Overgrown remains of forts and temples, mysterious rock shrines: Bulgaria's historical heritage often makes you feel like an explorer. Long forgotten and known only to die-hard history enthusiasts, they bear witness to the vibrant communities that created them millennia ago.
Asara, near the village of Angel Voyvoda in the southeast of the country, is one of these.
Until recently, this rocky hill was almost completely forgotten. Those who braved the brambles, the climb and the thick forest were rewarded with a maze of strangely shaped rocks and crevices, graves and altars, steps and niches made by the Ancient Thracians.
The Thracians inhabited what is now Bulgaria roughly between the 1st millennium BC and the 6th century AD. To what extent their DNA is a part of the genome of modern Bulgarians is a matter of debate, but one thing is certain. This ancient people left a stunning heritage of royal tombs, gold treasures and rituals like the Nestinari firewalking. The Thracians also produced a number of rock shrines, niches and megaliths where they venerated their deities, the Great Goddess, mistress of the underworld and the rocks, and the Great God, who was the master of light and sun.
The Thracians venerated oddly-shaped rocks, seeing them as a manifestation of their deities of light and darkness, the sky and the underground
Asara has all the hallmarks of a Thracian rock shrine. It is located at an impressive height and is guarded by forbidding rocks. The sacred precinct could accommodate a significant number of people, and three rock tombs were cut on three peaks. Only one of these survives today.
Even the most fascinating archaeological site would be just an accumulation of stones if we did not know its story and why was it created.
Recent archeological digs have tried to unravel what Asara was, although early Christian zealotry and modern-day treasure hunting have extensively damaged the site, leaving crucial gaps in information.
According to archaeologists, the Thracians created Asara shrine in the 1st millennium BC. Religious activity stopped in the 4th century AD, when the Christians took over. They destroyed all visible traces of "idolatry," built themselves a small church and turned the hill into a fortress. They abandoned it in the 6th century, when Thrace suffered from ongoing Barbarian invasions, and economic hardship as well as depopulation were rife. Life at Asara resumed in the 10th-14th century, but the invasion of the Ottomans put a final end to inhabitation on the hill.
So far, the history of Asara seems unexceptional. Bulgaria is crammed with places used, reused, demolished and transformed by successive generations.
Yet, archaeologists believe that Asara was special. Local legends suggest that there used to be a life-size rock relief depicting a god riding a horse. A huge flat rock covered with strange marks could have been an ancient calendar.
Rock niches are among the sanctuary's defining features
And there is the size of Asara. When the site was active, it could rival the more famous rock city of Perperikon. Intriguingly, about 20 ancient gold mines have been discovered in the vicinity, so the hill was not only an important sanctuary, but also a fortress protecting and controlling the production and trade of gold.
The ancient Thracians had a penchant for gold not only because of its value, but also because of its symbolical connection to the sun and the Great God. This probably explains the existence of the three tombs carved into prominent rocks. They probably belonged to royals and represented the union of the Great Goddess and the Great God, and the supposed immortality of anyone who believed in them.
Until not that long ago exploring Asara was an adventure. Recently, the fortress where the Thracians venerated the sun has been cleared and information signs installed to guide the curious visitor.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.