The ancient mysteries of the Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria

The ancient mysteries of the Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria

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The Rhodope Mountains (called also “Rhodopes”) are one of the largest mountain ranges in the Balkan Peninsula. Not just one of the largest, but also one of the wildest and most mysterious mountain areas in the whole of Europe. They are divided into Western and Eastern Rhodopes. While the western part is higher and covered by deep dark forests, the eastern part is lower but full of ancient secrets. Let’s make a journey to this offbeat, little-known place, far from the tourist crowds, and let’s travel back in ancient times there!

About the Eastern Rhodopes

The Rhodope Mountains are located in the southern part of Bulgaria, and the northernmost part of Greece. Two third of the mountains consist of high ridges and sub-ridges, reaching 2000 m altitude and above. This area is called Western Rhodopes.

And the rest of the mountain range, which is its eastern part, is lower, covered by broad-leaved forests and some agricultural fields in the valleys. Finally, these low ridges and hills gradually disappear in the valley of the Maritsa River in Greece.

Ivailovgrad dam lake of Arda River, Eastern Rhodopes
Ivailovgrad dam lake of Arda River, Eastern Rhodopes

The largest river in Eastern Rhodopes is Arda, and most of the area is covered by its basin- Arda River and its tributaries. There are three large dam lakes on Arda- some of the most beautiful dam lakes in the Balkans.

The people and their settlements

The main city in Eastern Rhodopes is Kardzhali. Besides it, there are several smaller cities and towns- Momchilgrad, Krumovgrad, Madzharovo, and Ivailovgrad, as well as some towns at the “edge” of the mountains.

The rest of the population in Eastern Rhodopes live in the villages- and there are hundreds of small villages, scattered around the valleys and the hills. Most of the population is a mix of ethnic Turks and Bulgarians, and a significant part of them are Muslims.

In general, this is how the Eastern Rhodopes look like- hills, valleys, some covered by forests, some more naked and stony, villages with mosques, and several cities. But if you travel around the mountain and dive deeper, you can notice that there are a lot of mysteries and long history behind this pastoral image.

The history of Eastern Rhodopes

Eastern Rhodopes are low in elevation, but quite rocky. And if you look at the rocks while you explore it, most probably you would notice some weird trapezoid holes on the rock walls, called niches. Obviously, they are human-made, but who has made them, and for what purpose? There is no answer and most probably we will never know anytime soon!

Rock niches everywhere
Rock niches everywhere

And only this fact tells you that the Eastern Rhodopes has a long and mysterious history. Known and unknown people have left a lot of remains, some of which are very strange. But let’s dive into a time travel to the ancient past…

The ancient Thracians

The Thracians are ancient people, who have lived in the eastern part of the Balkans. They have left a lot of artifacts, but little written information, since they have never presented their own alphabet.

What we know about them comes mainly from the ancient Greek sources, and from the multiple remains, scattered around the whole territory of Bulgaria, as well as parts of Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia.

It is known that the Thracians have lived here from at least 2000 BC, probably even earlier. They have never created a strong, united empire, but have been always divided into local tribes and their local states. Several of these tribes have inhabited the Rhodope Mountains, and the main of them has been the tribe of the Odryses. This tribe has left most of the remains in the Eastern Rhodopes… probably!

More ancient unknown people?

There are many signs that there have been ever older peoples living in the Eastern Rhodope because some of the ancient artifacts are too strange and do not fit the image of the Thracians that we know. Some of the artifacts are measured as 5000-6000 years old.

Besides, there is a weird gap, somewhere around 3000 BC without any sign of human presence in the whole of the eastern part of the Balkans!

So, besides the strange trapezoid niches on the rock walls, today we can also see various kinds of tombs, religious sanctuaries, weird round or oval holes carved on rocks, and round Stonehenge-like dolmens. Finally, there are a lot of stories and legends, obscured in a mix of real history and fantasy.

Romans, Slavs, Bulgarians

The Romans came to the eastern part of the Balkans in the 1st century BC, but the Rhodope Mountains remained the last Balkan territory, conquered by the Roman Empire. Then, about 400 years later, the Slavs came from the north and gradually settled in most of the Balkans, including the Eastern Rhodopes.

Finally, the Bulgarian Empire conquered this area at the beginning of the 9th century, but during the next 500 years, it was often exchanged between Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire.

It is unknown what exactly happened to the ancient Thracians. Most probably, they were assimilated by the Romans and the Slavs. Christianity was introduced in the area, and the ancient Thracian rituals were abandoned and forgotten. But the mystery and the impact of the ancient demons that hover around their sanctuaries, tombs, and other strange artifacts still remain.

