thracian rock tomb gluhi kamani.jpg

Thracian rock tomb at Gluhite Kamani shrine

Dragon houses. Until not long ago, this was how Bulgarians called the squat, sturdy dolmens scattered in the low ridges of the Strandzha and Sakar mountains. The dolmens belong to the Thracians. This ancient people has its fair share of construction of megaliths, the prehistoric structures built by men all over Europe whose most famous example is Stonehenge. The term megalith, a derivative of the Greek for "big stone," traditionally applies for the single standing rocks called menhirs, the stone circles called cromlechs, and the dolmens, which are low and heavy structures often used as tombs. 

The Thracians built their megaliths from at least the 12th Century BC until the 6th-5th centuries BC, but they didn't stop with menhirs, cromlechs and dolmens. In the same period they also carved tombs and niches on vertiginous rocks. Technically, these are not megaliths, but they have been included in the list of the Thracian "large stone" heritage, because they were made at the same time and in the same regions as the classic megaliths, expressing the same religious ideas. For the ancient Thracians, the rock represented the Great Goddess and caves and caverns in it were seen symbolically as her womb. This gave deep religious meaning to the burying of the dead in rock tombs and graves. In this way it secured the mortals' connection wth the divine, and granted rebirth in eternal bliss. 

Thracian dolmen, Belevren

Thracian dolmen, Belevren

The best places to see megaliths in Bulgaria are the eastern section of the Rhodope, the Sakar and the Strandzha mountains, where they are most thickly concentrated. The distribution of megaliths in these areas, however, is uneven: Rock niches and tombs are all over the eastern Rhodope, but are missing in the Strandzha, and there is only one of them in the Sakar. It is the other way round with dolmens: They abound in the Sakar and the Strandzha, but there are few in the eastern Rhodope. 

Made of slabs, which form walls and ceilings, the dolmens are Bulgaria's most numerous megaliths. They look like the dolmens built in Western Europe, the Caucasus and North Africa in 4000-2000 BC, but as they are of significantly later origin, they are interpreted as a genuine Thracian invention. The first dolmens appeared in Bulgaria in the 12th and 11th centuries BC, their construction peaked in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, and ended during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. 

Today there are about 1,000 dolmens in the Strandzha, 500 in the Sakar and 200 in the Rhodope, distributed among Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. Until recently, there were about 600 well-preserved dolmens in Bulgaria, but today only 100 of them survive in relatively good condition. The others were destroyed in the 19th and 20th centuries by treasure-hunters and local villagers for whom these ancient monuments were just an obstruction for ploughing bigger plots of land or a useful source for quality building material. 

Thracian dolmen Hlyabovo

Thracian dolmen, Hlyabovo

As a rule, dolmens stand on the crests and slopes of mountain ridges with good visibility. Some of them are single, others are in groups. The majority have only one burial chamber, but two-chamber dolmens are not uncommon. 

The chambers are claustrophobically small, about 1.90 to 2.80 m long, 1.60 to 2.30 m wide and 1 to 2 m high. Their entrances are extremely narrow, allowing only a crawling man to enter. They always face south; there could be little corridors to the east and west, but never to the north – a clear connection to the movements of the sun, which for the Thracians represented the Great God. 

Some dolmens have short corridors, which are even lower than the chambers. 

The dolmens you see today are exposed to the elements, but their creators didn't meant them to be that way. The structures were almost or entirely covered by mounds with diameters of up to 25 metres, and their bases were protected from erosion by crepis, or low stone wall. 

Thracian dolmen, Ropotamo

Thracian dolmen, Ropotamo

As a rule, the dolmens from the Sakar and the Strandzha are bigger and have more elaborate designs and façades than the ones found in the Rhodope. The most impressive and well-preserved dolmens are two attached dolmens near the Hlyabovo village, in the Sakar, and two examples from the Strandzha: the triple dolmen near the Kirovo village and the only dolmen with decoration ever found in Bulgaria, near the Golyam Dervent village. Its façade is adorned with reliefs of spirals, meanders and a double axe, the symbol of royal power in ancient Thrace. Only one individual was buried in the Golyam Dervent dolmen, indicating his VIP status. 

Other interesting dolmens are situated near the Sakartsi and Balgarska Polyana villages, in the Sakar, and the villages of Belevren, Granichar, Evrenozovo and Zabernovo, in the Strandzha. 

Through the centuries, generations of treasure-hunters have emptied countless dolmens of their content, leaving to archaeologists little evidence of what was inside – bones, pottery shards, the occasional piece of jewellery. The fact that the remains of different individuals are often found in the same dolmen points to the conclusion that dolmens were family tombs used by several generations. 

