Perperikon Sanctuary

Perperikon (Hyperperakion or Perperakion) is the largest megalithic sanctuary in the Balkans located in the Eastern Rhodope range, south of the Gorna Krepost village /which means high castle/ some 15 kilometers north-east of town of Kurjali town. The archaeological complex of Perperikon contains a large megalithic-Thracian sanctuary, a sacred city and medieval fortress. The site of Perperikon is situated on a rocky peak around 420 m above sea level. According to archaeological evidence, human activity in the area dates back to 5000 B.C since this fertile sheltered place had attracted settlers in very ancient times. Today, dozens of sites clustered around the natural hub of Perperikon Sanctuary reveal layer upon layer of archaeological remains. Legend has it that in the remote past, the peak was called ‘the rock home of the Sun God.’ Ancient historians claim that “somewhere here, high in the mountains stood the shrine of the Thracian God Dionysus—the site where two major prophecies were made that were to leave a mark on world history.” In April of 334 BC, just before he invaded the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great visited the temple of Dionysus and the oracle prophesied that he would conquer the whole world. The Thracians looked upon the majestic massive rock as a sacred place at which they worshiped the sun. Just a little further downstream, the Perpereshka River flows into the artificial lake of Stouden Kladenets on the Arda River. Where the two bodies of water meet, is the village of Kaloyantsi, a scenic place with some tourist facilities.

Orpheus, one of the best loved ancient heroes, was born in Thrace. The ancient Greeks believed that he was the son of the river god Oeagrus and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. A magnificent poet and singer, Orpheus rivaled even the god of poetry and music Apollo. His heavenly voice cast a spell on everything, animate and inanimate, and having joined the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, he helped them escape the Sirens by singing so sweetly that he drowned out their perilous song. He was often portrayed playing the lyre, which Apollo gave him, and his music enchanted the trees and rocks and tamed wild beasts, and even the rivers turned in their course to follow him.

Greek myth also tells us about Orpheus’ ill-fated marriage to the lovely wood nymph Eurydice. Soon after the wedding the bride was stung by a viper and died. Orpheus determines to go to the underworld and try to bring her back. Hades, the ruler of the underworld, was so moved by his playing that he gave Eurydice back to Orpheus on the condition that he does not look back until they reached the upper world. Orpheus could not control his eagerness, however, and as he gained the light of day he looked back a moment too soon, and Eurydice vanished. The unfortunate singer did not eat for seven days, cried for seven months and lived in total seclusion for three years. This story points to an earlier mythological source. It is certain that Orpheus was of Thracian origin; ancient art invariably portrays him in the traditional Thracian costume. He must have played an important role in the Thracian religion, of which little is known today. It would seem that in Thracian lore Orpheus was a priest or magician wielding supernatural power. Scholars believe that a philosophical cult Orphism, was drawn from Orpheus s teaching and songs. It must have originated in Thrace at the beginning of 900 BC and later spread across ancient Greece and the Mediterranean. Among its followers were even some Roman emperors.