The Islam

In the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks conquered the Eastern Rhodope and gradually, most of the Balkan Peninsula. The area remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the beginning of the 20th century.

During that time, the ethnic picture of this place gradually changed. Turks become a significant part of the population, and Islam became the dominant religion. But again, the mysterious ancient sites remained a source of legends, fantasy, and even fear somehow added to the local version of Islam.

Ancient ruins
Ancient ruins

Today, some of these sites have become tourist attractions. Other sites were added on the maps, but remained hidden, known only by the locals and detectable only by adventurous explorers. And there are sites that scientists are discovering just now, and probably many more that have remained hidden, expecting to be discovered.

Sites from the ancient past

So, let’s back to the ancient past. The people from those distant times have left a lot of traces, some of them well-preserved, some almost invisible. But they are everywhere, so if you explore this land, you can’t miss them.

Thracian tombs

Ancient tombs can be found everywhere in the world, and they speak a lot about life in the past. Thracian tombs are no exception, but at the same time, they have their secrets.

Thracian tombs are not the same, but there are various kinds of tombs. Some of them are made in a mound with a chamber inside, while others are carved in rocks. Little has remained today in the tombs- the relics have been first taken by treasure hunters, and the rest have been collected by scientists for laboratories and museums.

These are some of the most interesting Thracian tombs:

Thracian tomb in Mezek

This is one of the largest Thracian tombs in the Balkans. It is dome-shaped (tumulus) with a chamber inside. Obviously, it has belonged to a noble, probably a local chief. You enter through a 20 m long corridor and the core chamber inside is round.

Today, it is turned into a museum. The tomb is easily accessible by car, or just on foot (15 min walk from Mezek village), and there is parking at the tomb. Entrance fee: 6 BGN (summer), 5 BGN (winter).

Thracian tomb at Sheinovets

Not far from Mezek you can find a smaller Thracian tomb, much more hidden in the forest. It is located around 20 min walk west of Mt Sheinovets, the highest peak of the Rhodopean Gorata Range. It is dome-shaped (tumulus), and it is located in the wild forest near the peak. No museum, no entrance fees, just a wild mystery.

Sheinovets Tomb
Sheinovets Tomb

You can reach it by car on the narrow paved road to Mt Sheinovets and stop about 2 km west of the peak. Then walk 15 min on a trail through the forest and you will see it- abandoned, mysterious and silent, as one with the surrounding still nature.

Thracian tombs at Pchelari

Not far from Arda River, near the village of Pchelari, you can find two different tombs. They are carved in rocks. The bigger one is so high that you can stand inside of it. Today, they are empty and what once was inside has been taken by treasure hunters.

These tombs can be reached by dirt road from the so-called “tourist center” at the road, connecting the village of Pchelari and Belopoltsi, or by trail (partly covered by grass, thorns, and bush) from the same road. Again- no museum, no entrance fees, no tourist crowds.

Thracian tombs at Potochnitsa

If you cross the Arda River, you can find other tombs carved in the rocks- the tombs near Potochnitsa village. The main tomb has a trapezoid shape, with an 8 m long funnel-shaped entrance. There are a lot of rock niches carved on the nearby rocks. Again, the area around the tombs is wild and accessible only by trail hiking.

Thracian tomb Punarkaya

This one is a kind of dome-shaped tomb, but a bit different. It is carved inside the rocks, with a mound over them, at the same time with an entrance made by small stones on both sides. There is a water source inside the tomb and flowing out of it.

The tomb is located between the villages of Stareishino and Svetlen. The best way to reach it is by car to one of these villages, and there is a narrow trail leading to the tomb. Again- no museum, no entrance fee.

Thracian tomb Golyamata Mogila (Big Mound) near Svirachi

Another interesting tomb can be found in the far east of the Eastern Rhodopes, near Ivailovgrad and the border with Greece. It is a mound type of tomb and is supposed to serve the nearby owners of the ancient Armira Cottage.

Its entrance is closed by stones. Again, there is no entrance fee, and it remains a bit neglected, hidden in grass and bush. But its artifacts found there are exposed in some of the best archaeological museums in Bulgaria.

Besides these tombs, there are many other smaller, hidden, half-destroyed, or almost completely destroyed tombs from the ancient past. I would mention also the tomb of Aleksandrovo, which is well-maintained with museum and entrance fee, but it is “almost” out of the Eastern Rhodopes.

Thracian sanctuaries and niches

There is another tomb that deserves to be mentioned because it is not just a tomb. It is a significant Thracian and pre-Thracian sanctuary, containing a unique tomb, partially surrounded by a fortification wall. This is Tatul.

Tatul

Tatul is something more mysterious, and totally different than the known Thracian tombs. It is made on a rocky hill with a half-pyramid on its top. And there is a sarcophagus at the top of the half-pyramid- a unique kind of tomb that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world!

The half-pyramid tomb of Tatul
The half-pyramid tomb of Tatul

This place guides us to even more ancient times, before the Thracians, at least several thousand years before Christ. Numerous artifacts have been discovered there, and they reveal a mysterious pre-historic culture. The site is obviously used by the Thracians later.

This site is located just outside of Tatul village, east of Momchilgrad. Today, it is turned into a tourist attraction with an entrance fee: 3 BGN

But there is something even older and more mysterious- a place, called Deaf Stones.

Deaf Stones (Gluhite Kamani)

Unlike Tatul, this place is located in a deep forest, on the western side of the Gorata Range of the Eastern Rhodopes. It is a strange place, with no echo, with a weird silence everywhere around it. That’s why it is called “Deaf Stones”.

And there are the stones- giant natural rocks, rising inside the thick forest. These rocks have been firstly used by an unknown pre-historic civilization, and there are a lot of artifacts discovered around the rocks. Someone has carved a lot of niches in the rocks, as well as other constructions with religious or other purposes.

Later, this place has been used by the Thracians, and probably Romans. There is even something like a remnant of a church, but it remains unclear until today. Nobody knows when this place has been abandoned. Only legends and weird stories remained among the locals until its recent scientific research.

Deaf Stones are easily accessible by a 2 km dirt road, west of the main road between Harmanli and Ivailovgrad. There is no entrance fee and you can visit it at any time. But if you do it in the evening or in the night, be prepared for a unique depressing feeling that can’t be felt anywhere else!

Deaf Stones
Deaf Stones

Kovan Kaya

Let’s mention the rock niches once again, and back to the area of Pchelari and Potochnitsa tombs. If you travel on the road between Pchelari and Belopoltsi, you can see massive rocks on the left side of the road, just before it crosses the Arda River. And you can notice that these rocks are punctured by numerous niches like cheese.

This place is called Kovan Kaya- the place with more rock niches than anywhere else in Eastern Rhodope. Again, nobody knows who and why has made these niches- the Thracians or the mysterious civilization before them.

Kovan Kaya is free to visit, just beside the road. No entrance fee and no working time.

Nochevo cult complex

If you go to the northwest of Eastern Rhodopes, in the low ranges of Dragoina and Mechkovets, traveling on the road that connects Asenovgrad and Kardzhali, and you are looking for something ancient and mysterious, you have to leave this road to the small village of Nochevo.

Nochevo consists of around 10-15 houses only, and its village hall is at the end of the village. From there, you proceed eastward on a narrow trail, and only after 15 min walking, you can see weird rock formations, obviously carved and reshaped by ancient humans.

You can see rock niches, and strange troughs carved in the rocks with unknown purposes, called “Sharapans”. But maybe the weirdest of all these is a cave that probably once has been natural, but later reshaped by someone, again for ritual or maybe other purposes. No letters, no signs, or anything else that can tell a story about all of these things!

Sharapan in Nochevo cult complex
Sharapan in Nochevo cult complex

Utrobata Cave

When I mention “caves”, there are many other caves in Eastern Rhodopes that are more than just a natural phenomenon. Probably the most famous one is Utrobata Cave, located northwest of Kardzhali, on the road to Nenkovo Village.

This cave, like the other caves of this type, is short, only 10-15 m deep. It has been natural, but the ancient Thracians have reshaped it to look like a vagina. That’s what its name means- “Utrobata” means a female reproductive system in Bulgarian. Obviously, it has been made for religious purposes, probably for fertility.

You can reach Utrobata by a 40 min hike on a steep trail that starts from the road to Nenkovo. There is a tourist shelter near the cave and it is free to visit.

There are many other smaller or larger sanctuaries and niches, most of them hidden, half-destroyed or just abandoned and gradually “conquered” by the forest, grass, and bush. I would mention a place with thousands of snakes, but I will not tell you its location, because it is dangerous- the snake population has been formed by snakes used for snake sacrifices in one of these cult sites. The rites have been over a long time ago, but the snakes remained and multiplied in this place…

Ancient cities and fortresses

So, I mentioned tombs, sanctuaries, and other strange ancient religious sites. But where have these people lived? Today, we can find some of their settlements- fortresses and city remnants. The most significant and best researched of them is the ancient city of Perperikon.

Perperikon

If you travel on the road between the villages of Chernoochene and Chiflik, northeast of Kardzhali, and reach the villages of Murgovo or Gorna Krepost, you can see a hill with rocks on its top. But when you approach and climb the hill, you will discover a huge ancient city with remains of houses, temples, fort walls, towers, and many other city attributes.

