The Great Mountain Citadel of Perperikon and the Dionysian Cult
The modern nation of Bulgaria was always at the crossroads of history. Situated in a crucial historic region, it is filled to the brim with important archaeological sites and places of immense value, some of which are invaluable for the history of Europe. Historically, the region of present day Bulgaria has been the home to Thracians, Ancient Greek Macedonians, to Romans, Byzantines, and eventually Slavs. These changing cultures and civilizations all left their traces on Bulgaria, and the mountain citadel of Perperikon is a fantastic glimpse into all of them.
The mountain citadel of Perperikon
The Earliest Human Traces at Perperikon
Rising some 1,400 feet (~426 meters) above sea level, an indomitable, dominating peak juts out of the foothills in the Eastern Rhodope mountains. Located roughly 10 miles (~16 kilometers) from the town of Kardzhali (Кърджали), it lies close to the main roads from the capital of Sofia, through Haskovo and Asenovgrad. And it is on this magnificent peak that Perperikon rests. Offering a clear and strategic view over the regions around it, this peak is idyllic in many ways. Beneath it flows the Perpereshka river, forming a small and fertile valley. It was in this valley that numerous villages sprang up in history, clustering beneath the protective walls of the fort above. Today, the many archaeological layers excavated show many centuries of habitation.
In ancient times, the citadel of Perperikon was known in Greek as Hyperperakion, and later as Perperakion. There are several theories about the origins of Perperikon’s name. Some suggest that it stems from the Ancient Greek word hyperpyros, denoting an altar fire. This later turned into the Medieval Greek name for a high-temperature gold refining procedure, and later lent the name to hyperpyron, the Byzantine issued coin, which was adopted in the Medieval Serbian Empire as the perper currency, and in the Republic of Ragusa as perpera. Another theory connects the name Perperikon with the name of Perun, one of the chief deities of Pagan Slavs. Similar names dot the Balkan region, likely connecting the fort’s name with Perperuna, the female deity related to rain and ultimately with Perun. The similarity is the clear proof here: Perperikon - Perperuna.
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In its most ancient history, the Perperikon site was nothing more than a natural formation of wind beaten rock. However, its location and strategic position made it a gathering point for numerous cultures and civilizations over time. Its citadel-like role would emerge only later in its historic life: early on it was mostly religious in nature. Prehistoric cultures of Europe - mostly in the Neolithic - were drawn to such jutting rocks, making them an object of worship.
There were plenty of flourishing Megalithic cultures in the Rhodope mountain range, and in fact, Perperikon is clear proof of this - it is the largest megalith collection in the Balkans. This is confirmed with the earliest documented traces of humans discovered on the site, dated to circa 6 th to the 5th millennium BC, or the late Neolithic Period. Fragments of pottery from this period were deposited in a ritual manner around the site.
Over time the rock formations have been extensively carved and worked, and the site contains a wealth of archaeological evidence. (Elena Chochkova / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Emergence of a Religious Complex
Gradually however, humans began working the rocks more and more. Finds from the Eneolithic (Copper age) show us that the regional cultures began forming ritual pits and crevices in the stones themselves, depositing pottery vessels within. A good part of the discovered pottery shares plenty of similarities with the potter fragments of the Karanovo Culture of that same period, one of the most important prehistoric cultures of the Balkans. The religious site gradually turned into a place of habitation, either as a complex of temples, a “royal” fort, or any other similar role. It experienced flourishing during the Bronze Age, and researchers believe that around the 18th to 12th centuries BCE, the citadel of Perperikon was a major center. This period of flourishing is possibly related to the so-called civilizational peak of the Minoans and Mycenaeans.