Thousands of years ago, Perperikon was a massive bald rock. Such rocks drew prehistoric humans like a magnet and became an object of worship. The rugged wilderness of the Eastern Rhodopes must have cradled a rich megalithic culture long before the Thracian tribes inherited the land. The early inhabitants of the Perperikon site worshiped the huge undressed stones for their natural splendor. Later generations learned to carve and smooth the rocks of Perperikon and used them for shelter and protection. As their tools became more effective, humans could shape or remove larger areas of the rock surface, but that also meant that they obliterated the vestiges of earlier Perperikon cultures. The earliest traces of human civilisation discovered so far at the Perperikon area were dated to the late Neolithic Period, 6th-5th millennium BC. At that time, humans had not yet learned to work the face of the rock massif: fragments of Neolithic pottery were found deposited in the natural crevices of the cliff. However, Perperikon was not yet a settled village but a rock of worship. Next came the Eneolithic Period (or the Copper Age). Pits hewn in the Perperikon rock and fragments of pottery found in them were dated to the late 5th – early 4th millennium B.C. The pottery of Perperikon site is similar to that found at other Eneolithic villages, such as the famous Mound of Karanovo village. What had gradually become an inhabited rock complex continued to develop during the Bronze Age. There is every reason to believe that during the late Bronze Age, in particular the 18th-12th century BC, Perperikon saw its first heyday, which probably coincided with the peak of the Mycenaean and the Minoan civilizations. Notably, the abundance of pottery from that period was found in archaeological strata lying on large areas of finished rock surface of Perperikon. While subsequent carving of the Perperikon site destroyed most of that cultural layer, it has supplied sufficient evidence to archaeologists to suggest that by the end of the Bronze Age Perperikon had become a major place of worship. Very interesting late Bronze Age pottery was found at Perperikon site in 2002, including several well-preserved vessels: small cups and larger beakers with characteristic curved handles. These vary in quality of workmanship from vessels made of rather coarse clay mixed with small pebbles to finely polished black ‘luxury’ items. Among the finds from Perperikon site was the unique 18th century BC pottery which must have been imported from the Sea of Marmara coast in, what was probably the earliest trade between the regions. One almost fully preserved vessel from Perperikon features an incised lime-filled composition of six human figures around a representation of the Sun. The composition is organized like a floral motif, with the limbs of the humans being depicted as leaves, and their heads, as suns. These must be ancient deities whose names we may never learn. A system of religious beliefs did not emerge until the early Iron Age, 11th-6th century BC, a period represented as well by the pottery found at Perperikon. Unlike the ancient Greek mythology, however, which developed at the same time, Orphism, the Thracian system of religious and philosophical beliefs is virtually unknown. Dionysus and Orpheus undoubtedly stemmed from that tradition but were a much later development.

Broadly speaking, Perperikon archaeological site comprises four elements: the citadel, an acropolis at the top of the hill; a palace or temple immediately beneath the acropolis and facing southeast; and two outer cities – one on the northern and one on the southern slope of the hill. So far, no archaeological research has been done of the two outer cities of Perperikon, but terrain observations indicate that they had streets and secular and religious buildings carved in the rock. A host of villages flocked at the foot of the Perperikon hill and the fertile river valley was densely inhabited throughout the period of Roman rule. The hilltop was protected by the acropolis whose walls are 3 meters thick. The Perperikon citadel had probably been built earlier, but the Romans renovated it and enhanced the fortifications. No bonding mixture was used for the walls of the Perperikon – they were built of solid stone blocks, perfectly finished on each side, and layers of crushed rock separated the rows of blocks. All along the Perperikon perimeter, the wall was built directly onto the rock surface of the hillside. The Perperikon builders had to carve special beds in the rock to lay the foundation blocks. These have been wrongly interpreted as steps, while they actually allow to trace the perimeter where sections of the wall are missing. Behind the walls, the Perperikon acropolis was densely built up. The ground floors of the buildings were entirely carved in the rock. Even though a considerable part of the Perperikon complex is still covered with earth, the 21st century visitor can walk down broad streets and step over door-sills carved in the rock, with holes for the doorposts preserved. As if not so long ago, Perperikon was still a vibrant community. Carved in the rock in the eastern part of the acropolis is a large basilica-planned structure. Archaeological research of the Perperikon site suggests that it was a pagan temple transformed into a Christian church by the addition of an apse to house the altar. At the western end of the Perperikon sanctuary, two monumental stone portals preserve the holes for what must have been double doors. A portico leads from the basilica into the heart of the acropolis, its columns intact, still in place, thus completing the Classical makeup of the structure. Two gates of the Perperikon acropolis have been unearthed so far. One leads into the citadel from the west and is guarded by a rectangular barbican; the other, opening onto the south, was discovered in 2002 and is particularly important because it leads to a grand palace (or temple). The palace and all the other structures on the Perperikon sanctuary are an amazing achievement of architectural creativity and craftsmanship. One’s heart fills with awe as one passes through doors first opened a thousand years ago; steps onto thresholds that still keep the traces of generations long gone by; walks along mysterious passageways once lit by the light of torches. To see such a wonder of human creation on a craggy hilltop in the deepest recess of a wild Rhodope mountain almost defies belief !