The ancient civilizations:
the Thracians on the Bulgarian lands

Have you heard about the Thracians?

If the Pyramid of Giza – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – is on your list of places to visit, then you’ve probably heard of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. And what about Orpheus, who managed to save his beloved Eurydice from the underworld with the magical sounds of his lyre?

What about Spartacus – the leader of the greatest rebellion against Rome?

What is the connection between all of them and one of the oldest European civilizations, which inhabited the lands of the Balkan Peninsula and today’s Bulgaria, more than 7,000 years ago? Herodotus (5th century BC), also known as the “Father of History”, says that, after the Indians, this European civilization is the largest of all nations in the world. Three out of a total of 9 Bulgarian sites on the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage List belong to these ancient people.

Who are the Thracians?

Once upon a time, there was a tribe. They were called Thracians. For the first time, their name was mentioned by Homer (8th century BC) in the well-known “Iliad”.
The name “Thracians” is a collection of many tribes, which, however, do not differ in their ethnicity, but simply bear the names of royal-priestly dynastic families: Odridi, Geti, Tribali, Edoni, Besi, etc. The meaning of the name “Thraki” itself is not very clear. According to one of the interpretations, it has the meaning of “brave”. According to another, the name comes from the nymph Thrace, considered a healer and diviner.
The fearless ancient Greeks employed this ancient tribe in their armies because of their proven military abilities and their horse army.

At the same time, they sneered at the fact that even Thracian men adorned themselves with gold. However, one of the Thracian kings - Midas, was believed to have the ability to turn everything he touched into gold.

Let’s dive into the history of this ancient tribe and trace some of the corners left by them and preserved to this day. The Thracians were pastoralists and farmers, and at the same time developed specialized trades such as mining and metalworking, pottery, leatherworking and woodworking. They were cultivating vineyards and producing beer. The consumption of these beverages was an invariable part of the festivities they organized, the greatest of all celebrations were dedicated to the funeral rite. 

Unlike modern men, who mourn their loved ones, the Thracians usually laughed when someone died and cried when someone was born. The transfer of the soul to the afterlife was raised into a cult.

Polygamy was typical of this tribe, and usually, when a Thracian died, his wives (between 3 and 13, depending on social status), consulted with the local elder, who had to decide which one was the most beloved, so that she could be sacrificed and buried with her dead husband. All the other wives shed tears of sorrow, as they were not the chosen ones.

We find evidence of the lavish feasts associated with the burial ritual among the Thracians in nearly 50,000 Thracian tombs located on the territory of Bulgaria.

The Ancient Civilizations - the Thracians on the Bulgarian lands
Tattooed Thracians killing Orpheus - Allard Pierson, University of Amsterdam, APM 2581

Which are the most impressive Thracians tombs in Bulgaria?

The most studied tombs are in the so-called Valley of the Thracian Kings in the Kazanlak area. Similar to the “Valley of the Egyptian Pharaohs” in Egypt, here as well were buried Thracian kings and important representatives of the Thracian aristocracy. Most of the investigated tombs were looted in ancient times. All objects found in them can be seen in the Iskra Historical Museum, in the city of Kazanlak.

Rulers were buried with gold objects and used during cult ceremonies and religious rituals. According to the Thracians, gold absorbed the vibrations and energy of a man, and therefore new objects were made for each new ruler, and the old or used ones were buried underground.

The Thracian treasures, discovered by chance by the local population at different periods, contain objects depicting religious scenes. Found in various places in Bulgaria, it is believed that they were probably buried in the ground by the ancient inhabitants to hide during military conflicts or because of their belief that the land was sacred and to honour their connection to it.

Kazanlak Tomb – Tyulbeto Park – 3rd century BC, is the first Bulgarian monument that is included in the world treasure of UNESCO and one of the few tombs that were built with bricks. The most impressive in it are the wall paintings that help us understand the rituals of the Thracians in their earthly and afterlife.

Scenes painted in bright colours (black, yellow, white and red) on the walls of the corridor and burial chamber reveal the story of a man and woman, probably local rulers, whose mortal remains have also been found. This is the only Thracian tomb in which the bones of a woman have been found.

Thracians Tomb Kazanlak

The Tomb of Seuthes III

King Seuthes III, ruler of the Odris Kingdom, the 4th century BC, was preserved in this tomb. Its remains were buried with his horse and weapons and all the king’s personal belongings to serve him in the afterlife. Upon entering the tomb, the first thing that stands in your way is the bronze head of Seuthus III, separated from the statue of the ruler, following the ritualistic funerary practices, according to which the head was separated from the body to continue to protect the entire kingdom.

Thracians Tomb of King Seuthes III
Picture showing the doors to the tomb. Photo provided by the Kazanlak Museum

Thracians Gold Treasures Discovered in Bulgaria

Thracian Panagyurishte Treasure

The Panagyurishte gold Treasure, which can be seen in the National History Museum in Sofia, represents a gold wine-drinking service consisting of 9 vessels, made out of 24-karat gold, with a total weight of over 6 kg – one phial and eight rhytons, on which are depicted Hera, Apollo, Artemis and Nike. The set belonged to a ruler of the Odrysian tribe of the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC.  and was used for religious ceremonies.

