which is a gathering place in the evening for young kids on skateboards, young and old couples sauntering along window shopping and families going out to eat at one of the many eateries along the way. Life in the city continues, whether it be in a Greek Agora, Roman Forum or 21st C pedestrian zone.

 Perperikon is the largest megalithic site in the Balkans. It is supposedly where an Oracle predicted Alexander the Great’s victories as well as Caesar Augustus’. The Oracle of Perperikon was said to rival that of Delphi in ancient times. Well prior to the Greeks and Romans, the site on top of a rocky hill was used by people from the 6th millennium. Pottery artifacts from this era were found in crevices along the hillsides.  What is now visible, however, starts from the Thracian period around the 18th-12th C  BCE with smooth altars carved out of large boulders. As elsewhere, the religious site at the top of the mountain spawned a fortress in the subsequent centuries and later residential areas below. The main gods worshipped at the site prior to the Christian era appear to have been the Great Mother Goddess, then Dionysus-Zagreus, Orpheus and the Orphean Mysteries, and Apollo – the sun god, who could have been seen as the direct descendant of Helios, the son-husband of the Great Mother Goddess of the Thracians.  Images of Hera, Athena, and a local version of Artemis were also found. The residential and palatial sections of the town had running water and sewage channels.  The palace itself had about 50 rooms, halls and corridors. Something seemed to have happened here around the 4th C BCE and the area was more or less abandoned until the Romans arrived in the 1st C CE, when they rebuilt the fortress and added an agora near the top of the mountain. It appears, at least early in the Christian era, that those worshipping Dionysus did so alongside with the Christians.  Many of the Dionysian stories relate well with those of Christ, so there could have been an easy interaction between the two faiths. The outlines of a couple of early Christian churches and basilicas are found scattered throughout the 5 sq. km. archeological site. In the Middle Ages watchtowers were built along the fortress walls, only one of which is still partially standing.  The site was finally completely abandoned with an Ottoman invasion in 1362. For tourists, Perperikon is easily accessible.  There are nicely lined pathways up to the rocks on top. Sturdy walking shoes are recommended on the rocks as they are clearly uneven and to get a good feel for the spirit of the place, one does need to get off the path and tread upon them. One wonders what the Oracle would say about today’s future….

 From Perperikon I headed to Plovdiv, which was the last of my Bulgarian urban areas on this trip. Plovdiv is a fascinating city. It was one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2019, and it is obvious that the city took this honor seriously.  The main section of town is lined with pedestrian zones that have every imaginable shopping and eating experience available.  There is everything from Cartier to One Euro stores, burger and kebab stands to fine dining all within a few meters of one another. It is a lively artistic city with street musicians, public sculptures and wall murals. The highest point of the three hills originally surrounding the city, Nebet Tell, documents a record of human history going back tens of thousands of years. Even before the Thracians the site was supposedly used for worship. The Thracians, who had priest-kings, prayed up here as well. The Romans built a fortress, which was destroyed by the Huns/Avars in the 5th C CE; the Bulgars then the Ottomans built new ones and reused many of the more ancient structures. Today, only the outlines of some of the walls are visible, but the 360 degree view from the site provides vistas across the metropolitan area to vast plains dotted with hills beyond.

The Regional Archeological Museum is small but quite good. It starts with the prehistory of the region from the 7th to 3rd millennium BCE, including a room that deals just with prehistoric religious artifacts mostly from the Nebet Tell region before the sections that concentrate on the early Thracians from the 3-1st Millennium BCE and the Odrysian Thracian Kingdom from the 5th-1st C BCE as well as two rooms dealing with Roman Philippopolis. There is also a room dealing with culture and religion in the Middle Ages, prior to the Ottoman conquest in addition to a display of an early 4th C CE Christian tomb.  Some of the many interesting artifacts include reliefs with a mix of Thracian deities with those from the Greco-Roman pantheon as well as those with Mithras. The temporary exhibit that was in the final two rooms was filled with 19th C revivalist icons.