This is Perperikon- a city that has been established probably more than 4000 years ago, before the Thracians. Later it has been an important center for the Thracians, Romans, Goths, and Medieval Bulgarians, and today we can see historical layers from various ages.

The ruins of Perperikon
The ruins of Perperikon

Finally, it has been destroyed by the Ottomans in 1362. Then it has been abandoned and only in recent years rediscovered, researched, and turned into a tourist attraction. So, you can reach it by car, or by an organized tour. Entrance fee: 6 BGN.

More ancient cities and other sites

The strange thing is that there is not much left of the ancient settlements in the Eastern Rhodopes. You can find many fortresses, but most of them are Medieval. Only hardly identifiable piles of stones with Thracian origin can be found in some places, usually known only by the local people, not mentioned in any maps. But there is more to discover…

Kovil

A few years ago, scientists have found something that is even much larger than Perperikon, near the village of Kovil. There is a plateau full of rock niches, sharapans, and other religious constructions, more than everywhere in the Balkans. All of them are arranged like a “star map”, and even now, currently, scientists discover more and more of them.

Probably, it will be a future tourist attraction? But first, scientists want to know what actually this place is.

How to explore the ancient remains of Eastern Rhodopes

The best way to do it is by car. Most of the roads are recently renewed, so their quality is good. If you don’t travel in your own car, there are plenty of options for a rental car in the big cities of Bulgaria.

Your starting point can be Sofia, Plovdiv, or Burgas. You can travel on Trakia and Maritsa Highways, and choose any exit to the south. Then you can plan your route through Kardzhali, Momchilgrad, Krumovgrad, and Ivailovgrad, with detours to the nearby ancient sites.

Check for rent a car in Bulgaria!

Adventurous ways to explore Eastern Rhodopes

A more adventurous way to explore the Eastern Rhodopes would be by bicycle or by hiking. If you decide to travel by bike, you can travel to Kardzhali by bus or train, then rent a bike from here.

Or, if you want to go hiking, you just need a longer time, proper equipment, and a good hiking experience, especially for reading maps and GPS to avoid getting lost.

There are buses between the main cities in Eastern Rhodopes, but they are inconvenient and can’t take you to the destinations you want to visit. So, you can use a bus or train only to reach a city in the region as a starting point for hiking.

Geography and routes

There are plenty of options on how to design your route in the Eastern Rhodopes. And of course, along with the ancient sites, you can combine your route with other points of interest- natural parks and phenomena, the dam lakes or Arda River, small local villages, and big cities.

For more information, look at the map below:

Map of Eastern Rhodopes
Map of Eastern Rhodopes

Or visit the online map that includes Eastern Rhodopes:

See the map of Eastern Rhodopes!

Accommodation

There are enough options for spending the night in the Eastern Rhodopes. You can find hotels and guest houses not only in the cities but also in some villages, usually those that are closer to the tourist sites.

Find your accommodation in Eastern Rhodopes!

But if you go there by biking or hiking, you can camp wherever you want. However, avoid setting your tent too close to cities, villages, or farms. Go deeper in the forests and meadows.

Yes, there are some wild animals like jackals, wild pigs, or even wolves, but it is unlikely that they would attack a tent with sleeping people inside. Anyway, cover your food well, because it can be a temptation for these animals.

Seasons

Every season in the Eastern Rhodopes has its own beauty. However, this region has low altitude, and I would advise you to avoid summer if you plan to go biking or hiking. It is hot and many trails are covered by thick and high grass, probably with snakes.

Spring is nice and cool, the grass is still low and trails are easy to walk. However, it can be often rainy, so you would better follow the weather forecast. You should especially avoid thunderstorms that start in May and can appear until the end of September.

Fall is nice and cool too and is much drier than spring. However, the grass is still higher and thicker. Besides, this is the hunting season, and it is not advisable to hike where hunters shoot.

Winter is relatively mild. Due to its low altitude and its location near the Aegean Sea, the mountain is only sometimes covered by snow. However, during snowless days, the ground is usually wet and muddy. Besides, in this season wolves can become aggressive since they are hungry.

Anyway, no matter which season you choose to visit the Eastern Rhodopes, get more knowledge about what you are going to explore. It is not just history and archaeology, but it is also nature, local culture, and a lot of adventure opportunities. So, if you visit Bulgaria, plan a journey to this mysterious and amazing offbeat region, dive into a world far from the crowds, back in time, and enjoy an unforgettable experience!

Get more inspiration from the video below!

Take a look at some books about the Thracians and the Eastern Rhodopes:

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A guide about the ancient history of the Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria- archaeological sites and how to visit them. A guide about the ancient history of the Eastern Rhodopes, Bulgaria- archaeological sites and how to visit them.

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