Top 10 Thracian Heritage Sites in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is an old country with an even older history. It has been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years, first by the long-forgotten tribes of the Middle Paleolithic era, and later by the ancient peoples that shaped the region and continue to influence the local culture to this very day.
We would like to take you on a virtual tour of some of the fascinating remnants of the oldest named civilization to ever make this land its home – the ancient Thracian civilization.
The Thracians are in many ways steeped in mystery. With their writing system remaining undecoded, and what few cities they built lost to the ages or lying in ruin, the most preserved testament to their lifestyle are the richly decorated and carefully hidden tombs in which they buried the most significant members of their society, and the treasures within.
The Valley of the Thracian Kings
The ancient Thracian peoples practiced complicated burial rituals to honor their dead. Important members of their society would be entombed along with their horse and items they might need in the afterlife. The tombs were decorated with wall murals describing the life of the deceased, then hidden under mounds of earth, and the foliage that would grow on top would make them indistinguishable from the surrounding terrain, hiding them for centuries. They are the only preserved examples of sacred architecture left by the Thracians. There are around 60,000 burial mounds scattered across the territory of Bulgaria, only 1000 of which have been uncovered and studied. What is known as the “Valley of the Thracian Kings” is where the rulers of these ancient tribes were buried.
The Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari – an architectural marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site
Far off the beaten path, in an archeological reserve in north-eastern Bulgaria, lies a stunning piece of World Heritage protected by UNESCO. This tomb is unique even among the most significant archeological discoveries in Bulgaria. It was built sometime in the early 3rd century BC and it’s speculated that it was the final resting place of Dromichaetes, king of the Thracian tribe of the getae.
From the moment you set foot inside its halls, you’ll note how big the limestone structure is – an unusual trait for a Thracian tomb that is meant to be hidden under earth and flora, where the rest of the king buried within can never be disturbed. This is far from the only feature that sets it apart from other Thracian tombs. Its corridor and three square chambers are arranged asymmetrically, and the Ionic freize is paired with a Dorian anta capital. The use of acroteria as a decorative element is atypical of the Hellenistic style the Thracians often used.
The burial chamber bears what is perhaps the tomb’s most striking feature – a row of ten sculpted female figures called caryatids supporting the ceiling. The figures are 1.20m tall, dressed in flowing dresses curved around the edges like elegant flower petals, hands raised to hold the ceiling up, with traces of paint on parts of them, showing that they were once painted.
Some of the caryatids are unfinished, which hints that the king died unexpectedly before the tomb could be finished, perhaps in battle.
The Kazanlak Tomb and its UNESCO protected frescoes
The Kazanlak Tomb (circa 4th-3rd century BC) is one of the most significant monuments of Thracian culture in the country, included in UNESCO’s list of global cultural inheritance. This tomb is known for the remarkable frescoes covering the walls of the corridor and the domed ceiling. Their style is early Hellenistic, and the colors used are mainly white, red, yellow and black arranged in a stunning composition.
The paintings depict scenes from the history, military achievements and afterlife of the man and woman who were buried in it, and one of the taller figures painted alongside them is speculated to represent a Mother Goddess, there to welcome the souls of the departed into the world of the dead.
Interestingly, while the names of the people buried in the tomb have been lost to the ages, the artist - Kodzimasis Hrestos - left his signature on the frescoes, which allows us to link him to at least one other Thracian tomb.
The Kazanlak Tomb is currently sealed away under specific conditions, to preserve the frescoes and protect them from the ill effects of the elements. A nearby full-sized replica is open to the public.
Perperikon - the Bulgarian Machu Picchu
The Perperikon archeological complex has been razed to the ground and rebuilt many times over the ages, and as a result it now resembles a patchwork of several eras, its oldest sections being 8000 years old.
While advanced metalworkers, the Thracians were not typically city-builders, preferring to live in villages instead, which makes the size and structure of Perperikon all the more impressive. Today you can see what is left of the numerous buildings, streets, a water supply system, structures that were used for ritualistic purposes, such as a roofless oval hall that was used for divination, an altar, tubs used for winemaking, and the tombs of the rulers that were buried in the city during its golden days.
Some historians believe that Perperikon is the location of the ancient Temple of Dionysius that is mentioned in numerous ancient Greek texts.