The museum’s collection is comprised of artifacts from the region, many of which were found in the vicinity of what is known today as Old Town.  This is the section that has cobble-stoned streets winding up the hill towards Nebet Tell.  Here there are a number of 19th revival-styled houses that have been turned into museums, including the Ethnographic Museum, as well as a remarkably well kept and renovated Roman Theater.  It was apparently ruined and buried in the 4th -5th C by marauding Goths and its burial is what preserved it, much like the burial of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey or the ash covering Pompeii in Italy. As one walks down the hill back to the pedestrian zone there are a number of Eastern Orthodox churches on either side of the street.  The Church of Saints Constantine and Helene is hidden behind a tall rock wall at the apex of the main square of the Old Town. It was hidden as the Ottomans allowed sacred structures to non-Islamic religions, but they couldn’t be visible. The faithful got around this by building them behind walls. In the revival period and after liberation, i.e., after the Ottomans had to leave in 1879, a bell tower was erected by the church of the two saints. Many of the churches do not allow photographs inside to protect the sanctity of the site. At the end of the cobbles and back onto pavement, is the beautiful Dzhumaya Mosque with a finely carved wooden side with outdoor cafe. In front of the mosque are the remains of the semi-circle end a Roman Stadium. The stadium still exists under the main pedestrian zone, but it is too expensive to uncover. The stadium, where all kinds of Roman games and races took place, extends all the way to the stairs going up a rocky hill where the symbol of the 2019 event “Together” is placed along with a bronze statue of a man who died in the 1980s. Miljo was supposedly the town fool, but was loved by all and he hung out right at this spot.  Urban legend has it that if one whispers wishes in his ear they will come true and if one rubs his knees and thighs, then they will be lucky in love.  We’ll see if it’s true….

Walking further down the street is a fountain area with the former Town Hall behind it and beyond that are the Roman Odeon and Philippolis Roman Forum.  Still beyond and off to the right is the pleasant Tsar Simeon Gardens with a large pool with ‘singing fountains’. The park is named for the ‘Tsar of the Bulgars and Autocrat of the Greeks’ as Simeon liked to call himself. His rule, from 893-927, was the height of the First Bulgarian Empire. On the other side of the street and up a bit, are the remains of the Bishop’s Basilica and Early Christian Basilica with mosaic floors.  Roman early Christian mosaic floors are also visible in the Tarkart Museum in the underpass to the Bishop’s Basilica. This museum is in a Roman house dedicated to the goddess of peace, Eirene, and a mosaic of her was found there; it is now in the Regional  Archeological Museum. On the right hand side after the entrance to the Old Town and closer towards the Maritsa River, which intersects the city, is the Kabana Creative District.  This area has been a site of commercial enterprise for centuries. During the Ottoman era it was the main bazaar with hundreds of wooden shops crammed in next to one another.  A fire in 1905 wiped out the entire area.  In the 1920 new buildings were constructed, and the merchants managed to hang on even through the Soviet period.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall and change of government, however, many of the merchants left Bulgaria, and the houses fell to wrack and ruin. By the early 2000s only two Rock ‘n Roll pubs were still operating and about ten years ago they started a neighborhood revival movement. The government, which owned most of the buildings, allowed enterprising individuals a year’s free rent to see if they could bring the area back to life. Their initiative worked, and the neighborhood’s labyrinthian bazaar-like character is back in full swing. The houses are colorfully plastered and whole sides of buildings are covered with beautifully painted interesting wall murals. Kapana’s story is a miniature version of the history of the entire city and country.  Enterprising people build something solid, then change happens, whether that be from man-made or natural events, and everything is seemingly destroyed.  Then someone has, or a few individuals have, an idea and the process starts again.  The creative spirit is alive and well, cycling through time and space in Kapana and Bulgaria.


Bulgaria has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. The Magara Cave in the northwestern corner of the country has a cavern with early cave art of animals and zoomorphic figures. This site is unfortunately now closed to the public due to vandalism. The protected Neolithic dwelling place uncovered in Stara Zagora shows evidence that a fire destroyed a two story building that still has the remnants of pottery chards. This was a complete house, with living and cooking areas, not a shack. The first known ethnic group that had an historical presence in the region were the Thracians. They arrived probably from the Hindu Kush and Pamirs and/or the Steppes sometime between the 3rd and 2nd millennium before the Common Era. They were an ununited group, who didn’t appear to have any real permanent settlements until around, 1600-1200 BCE, in other words, not until the transition from the Minoan to Mycenean eras to the south and towards end of the Hittite Empire in Anatolia. They fought alongside the Trojans in Homer’s description of the war and were known for their horses and skill in warfare.  It was said that they had two occupations, drinking and fighting and if they weren’t doing one, they were doing the other. They didn’t leave a written record, what is known about them came from Greek and Roman sources, which were notably often not impartial observers, and from the artifacts they left in their tombs and residences. Most of these finds date from after the 6th C BCE, when the official Thracian states emerged.  There were a number of different Thracian tribes, the Getae in the area north of the Balkan Mountains and south of the Danube along the Black Sea coast were one of the most recognized, as were the Serdi, Odrysae and Bessi who lived in lands across modern day Bulgaria and into Serbia and Macedonia. The Serdi lived around Sofia and gave their name to the city during Roman times.  The Odrysae in the central part of modern Bulgaria had the leading kings and corresponding kingdoms for a number of generations. There was a brief intermission in Odrysae rule when there was a leadership vacuum after the assassination of Kotys I in 359 BCE.  King Phillip II of Macedonia took advantage of this and conquered the kingdom.  After his son’s, Alexander’s death, the kingdom came under control of one of Alexander’s generals, Lysimachus, who wasn’t up to dealing with the Thracian Odrysian King Seuthes III, who wrested control back to the indigenous people. His city, Seuthopolis, was found shortly before a dam was scheduled to be built, flooding the area. Archeologists were given six years to excavate the massive site before the waters hid the city once again. The Thracians intermixed with the Greeks and others who traded in the region, so that it wasn’t a purely Thracian culture by this time. I believe it was Herodotus who said that if the Thracian tribes would unite, they would be unconquerable, but they continually fought amongst themselves.  (Somehow, this seems to be a persistent theme in the Balkans.)  Their rule died out after 46 CE when Trajan finally conquered the region for the Romans. The people became Romans and the gods morphed and mixed until Christianity became the official religion.  Philippopolis, modern day Plovdiv, was instrumental in the early Christian councils as it was here that the Edict establishing the Holy Trinity was set. The Bessi were the first to have the Bible translated into their language.

