In a dismal present with little hope of a bright future, Bulgarians are increasingly searching for solace in their nation's glorious past.
Both mediaeval military might and the 19th century National Revival Period have been the darlings of the nation in the past few years. Reenactments of historical battles take place by the over-restored ruins of ancient forts, traditional peasant costumes are now de rigueur at weddings and proms, and the Horo is danced at every imaginable and unimaginable location and time.
An older manifestation of this trend concerns a nation that flourished long before Bulgaria was established in 681. These are the ancient Thracians, the people who inhabited the eastern Balkans between the 2nd millennium BC and the 6th century AD. They were numerous but unruly. They loved intricate gold objects and buried their dead in lavish tombs. They glorified death. They produced Dionysus, the god of wine and madness, the musician Orpheus who could melt the hearts of beasts, and Spartacus, the gladiator who rebelled against Rome. They drank their wine undiluted with water, a "barbarian" habit that shocked both the Greeks and the Romans.
Belintash has a commanding position over this area of the Rhodope. Note the coins left by visitors in one of the ancient ritual basins
The Thracians also left no written legacy, their gift to posterity being a trove of ancient sites, treasures and half-forgotten rituals, shrouded in enigmas and mysteries.
The Thracians disappeared from history mostly due to assimilation by the Roman Empire and the waves of newcomers that overran the region in the 4th-7th centuries AD. What percentage of Thracian DNA runs in the blood of modern Bulgarians is a matter of debate. Historians say that when Bulgaria came into being, the Thracians in these lands were already too few to make a difference. Others, mainly from outside academia, claim that the Thracians were the true Bulgarians, and that modern Bulgarians are their direct descendants.
Cue an interest in everything Thracian, particularly the mysterious and often impressive rock shrines that this ancient people built, mostly in the Rhodope and the Strandzha mountains.
Ancient Thracian shrines in modern Bulgaria have become the target of a wave of new myth making, spread by the Internet. The more impressive the shrine, the more incredible the new myths told about it.
In this respect, Belintash (also called Belantash) is the absolute champion.
This water cistern is carved in the rock and is more than 2 metres deep
Located on a precipitous, 300-metre-long rocky plateau in the Rhodope mountains, Belintash has been claimed to be the landing site of a UFO, a map of a stellar constellation and an astronomical observatory minus the telescopes. It has been said to have a gallery of the Thracian gods' faces carved into the rocks, and to be the hiding place of either Alexander the Great's golden chariot – or of 800 kg of gold. That treasure will only be discovered after Belintash takes the lives of eight, 10 or 12 people (the number varies). Our list is hardly comprehensive, as the theories, explanations and stories connected to Belintash multiply with every passing year.
Legends or no legends, Belintash does stimulate the imagination. The plateau, at an altitude of 1,225 metres, rises above a mountain valley surrounded by neighbouring peaks. Stone carvings, canals and basins filled with stagnant rain water are cut into the rocks. The shrine's most sacred area is at the narrow tip of the plateau, which rises above the rest of the site. Windswept and commanding an astonishing vista, the rock is pitted with more canals, basins and hollows, the foundations of buildings, and deep cisterns. Two deep crevices divide the rock into three sections, the farthest of which is adorned with a twisted tree and a rock in which some see the outline of a human face.
In recent years, a modern pagan ritual is practiced by the ancient Thracian shrine: visitors write wishes on pieces of paper and tuck them in the roots of this tree
The first pilgrims arrived at Belintash about 5000 BC. For some reason, the shrine was abandoned in the 4th century BC, but revived again around the 4th century AD. People also used to visit here in the Ottoman period.
Some claim that Belintash is the famed oracle of Dionysus which, according to ancient sources, predicted the glorious destiny of Alexander of Macedon and the Emperor Augustus, and was located somewhere in the Rhodope mountains. Supporting evidence, however, is rather scant.
Intriguingly, near Belintash are two more places of religious importance: the neighbouring peaks of Karadzhov Kamak, thought to be another Thracian shrine, and Krastova Gora, one of Bulgaria's most popular Christian pilgrimage sites.
If you believe the modern myths, the Thracians venerated Karadzhov Kamak as "the place of the dead," while Belintash was the "place of the living" and Krastova Gora "the place of the gods."
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.