Thracian Panagyurishte gold Treasure
Thracian Panagyurishte Treasure

Thracian Treasure "Rogozen"

Rogozen treasure can be seen in the Regional History Museum in Vratsa, and about 20 vessels are owned by the National History Museum in Sofia. This is the largest silver treasure found on our lands and is a family service handed down from one generation to another between the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

One of the most interesting vessels is the phial representing the myth of Heracles and Agave. The discovery of this vessel, produced in one of the studios along the Aegean coast, proves the active contact of the local Thracian population with the rest of the ancient world.

Thracian Treasure "Rogozen"
Thracian Treasure "Rogozen"

Rock-cult Thracians Sanctuaries

The rocks were sacred to the Thracians. According to them, their height personifies the ritual of passing from every day to the sacred. Reaching the summit, touched by the first rays of the sun, one penetrated into another, new and pure space.

Perperek, rising on a rocky peak with a height of 470 meters, in the heart of the Rhodopes, is the largest cult complex in the territory of Bulgaria. Used for sacrifices by the local Thracian tribe of Besi, about 7000 years ago, it reached its heyday in Antiquity. Here was discovered a sanctuary of the god Dionysus, who, together with Apollo in Delphi, was considered one of the two most significant oracles in Antiquity. According to ancient legends, wine-fire rites were performed there on a special altar, and according to the height of the flames, the power of prediction was determined.

Like the Deaf Stones, Perperikon was essentially a town where to this day one can walk the wide carved streets and admire the houses cut out of the rock itself.

Thracian city Perperikon
The ancient town of Perperikon

Thracian town Belintash

Belintash, literally translated (from the Bulgarian-Turkish dialect) as “white stone”, dated as a cult complex from the 5th century BC. It is located in the Plovdiv region and it’s the second-largest Thracian sanctuary after Perperek. The rocky plateau is another proof of the Thracians’ connection with the earth and their belief that it is dotted with energy sources.

Perfectly identical holes were discovered, as well as two carved rock pools that do not dry up even on the hottest days of the year. Interesting geometric shapes are observed, for the origin of which there is no unequivocal theory, but some of the lovers of legends claim that in the round holes, which can be seen in the rock to this day, there were rings, testifying that the rock massif of Belintash served as a landing place for Noah’s Ark during the Flood.

The eroding rock in the shape of a human face near the complex's entrance, which oddly resembles the Egyptian Sphinx, would likely be of interest to conspiracy theory enthusiasts as well.

Discover the Nature in Bulgaria: The most outstanding nature places
Sunset photo from Belintash - Picture by Kiril Penev

The Deaf Stones

The Deaf Stones is a walled burial complex in the Eastern Rhodopes that consists of 459 niches carved into 30-meter cliffs. The urns of the dead were probably placed in the niches. A petroglyph, a typical Thracian solar symbol depicting a solar boat, was discovered in the area. 

The rock complex was part of a city with streets, buildings and temples that reached its peak around 3000 years ago. Its name comes from the fact that between the majestic rocks, no matter how much you shout, an echo never appears. There is, of course, a logical explanation, and that is that rocks are hollow, which is why they absorb sound waves.

Thracian Deaf stones

Kovil Complex or also called "Tatul"

Stone Head, is another sanctuary built and used by the Besi, located in the Kardzhali region and is about 7000 years old. It is a rock massif, on the top of which there is a sarcophagus in the shape of a truncated pyramid, 15 meters high.

Archaeological studies, based on the hundreds of cult objects, pottery and god-Sun images found, are controversial, with two main theories: that either the Thracian king Rhesus of the Edoni tribe was buried here, whose tomb served as a place of pilgrimage for the local Besi, or that the sanctuary of Orpheus was housed here. In support of the latter, historians cite as evidence what is not typical of burials in this era, carried out in mounds underground, a sanctuary built on a high hill, near the sun.

tatul

Thracian Beliefs

The Thracians believed in many different gods, and they did not have a hierarchical order like the ancient Greeks. The most cherished deities were the Sun, the Thracian horseman – god of nature, plants and the animal world, Orpheus – the king-priest who showed them the way to immortality, the Great Mother Goddess Bendita, who gave and took away life, therefore she was worshipped as the mistress of nature and fertility, and God Zagreus – corresponding to the ancient Greek god of wine Dionysus.

Certainly, the most praised was the god – Sun, in honour of whom the Thracians performed a sacred ritual, preserved to this day on the Bulgarian lands and included in the cultural and historical heritage of UNESCO, namely – nestinarism.

The spiritual custom is related to a ritual dance on hot embers, during which the Thracians fell into a trance and prayed to the Sun god for fertility on earth. The fire was lit from the tree sacred to them – oak, and the ritual was performed only by the sacred priests of the local tribe that inhabited the lands of Strandzha. Today there the village of Bulgari is the only place where, on the night of the 3rd and 4th of June, the feast of St. Constantine and Helena, the pagan tradition has become intertwined with the Christian religion and the local population repeats the mystical ritual, following in the footsteps of the Thracians of 7000 years ago.

Treasures, pyramids and mystical teachings are woven into this ancient people – the Thracians, who formed the cradle of European civilization more than 7000 years ago. Meet them and connect with the sacred corners of the earth that have preserved their traditions to this day.