by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Medieval relief offers rare glimpse of early Bulgarian history

madara horseman.jpg

Of all UNESCO World Heritage sites in Bulgaria, Madara Horseman is most difficult to see.

This is not because Europe's only medieval open-air relief is in an isolated spot that is hard to reach. The Madara Horseman is a short and easy drive from the Hemus motorway, near Shumen. Just beneath the 100 metre high rock where it is carved, there is a new visitor's centre and a viewing platform.

The challenge once you reach the platform is to make out the outlines of the famed image of a rider and his dog killing a lion. Carved at a height of 23 metres, the Madara Horseman has stood here since at least the early 8th century. Time and the elements have taken their toll. The wind, the sun and the rain have smoothed the shapes of the man and the animals. The limestone rock has cracked, threatening the relief with destruction.

Despite the challenges of time, the Madara Horseman is the ultimate image of early medieval Bulgaria, a vital symbol of national identity and history.

Where is the horseman? After centuries of sun, wind and water eating the soft rocks, you can barely see the medieval relief

Bulgaria was established in 681, one of the many states and federations that appeared in Europe at the time, and one of the few that survived long enough to make a historical difference. Its first capital, Pliska, was in what is now northeastern Bulgaria. The Madara plateau is in the immediate vicinity, and served as a religious centre for the young pagan state. The horseman carved in its rocks was clearly part of this, but why it was made and even who it represents remains a mystery.

When the Czech traveller and historian Konstantin Jireček visited, in the 1880s, the locals believed that the relief marked the burial place of a Western European king who fell from the rocks while hunting.

Jireček himself thought that ancient Thracians had carved the Madara Horseman. As the ancient people who inhabited what is now Bulgaria between the 2nd millennium BC and the 6th century AD venerated a divine rider and depicted him on votive tablets, gold vessels and funeral murals, the possibility that they had carved the mysterious Madara rider relief appeared logical.

Jireček was wrong. The Madara Horseman is depicted seated on a high-backed saddle and using stirrups: both were inventions of the nomadic peoples in the Asian steppes, as they simply made long-distance riding more comfortable. These were unknown in Europe before the Barbarians arrived from the East, in the 4th-7th centuries, the thunder of their horses' hooves heralding the end of Antiquity. The early Bulgarians were a part of this wave and caused terror in "civilised" Byzantium with their horsemanship, their skill in fighting and shooting arrows from horseback, and their battle tactics that combined the terror of the frontal attack of hundreds of galloping animals with the cunning of the false retreat.

To carve a relief so large and at such a height was a massive endeavour possible only for a man of considerable power. Historians suggest that an early Bulgarian ruler commissioned the Madara Horseman as a symbol of his control over the newly conquered land. This ruler was most probably Khan Tervel (700-721). He was the son of Asparuh, the man who led Bulgarians south of the Danube and humiliated the Byzantines into accepting a treaty that recognised Bulgaria's existence as a political entity. Tervel was as formidable as his father. He actively and successfully meddled in Byzantium's never-ending game of thrones and when Constantinople was besieged by the Arabs and close to surrender, Tervel came to the rescue and relieved the city.

He left the earliest inscription beside the Madara Horseman. Dated 705, it retells with calm dignity how the Bulgarian khan helped a deposed Byzantine emperor to retake his throne.

The other two inscriptions by the rider relief share this sentiment and were left by the two other emblematic early Bulgarian rulers, Krum (803 -814) and Omurtag (814-831). These inscriptions are in Greek as they were written before Bulgarians had their own script.

The ancient Thracians had a shrine to water nymphs in a grotto just under Madara Horseman

Omurtag also created the religious compound around the Madara Horseman. This would have increased the spiritual and symbolic value of the location and demonstrated to everyone that the Bulgarians were invaders no more. They were here to stay, settled and comfortable in their new homeland.

In a trend that recurred in the Bulgarian lands with the arrival of each new settler group, this sanctuary did not arise from empty ground. The ancient Thracians had their own shrine there, just under the early Medieval relief, where they venerated water nymphs in a shallow cave with a sacred spring.

This was how, in a symbolic way, the Madara Horseman became the physical manifestation of the blending of the different peoples who, in the early Middle Ages, developed into what became modern Bulgarians. Only Slavs, the third constituent element of the Bulgarian people, are missing. In these early years few of them lived around Pliska and Madara, the stronghold of the early Bulgarians.

The Madara Horseman probably lost some of its symbolic power as Bulgarians adopted Christianity in the 860s, moved their capital to nearby Preslav in 893, and redefined themselves as a Christian nation. Time passed, memories faded, and new settlers arrived. Among them were Turks, who settled in the region after Bulgaria fell to the Ottomans in the late 14th century, and today they still make up a significant proportion of the population of this region.

When Bulgarian statehood was restored, in 1878, historical interest in the old capitals of Pliska and Preslav intensified, as they were recognised as powerful symbols of the "eternal rebirth" of the nation, and a chance to restore the glory of the past. Once the early Bulgarians were identified as the true creators of the Madara Horseman, its symbolic importance grew. In the 1930s and the early 1940s, when nationalism ran high in Bulgaria, the horseman, misidentified as a portrait of Khan Krum, appeared on coins.

The Madara Horseman kept its grip on the popular imagination under Communism, whose historians for some time downplayed the role of early Bulgarians in the foundation of the Bulgarian state, and focused their attention instead on the more politically correct Slavs (because of "brotherhood" with the USSR). In 1979, the Madara Horseman was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, and two years later, when Bulgaria celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its foundation, the rider featured on the reverse of a commemorative 2-leva coin.

After Communism collapsed and scientific and popular interest in the early Bulgarians grew, the relief remained in the spotlight. The hypothesis that it was made by the ancient Thracians reappeared too, as it was believed to "prove" that the Bulgarian people were much older than previously thought.

Against the background of this complicated but compelling story, it is understandable that visiting the actual Madara Horseman might be a bit of an anticlimax, especially in dim visibility when it is even harder to make out its outlines.

The atmospheric Madara cave is hidden at the end of a short path. Water still drips and overflows from the ancient stone pools, and creepers hang, glistening with damp, as they did millennia ago.


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