Perperikon: The City of Stone

07.06.2012 § Leave a comment

Translated with permission from otbivki.com, a Bulgarian-language travel and adventure blog.

In the hot summer day, dust is our most faithful companion. It sticks to our shoes, our face and our clothes as we walk along the narrow path in a single file. I hear our footsteps leave quiet prints and race with the stones – how many generations have taken this path, how many tribes and civilizations have ascended the steep slope, to experience victories, losses, opulence, poverty or death? For centuries, the cliffs have kept their history, ready to share it with every visitor of the City of Stone.

It appears before us, clad in the golden garb of sunshine, regal, serene and unwavering. Its name is Perperikon.

The ancient archaeological complex has combined the remnants of different time periods. Thracians, Romans, Byzantines and Bulgarians have lived here. Every civilization that’s inhabited Perperikon has left traces of its culture and history. The region has always been suitable for habitation on account of the nearby Perpereshka river, fertile soil, gold deposits and the natural defence that the cliffs afford. That’s why the lands in this part of the Rhodopes is teeming with archaelogical discoveries and is a favourite area of exploration to archaeologists and historians from all over the world. Even during our visit, a large group of archaeologists led by Nikolai Ovcharov are exploring the area. We manage to snag one of the younger explorers for a chat. He tells us that the group consists of Japanese, South Korean, Bulgarian and French scientists.

“The earth around Perperikon holds so many secrets that we’ll need years to learn them all. We’re here every summer, and we haven’t stopped uncovering new things: coins, trinkets, tools…”

The young man adds that he’s studying archaeology at Sofia University. The Perperikon excavations have enabled him to gain valuable field experience and to learn more of the area’s history.

The story of the City of Stone begins long before the Thracians. According to historians, the oldest traces of human habitation in Perperikon date back to the Neolithic age. Even then people revered the rock formations that gave them a natural fortress, a home and a link to the gods. As tools improved, the ancient inhabitants of the area began to shape the rocks, carving entire dwellings into them. The development of Perperikon continued into the Bronze age, making it one of the oldest cities in the world, alongside Troy and Mycenae.

To the Thracians the megalithic complex was a holy place where they performed religious ceremonies and sacrifices. The multitude of pits of different shapes and sizes hewn into the rock bears witness to this, and they can be seen in other places holy to the Thracians (e.g. Belintash, Karadjov kamuk, the Kamenitza area near Starosel, etc.)

The alcoves, tombs and temples carved into the rock can be found throughout the Eastern and Central Rhodopes. These “footprints in stone” are one of the foundational proofs of the existence of the ancient stone-cutting civilization, the so-called proto-Thracians, who inhabited the valley of the Arda river at the time of the Egyptian pharaohs Ahkenaten, Tutankhamun and Ramses (end of the bronze age, around XII-XI century B.C.E.). Since this ancient people had no writing system, the only key to solving the riddle of its history lies in the rocks of the Eastern Rhodopes. The proto-Thracians revered the stones and the sun and their union symbolized a new beginning and the eternal cycle of life. According to archaeologists, Perperikon (“the place where stone meets sky”) was the centre of this ancient culture.

It is believed that the sanctuary of Dionysus (the most important Thracian god, later incorporated into Greek mythology) was also in the City of Stone. In time, an entire palatial complex (called by archaeologists the “palace-sanctuary”) formed around the rock temple. It consisted of several floors with various rooms, hallways, halls and staircases. Here you can see the expansive throne room, home to the rock-hewn throne that the senior priests used to sit on.

The palace included a slew of other rooms, including tombs and altar rooms, where rituals of fire and wine, as well as sacrifices, were performed. In Thracian culture sacrifices adhered to two principles: “give to receive”, i.e. making a sacrifice to a deity to receive its blessing, and “vowing”, i.e. promising the deity a tribute in exchange for its benevolence. Foretelling the future at times important to the tribe also required sacrifices to the gods. The sacrifices had different purposes: they were performed on holy days or to mark an occasion, to appease a deity, as recompense for good fortune or aid, for sacred cleansing of the spirit or vowing. During these rituals the sacrifices were burned after the priests washed their hands in their blood. Typically wild or domestic animals (such as lambs, birds, horses, dogs) were sacrificed. In earlier times, humans were also sacrificed, but this practice gradually disappeared.

Alongside the rich heritage of the Thracian culture, in the City of Stone you can see remnants of a defensive wall, a water cistern and a tower, as well as an early Christian temple with a unique alter (the original of which is kept in the History Museum in Kardzhali). Traces of early Christian churches can also be seen in the area around Perperikon.

Разцветът на Перперикон продължил както през римската и византийската епоха, така и през Средновековието. Трудно е да се проследят и опишат всички културни пластове, които са скрити в скалите на древния каменен град. Археолозите продължават да изследват и дописват легендата за Перперикон, който не бърза да разкрива своите тайни. И макар че днес знаем част от неговата история, едва ли някога ще разберем цялата истина за цивилизацията на нашите предци – „скалните хора”. Вероятно още хиляди исторически паметници лежат скрити в земите на Родопите – планина, която в продължение на векове била пресечна точка на развити култури, дом на древни цивилизации и място, където слънцето прегръщало скалите, а боговете слизали на земята, за да се веселят заедно с хората.

Perperikon continued to thrive during the Roman and Byzantine eras, and throughout the Middle Ages. It is difficult to trace and describe all the historical layers hidden in the rocks of the ancient City of Stone. Archaeologists continue to explore and write the legend of Perperikon, which is in no hurry to reveal its secrets. And despite the fact that today we know some of its history, it is unlikely we will ever know the full truth of our predecessors’ civilization. It is likely that thousands of historical treasures are still hidden in the Rhodopes – a mountain range which for centuries was the crossroads of highly developed cultures, home to ancient civilizations and the place where the sun embraces the rocks and the gods came to earth to make merry alongside humans.

How to get here:

Perperikon is approximately 20 km from Kardzhali, and a well-maintained road leads to the archaeological complex. There is a parking lot at the entrance, along with stalls selling guides and souvenirs. A steep, rocky path leads to Perperikon. The climb lasts 15-20 minutes. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and to bring water.

What to see in the area:
If you’re staying in Kardzhali, you should visit the regional history museum, where you can learn interesting facts about the region’s inhabitants throughout history, as well as the beliefs and the culture of the Thracians. The museum is housed in a beautiful building, which was initially intended as a Muslim theological institute.


Not far from Kardzhali, you can find the natural phenomenon known as the Stone (or the Rock) Mushrooms (Kamennite Gubi). They are unique rock formations, shaped by wind, sun and rain.

The Stone Mushrooms are near the village of Beli Plast, between Kardzhali and Haskovo. You’ll see them on the left side of the road, so you can park near them to see them. Remember that you are in a protected area and be careful taking pictures around them. People try to climb the formations or throw garbage near them, which destroys the formations and also pollutes the environment.

By: Elina Cankova
Photos: Ivan Mihalev

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