Archaeological data shows us that Perperikon was a major site of a religious nature by the end of the Bronze Age. Even though the rock formations have been extensively carved and worked since then, enough remains for such a decisive conclusion. In 2002, Perperikon once more made the headlines with a fresh discovery of perfectly preserved Bronze Age pottery vessels, ranging from cups and beakers - both crude and high quality - with distinct curvature of the handles. One of these was a luxurious pottery artifact dated to the 18th century BC. Hailing from the Sea of Marmara region (modern Turkey), it was certainly an imported item, which points to early development of trade in this region. Another pottery vessel found there is elaborately decorated, with a scene showing six human figures around a sun symbol.
Pottery is no stranger to the archaeologists at Perperikon. The image shows Tracian pottery remains discovered at Perperikon in Bulgaria. (Kiril Kapustin / CC BY 2.5 )
But without a doubt, the most important period in the history of Perperikon hails from the Thracian and Greek culture periods. Today’s remains of worked stone are numerous and have been built over the centuries, but these classical traces are still to be seen. In general, the excavated site can be separated into four distinct zones. What is known as the citadel, or the acropolis, dominates the very top of the hill. Immediately beneath it is a mixed palace and temple complex that is oriented to the southeast. The other two zones are reserved for the so-called outer cities: buildings that were probably located outside the fortified walls and important complexes. At the foot of the hill are numerous remains of villages, showing a dense habitation, especially during the Roman period. The two outer city zones are the least researched of them all. Here only the preliminary excavations have been done, which determined a layout of streets and numerous buildings.
The ancient citadel has been occupied by a wealth of civilizations due to its strategic location. ( Stoyan Haytov / Adobe Stock)
The walls of the citadel (acropolis) were designed to protect the core of the complex. Their thickness of roughly 2.6 meters (8.5 feet) is a clear indication of their role. The fortifications were improved and broadened by the Romans, who surely recognized the strategic value of this site. It is interesting to note that no bonding mixture (cement) was used in building the citadel walls: they are composed of perfectly carved stone blocks with crushed rocks between the rows.
The Fabled Temple of Dionysus: Jewel of the Rhodopes
The most researched part of the entire Perperikon complex is the large structure situated within the eastern part of the acropolis, a building carved in the rock with a basilica plan. Thorough excavations conclude that this was the site of a crucial pagan temple , upon which a Christian church was later built, by simple addition of an apse to the central altar. Could it be that Slavs used to worship Perun, the god of sky, thunder, rain, at this hill and at the temple, thus giving the most recently preserved name - Perperikon?
Nevertheless, the Christian basilica - although small - was still monumental in its design. Large double doors are documented, and a portico which leads to the very heart of the acropolis. The columns that lined it are still preserved, contributing to the majestic, classical look.
But what really tickles the fancy of all historical aficionados is the discovery of a site that perfectly corresponds to the Temple of Dionysus of the Rhodope Mountains, that was often mentioned by Greek classical authors. The excavations show an open air temple of huge dimensions carved out of the rock. It is dominated by a central round altar which is 6 feet in diameter (~1.9 meters) and rises slightly more than that above the ground level.
The Perperikon church site can be found at the eastern part of the acropolis. Once the site of a pagan temple, on which a Christian church was later built. (Anton Lefterov / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
It is interesting to note the many oval carved holes around the altar, as well as a square platform beside it, with a clear ritual and ceremonial character. In fact, archaeologists discovered a stunning multitude of ancient altars all around this site, all characterized with carved throughs and basins. The northern slope of the site in particular is dotted with them, and the artistic reconstruction of the ancient site shows a magnificent, awe-inspiring sight for anyone approaching the Perperikon shrine. It is thus the most likely location of the Ancient Temple of Dionysus of the Rhodopes, that was visited by Octavian Augustus, as attested by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus in his writings.
What almost confirms the “Dyonisean theory” is the discovery of multiple channels and circular indentations in these altars. At first these seemed to be classic examples of altars for blood sacrifice as found elsewhere - and in fact, the Thracians were known to sacrifice animals, so the possibility remains. However, the network of carved channels and holes can also serve as functional elements of a rough winepress, not for effective large scale wine making operations, but rather as symbolic production of sacred wine for a ritual purpose. This is a crucial element of the worship of Dionysus, the ancient God of wine, winemaking, fertility, and ritual ecstasy. All of this confirms the theory that Perperikon of ancient times was the center of the regional cult of Dionysus.
Equally important is the so-called Great Hall, named thus by the excavation team. It is carved in the rock and shows the remains of a wooden beam structure that most certainly supported a large roof. The great hall was in many ways the heart of the citadel. In its remotest corners two deep vaults were discovered, also carved into the rock. One vault contained fifteen, and the other five stone sarcophagi. Each one was made from four expertly carved and immense stone slabs. They were looted and disturbed in ancient times, leaving nothing of substance for discovery.
Discoveries are being made continually at Perperikon. In 2015 Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov found a gold coin (tetarteron) with the images of Byzantine Emperor Basil II and his brother and successor Emperor Constatine VIII. The archeaologists also unearthed an 11 th century lead seal. (BGNES)
The Riches of the Ancient World Beneath the Stones of Perperikon
One of the oldest Christian churches in the region is at the top of Perperikon, giving clues into the earliest Christianization of the pagan inhabitants of the Rhodopes. Around the remnants of the basilica/church more than 100 Christian burials have been discovered in a small necropolis. Almost all are buried in coffins made of stone slabs, with many having cross-marked headstones as well. A well-preserved early Christian mosaic has also been discovered on the floor of the basilica.
Perperikon is also appreciated for the wealth of significant archaeological discoveries made at the site. Many of them were well preserved and now form the backbone of Bulgaria’s rich national museum archive. One of the earliest Thracian silver coins was discovered here, dating to the 5th century BC. An abundance of quality red glazed Roman pottery and Roman coinage have also been discovered. But this is only part of the Perperikon collection.
Worth mentioning is an elaborate round plate made of bronze, showing Heracles with his club, wearing the skin of the Nemean lion. Also important is the bronze sculpture of a Thracian horseman, expertly executed and dated to the 1st and 2nd century AD. One of the possible indications that Perperikon of classical antiquity and later was a royal citadel is the wealth of very luxurious items found. One such item is the pristine silver ring with an intaglio made of Carnelian precious stone. In it is carved a detailed depiction of Helios, the sun god, in his chariots. Researchers claim that this ring must have been a true masterpiece in its time, and must have belonged to someone very important. Plenty of gold items have been found as well, most of them dated to 5th and 6th centuries AD. Important of these is a gold coin from the time of Emperor Justin (516-527), and a large fragment of a patrician diadem.
From the early medieval, Byzantine period, several monumental findings have been made. Dating to this period are more than twenty cross pendants. Several were fashioned as reliquaries. One of these was opened during restoration, and within were found small fragments of wood. It is speculated that these were small fragments of the True Cross , however, such reputed fragments were almost dime a dozen in the early medieval world. Nevertheless, these crosses and early Christian items are highly important discoveries.
Perperikon is one of the most important archaeological sites in Bulgaria, and provides for decades of continuous exploration. (Vislupus / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Unmistakable Heritage of Europe
Perperikon provides one of the most important glimpses into the history of Southeastern Europe, and the many cultures that marked its emerging character. Such isolated locations are the dream come true of every enthusiastic archaeologist: the sheer wealth of finds and historic eras allows for decades of continuous exploration. As such the Perperikon site remains one of the most important ancient locations in Europe.
Top image: The mountain citadel of Perperikon, located near Kardzhali in Bulgaria, is an isolated dream for archaeologists. ( Victor Lauer / Adobe Stock)
Erdley, P. and Strnadel, L. 2012. Bulgaria. Other Places Publishing.
Kay, A. 2015. Bulgaria. Bradt Travel Guides.
Ovcharov, N. 2003. Perperikon. Available at: http://www.perperikon.bg/