Thracian artifacts have been found across the country, but the main concentration of Thracian tombs is in the Valley of Thracian Kings, which is also known as the Valley of Roses. Rose based products have been an important export item for the region since the Roman times and today oils, creams, teas etc. can be purchased in almost every souvenir shop. The Thracian tombs are not quite so easily accessed, but many are open to the public. The most famous is the one in Kazanlak, which is in the center of the Valley of the Kings.  That tomb has a remarkable fresco on the inside of the domed main chamber.  There are horses and drinking, i.e., typical Thracian scenes, but there is also an image of a veiled woman reaching out to a man, probably the deceased. There is a servant woman with a plate of three pomegranates offering them to him. One of the many interpretations of this image is that the veiled woman is the daughter of the Great Goddess, welcoming him to the next world, as symbolized by the pomegranates. The body in the tomb, as others in many other Thracian tombs, was dismembered.  The theory behind this is that they worshipped not only the Great Goddess, but also Orpheus, and the Orphean Mysteries were commonly practiced. As Orpheus had been dismembered by the Maenads for being disrespectful to them in his drunken distraught state at having lost Eurydice, the followers of Orpheus would also have their bodies dismembered after death and the parts buried in different areas. Another theory is that Orpheus was really an early Thracian king who became deified. One person who really was Thracian, was the rebel gladiator Spartacus.

The Thracians had a long and colorful history and their art, in the forms of silver and goldsmithing, painting, pottery, and tomb architecture, has kept their presence alive even without written documents.

In my journey around the country, I wasn’t concentrating of the Bulgars, Ottomans, Revivalists, Soviets, or the present day leaders.  Nonetheless, Tsarevets in Veliko Tarnovo, gave an interesting overview of the Second Empire Bulgar kings and the mosques throughout the country testify to the centuries of Ottoman rule. Many of the mosques, like the Dzhumaya in Plovdiv are former churches, which in turn were built on pagan sacred sites. To convert them into mosques, they changed they flattened the roofline to add the slightly rounded domes and added a minaret. Inside, they covered up the frescos and got rid of the icons.  The icons in the museums and monasteries today stem almost entirely from the 19th C, revivalist movement as do many of the houses. Soviet sculptures are still present as are the tiered-cake government buildings.

The beauty of this country lies not solely in the natural landscapes, from the yellow sandy beaches of the Black Sea to the densely forested Balkan Mountains with rivers running through them, but also in the artistry of the people of the region from the Chalcolithic to the present day.  This is a land that requires far more time to explore than I had available to me on this trip.  There is much to learn here and much to admire.


The sources I used for this blog include descriptions in the various museums and the following books and pamphlets:

Kalchev, Petar. Neolithic Dwellings.  Stara Zagora: Museum, n.d

Kitov, Georgi. The Valley of the Thracian Kings. Stara Zagora: History Museum, n.d.

Plovdiv: Guidebook European Capital of Culture 2019

Popov, Dimitar and Valeria Fol, The Deities of the Thracians. Sofia: Tangra Publishing, 2010.

Popova, Katherina. Bulgaria: History and Culture. Sofia: Format S, n.d.

Trankova, Dimana, Miglena Vasileva, Anthony Gerorgieff. A Guide to Thracian Bulgaria. America  for Bulgaria Foundation, 2015.

Tags: cities, history, museums, towns


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