Perperikon (or Hyperperakion or Perperakion) is in the Eastern Rhodope range, some 10 miles from the town of Kurdzhali. The roads from Sofia, via Asenovgrad or Haskovo, are fairly good and well maintained. Perperikon is perched on a rocky peak at 1,400 ft above sea level guarded at its foot by the village of Gorna Krepost [high castle]. The gold-bearing river Perpereshka flows nearby forming a valley some 7 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. This fertile sheltered place had attracted settlers in very ancient times, and today, dozens of sites clustered around the natural hub of Perperikon reveal layer upon layer of archaeological remains. Just a little further downstream, the Perpereshka flows into the artificial lake of Stouden Kladenets on the river Arda. Where the two bodies of water meet, is the village of Kaloyantsi, a scenic place with some tourist facilities.

Thousands of years ago, Perperikon was a massive bald rock. Such rocks drew prehistoric humans like a magnet and became an object of worship. The rugged wilderness of the Eastern Rhodope must have cradled a rich megalithic culture long before the Thracian tribes inherited the land. The early inhabitants worshiped the huge undressed stones for their natural splendour. Later generations learned to carve and smooth the rocks and used them for shelter and protection.

As their tools became more effective, humans could shape or remove larger areas of the rock surface but that also meant that they obliterated the vestiges of earlier cultures. The earliest traces of human civilisation discovered so far at Perperikon were dated to the late Neolithic Period, 6th-5th millennium BC. At that time, humans had not yet learned to work the face of the rock massif: fragments of Neolithic pottery were found deposited in the natural crevices of the cliff. However, Perperikon was not yet a settled village but a rock of worship. Next came the Eneolithic Period (or the Copper Age). Pits hewn in the rock and fragments of pottery found in them were dated to the late 5th – early 4th millennium B.C. The pottery is similar to that found at other Eneolithic villages, such as the famous Mound of Karanovo. What had gradually become an inhabited rock complex continued to develop during the Bronze Age. There is every reason to believe that during the late Bronze Age in particular, 18th-12th century BC, Perperikon saw its first heyday, which probably coincided with the peak of the Mycenaean and the Minoan civilisations.

Notably, the abundance of pottery from that period was found in archaeological strata lying on large areas of finished rock surface. While subsequent carving destroyed most of that cultural layer, it has supplied sufficient evidence to archaeologists to suggest that by the end of the Bronze Age Perperikon had become a major place of worship. Very interesting late Bronze Age pottery was found at Perperikon in 2002, including several well-preserved vessels: small cups and larger beakers with characteristic curved handles. These vary in quality of workmanship from vessels made of rather coarse clay mixed with small pebbles to finely polished black ‘luxury’ items. Among the finds was unique 18th century BC pottery which must have been imported from the Sea of Marmara coast in what was probably the earliest trade between the regions. One almost fully preserved vessel features an incised lime-filled composition of six human figures around a representation of the Sun. The composition is organised like a floral motif, with the limbs of the humans being depicted as leaves, and their heads, as suns.

These must be ancient deities whose names we may never learn. A system of religious beliefs did not emerge until the early Iron Age, 11th-6th century BC, a period represented as well by the pottery found at Perperikon. Unlike the ancient Greek mythology, however, which developed at the same time, Orphism, the Thracian system of religious and philosophical beliefs is virtually unknown. Dionysus and Orpheus undoubtedly stemmed from that tradition but were a much later development.

Photo: Krasimira y Milen

Orpheus, one of the best loved ancient heroes, was born in Thrace. The ancient Greeks believed that he was the son of the river god Oeagrus and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry.

A magnificent poet and singer, Orpheus rivalled even the god of poetry and music Apollo. His heavenly voice cast a spell on everything, animate and inanimate, and having joined the Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, he helped them escape the Sirens by singing so sweetly that he drowned out their perilous song. He was often portrayed playing the lyre, which Apollo gave him, and his music enchanted the trees and rocks and tamed wild beasts, and even the rivers turned in their course to follow him.