Being one of Europe’s oldest inhabited nations means Bulgaria is awash with ruins, many of which are off the tourist radar, this not being a country that springs to mind when planning a tour of ancient sites.
Of all the cultures that have left their mark on the country, the Thracians are perhaps the most mysterious, partly because they had no written language and left little in the way of monumental architecture. The Ancient Greeks regarded them as barbarians, with Herodotus claiming “they sell their children and let their wives commerce with whatever men they please.”
However, Perperikon sheds a different light on the Thracians, being a testament to the fact that they also built temples and towns of epic proportions. The site sits perched on a hill 15 kilometers outside Kardzhali and has been slowly excavated over many years by Nikolai Ovcharov aka ‘the Bulgarian Indiana Jones’. It is the largest megalithic archeological site in the Balkans and has been dubbed the ‘European Machu Picchu’. There are streets, a citadel, fortress and even a water supply system.
This was also a sacred place of worship and archeologists have discovered a huge cult altar, six feet wide and carved out of the solid rock, the largest in south east Europe. Here ancient fire rituals would have been practiced, such as dancing on hot coals, a tradition which still takes place in very remote areas of Bulgaria (and sometimes for tourists.)
The most puzzling find at the site however, is a much more recent addition. While working on excavations, archeologists uncovered a series of ‘vampire graves’, including a well preserved 13th century skeleton with a huge metal plough rod driven straight through its heart. Professor Ovcharov explained that according to tradition this would stop a ‘bad’ person from rising from the dead and terrorising the living. It is estimated the man was about 30 or 40 years old and strangely his left leg had been removed below the knee and placed beside the body.
The team also found the bodies of a woman and infant, laid out in their graves to create an image of the Virgin Mary and child. This could also be a way to stop them rising from the dead or a form of ritual to prevent plague in the area.
Over 100 corpses with metal or wooden stakes through the body have been found in Bulgaria over the years and Ovcharov believes it demonstrates how vampire beliefs from Pagan times were preserved by Christians through the middle ages.
Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis