Thracian and Ottoman heritage co-exist in a reserve in Bulgaria's north-east
Bulgaria is dotted with places entwining its millennia-old history, but few of them can compare with Sboryanovo Archaeological Reserve. Situated in Bulgaria's north-east, near Isperih, it preserves a city of the ancient Thracians, one of their most astonishing tombs, and the most popular Muslim shrine in the country.
From the second half of the 1st Millennium BC until Roman times, the region was the home of the Getae, a mighty and populous Thracian tribe, which controlled the lands on both sides of the Danube. In the 4th-3rd centuries BC, Sboryanovo was the centre of political power for the Getae kings. Two of them, Cothelas and Dromichaetes, who played a significant role in the international politics of their days, are believed to have been buried there.
The Sveshtarska Grobnitsa, or Sveshtari Tomb, is the indisputable showstopper. Discovered in 1982 in one of the biggest mounds of the Eastern necropolis, it is without an equal throughout the Thracian world. The burial chamber is decorated with a fresco of an imposing woman crowning a rider with a wreath, and with sculptures of ten caryatids.
The caryatids are what remain in the memory. Sculpted of limestone, they have unusually-proportioned bodies, intricately carved garments and sturdy faces with wide-open eyes, which captivate the visitor in the claustrophobically narrow vaulted chamber.
The historians believe that the Sveshtari caryatids represent the many faces of the all-mighty Great Goddess of the Thracians. She is also the tall woman in the fresco, depicted at the moment when she confers immortality on the deified owner of the tomb. From circumstantial evidence, some scientists even believe that they know who the deceased was: King Dromichaetes.
In 1985, UNESCO listed the Sveshtari Tomb as a World Heritage Monument. Due to preservation issues, visiting time in the tomb is limited, and the site is closed to tourists in winter. To put it in another way, you have to call ahead.
So far, more than 100 burial mounds have been identified in Sboryanovo. Most of them are divided into two necropoli and, according to a theory, their positions were chosen deliberately, making them into a giant map of the some of the constellations in the sky.
Mounds of all sizes abound in Sboryanovo reserve – until recently, locals called the area the Land of Hundred Mounds. Erecting a mound was a tiresome and time-consuming enterprise. The ones higher than 15 m needed between two and six months to take shape. In the background stands the Great Sveshtari Tumulus
In Thracian times, Sboryanovo was not only a place for the dead, but also for the living. On a narrow and easily defended plateau by the Krapinets River stood a walled city called, back then, either Dausdava or Helis (historians disagree on the exact name), which spread out over 10 ha. The city was the home of craftsmen making goods from iron, silver, gold and bone. Its location on an ancient salt trade road brought additional importance to Helis (or Dausdava).
The city was rich and prosperous, but it could not survive the devastating earthquake that shook the area in about 250 BC. Life was never re-established there, leaving the city's remains to archeologists who continue their slow and painstaking research.
The Getae also had several shrines in Sboryanovo. The most interesting of these is a good example of the Balkan tradition when generations of different religions adopt and venerate sites thought to be sacred.
Between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 1st Century BC, there was a shrine with rock altars and strong walls by the cold waters of a spring, which is now called the Five-Fingers Spring. When Christianity arrived in the 5-6th centuries, the site was abandoned.
It revived again in the 16th Century, when the tekke, or shrine, of the Muslim sage Demir Baba, or Iron Father, was built over its remains. Demir Baba, who is buried here in a stone heptagonal tomb, is the most honoured saint of a small and little known group of Muslims in Bulgaria – the Alevis.
Some 70,000 Alevis live in Bulgaria in compact groups in villages in Bulgaria's north-east and the eastern Rhodope. They are followers of an unorthodox and rather liberal version of Shiite Islam. Drinking alcohol is not forbidden and women do not cover their heads. They hold their rituals away from the eyes of the uninitiated. Alevism is esoteric and full of symbols incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with it. What is known is that the figure seven, the number 12 and the rose are sacred. That is why the tombs of Alevi saints are heptagon-shaped.
For Alevis the tombs of saints are sacred places where people come to pray for health, for fertility or to seek divine help. Demir Baba is no exception. Even today belief in his miraculous powers to cure is widely held by Alevis, Sunnis and Christians alike. All of them visit the site to ask for health and good luck. The largest number of visitors gathers on 6 May, the holiday celebrated as Hıdırellez by Muslims and St George's Day by Christians.
The tekke is full of pointers to the mix of religious traditions and even superstitions. The saint's grave is covered with dozens of towels, shirts and socks, left there as gifts for prayers that were answered. The trees in the surrounding area and even the window bars of the tomb are decorated with colourful shreds of cloth, tied there by people who believed this would bring them health.
According to some interpretations, some of the rituals are echoes of old Thracian beliefs. Whatever the truth is, you don't need to look for long to find traces of the ancient Thracians in Demir Baba tekke: many of the stone blocks you see there are from the Thracian sanctuary.
A caryatid, with traces of colouring, from the sculpture decoration of the Sveshtari Tomb, the turn of the first and second quarter of the 3rd Century BC
The fresco in the burial chamber depicts the Great Goddess giving immortality to the owner of the tomb, on horseback. Riders had a key position in Thracian religious beliefs. A mounted man was often depicted in votive tablets, funeral art and expensive harnesses. Sometimes he personified the Thracian God Rider, and sometimes, as is the case with the Sveshtari Tomb, he represented a deified king or an aristocrat. The idea of the Thracian Rider was so strong that it survived until the end of Antiquity and blended with the image of St George and the folklore hero Krali Marko
The frieze of bulls' heads and wreaths over the entrance indicates a Hellenistic influence in the architecture and decoration of Sveshtari Tomb. The tomb was robbed in Antiquity, but archaeologists have found the remains of a 60-year-old man on the burial bed. The man was probably a king. The bones of an younger man, a woman and five slaughtered horses were also discovered
The 16th Century shrine of the Muslim sage Demir Baba was built over the remains of one of the major Thracian shrines in the area. The ancient boulders are still clearly visible
High Beam 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.