The sanctuary of Tatul and its ties to the ancient cult of Orpheus
The unique structure and mysterious purpose of the Thracian sanctuary of Tatul make it one of the most fascinating and puzzling megalithic complexes in Bulgaria. It is speculated that it may have been dedicated to the ancient mythical hero Orpheus. The sanctuary is hand-carved into a rock massif, and the tomb section is in the shape of a flat-topped pyramid – the only one of its kind in the country.
Within the stone walls of the sanctuary lie a few buildings, among which is a spectacular temple with intact 6-meter-tall walls. Many objects of religious significance were found inside this sanctuary – clay idols, bronze items, and depictions of the Sun God. The objects found in the sanctuary date across several different time periods – from the Copper Age to Medieval times, meaning it was likely continuously used over a period of 5000 years.
The mysterious Thracian sanctuary of Belintash
Belintash is the second largest Thracian sanctuary in Bulgaria.
It was used for religious purposes, but their exact nature is steeped in legend and mystery, and historians have theorized about its significance for centuries. It may have been dedicated to the Thracian god Sabazios, or possibly a Solar observatory. The rocks that make up the sanctuary are carved into shapes resembling the heads of gods and animals. The head of the god Sabazios faces east, towards the rising sun.
There is a gorgeous view of the surrounding area from the higher rocks that make up the sanctuary. Curiously, there is a powerful magnetic anomaly in the area that throws compasses off.
The Tomb of Mezek and its hologram exhibition
With a corridor over 20 meters in length, the Mezek Tomb is the longest Thracian tomb in Bulgaria. It is perfectly preserved in its original form, buried under an impressive 15-meter earth mound.
The Mezek Tomb belongs to the Mycenaean style. Its walls are made up of large stone blocks fitted together sans mortar. The burial chamber is in the shape of a bee hive, and in it was discovered an impressive number of artifacts made out of gold, bronze, iron, glass and ceramics, among which were jewelry and armour pieces.
It is thought that the tomb was used as a heroon – a shrine dedicated to a hero. An interesting detail is that it was reused several times, meaning it was likely a family tomb. It was built in the late 4th century BC and used up until the mid-3rd century. Evidence of 6 funerals has been discovered in total inside the tomb.
The two tombs of Starosel
The Thracian tomb of Starosel is the oldest Thracian complex with a mausoleum found in Bulgaria and dates back to the end of 5th century BC. The temple is built in a sacred place, in a region with a large number of ancient rock temples and mounds. The smaller of the two tombs is called “Horizon” and is the only Thracian tomb with a colonnade discovered to date. Its columns are in an early Dorian style - six unadorned columns out front and 2 on each side. The façade of the building is uncovered. The larger tomb is called the Chetinyova mound, and it gives you the chance to see what remains of the sites the Thracians of this region used for winemaking, ritual sacrifice, and the burial site itself.
The Golyama Kosmatka Tomb and the mask of Tsar Sevt III
This tomb belonged to the Thracian Tsar Sevt III (Seuthes III).
This tomb is one of the few in Bulgaria not to be robbed by tomb raiders over the centuries. The gold treasure buried with Sevt III was found fully intact and included more than 1 kg of masterfully crafted items, the most significant of which were his gold crown, a golden kilix (a wine glass), knee-pads and a helmet. This is the largest gold treasure found in the region of Thrace. The most interesting artifact, however, was an impressive bronze mask bearing the visage of the dead ruler. It was found ritualistically buried at the entrance of the tomb. The mask is incredibly detailed, and its eyes are made of semi-precious stones.
The Thracian Fortress of Cape Kaliakra
Cape Kaliakra is a nature and archeological reserve located near Varna. It is as beautiful from afar as it is from up close – its reddish cliffs plunge almost vertically into the waves, and the sea itself is a stunning backdrop for an already picturesque landscape. Cape Kaliakra is reaches 2 km into the sea - far enough that one can sometimes see dolphins from its cliffs. The first to settle on this cape were a tribe of Thracians in the 6th century BC. The fort wall they built around their settlement stands to this day, as do the remains of building foundations and an impressively intact tomb and a bathhouse dating back to the 4th century BC.