Thracian menhir

A menhir near Ovcharovo village

Centuries after the builders of dolmens were dead and forgotten, the megaliths continued to awe the living. When Christianity replaced the old gods, chapels were built upon, or close to, some of the old dolmens. And in local folklore, the surviving megaliths were believed to be the homes of dragons, the mythical creatures which, if respected by locals, would protect the village and sometimes fall in love with beautiful girls and steal them, making them the mothers of winged children. 

Unlike dolmens, free-standing menhirs and stone circles are rare. 

By the end of the 19th Century, stone circles could be found mainly in the Strandzha and the Sakar, sharing space with dolmens, at Hlyabovo, Glavan, Razdel, Mramor, Balgarska Polyana and other places. Of these, today survive only the three circles near Dolni Glavanak, in the eastern Rhodope, and the one at Staro Zhelezare, near Hisarya. What the stone circles were used for remains unclear. They could be astronomical observation posts or places for religious meetings, or, according to one theory, they could be just the remains of unfinished dolmens.

Thracian stone circle, Dolni Glavanak

A cromlech by Dolni Glavanak village

The case with the menhirs, the lone stones standing in the plain, is even more unclear. No one is certain about when or why they were erected, but they could be seen by the Thracians as manifestations of the "male principle" in the universe, hence would be places of veneration. Such stones and in large numbers, however, were erected as well in the early Middle Ages, by the Bulgarians before they adopted Christianity. Later many of the menhirs were destroyed, but an air of sanctity lingered around them, and today there are many localities called Pobit Kamak or Dikilitaş, both meaning, in Bulgarian and Turkish, respectively, Set-Up Rock. In Christian times, many were turned into votive stones dedicated to the patron saint of the village, and local gatherings combining prayers and the slaughter of a lamb are still held around them. 

About 60 rock tombs from the Thracians have been preserved, in the eastern Rhodope, carved on domineering rock massifs with good visibility to the surrounding area. Most are lone tombs, but sometimes groups of two or three can be found. They usually have one narrow antechamber, a rectangular chamber, an entrance and an opening in the ceiling. 

Rock tombs can be easily interpreted as the equivalent of dolmens – their dimensions are similar and they were built in the same period. The position of the entrance, however, is a major difference: while dolmens face south, rock tombs can look out on any direction of the world. 

Rock tomb at Tatul shrine

Rock tomb at Tatul shrine

Again because of the plague of treasure-hunters, there are few archaeological finds from rock tombs. Pottery fragments and jewellery found in situ in the tombs at Shiroko Pole, near Kardzhali, and Pchelari, near Stambolovo, point to the 9th or 8th centuries BC as the date of construction and usage of the tombs. The complex of Tatul, however, suggests that rock tombs had been built even earlier. 

The mystery of the niches hewn into precipitous rocks all over the Eastern Rhodope surpasses even the one of the rock tombs. No one knows either why or how they were carved at such head-spinning heights. 

Less than a metre high, the niches are usually trapezoid, but are present in a variety of other shapes: circular, rectangular, square. The fact that many of them are not high above ground only makes speculation about their purpose harder. 

More than 200 groups of niches have been discovered so far, with the biggest concentration at Gluhite Kamani, Madzharovo and Valche Pole. Just like the rock tombs, niches appear in rock shrines, too. The only archaeological finds bellow the rocks with niches are pottery shards from the 7th and 6th centuries BC. 

Thracian rock niches at Dazhdovnitsa

Rock niches near Dazhdovnitsa village

Of course lack of information opens the doors of the imagination. Some scientists believe that the rock niches were made for the burial urns of cremated Thracians who could not afford the more expensive and prestigious rock tombs. But the bottoms of some of the niches are often angled upwards, making it impossible to put anything inside them. Others claim that the niches were hewn by adolescent Thracian boys as part of an initiation ceremony. According to a third version, the niches depict the stars and the constellations in the heavens, and a fourth hypothesis proposes that they were a sort of maps, indicating the whereabouts of ancient gold mines. According to yet another idea, the niches are scaled-down models of dolmens and rock tombs or, more interestingly, of the cave symbolising womb of the Great Goddess. 

An experiment with tools from the period has shown that it would take a day to carve a single niche into the rock. 

Whatever the purpose of the niches, by the 5th Century BC the Thracians stopped making them – just like they stopped building dolmens and carving rock tombs. Why the change? No one can tell. At least for the aristocrats, it could have happened due to a shift of the funeral fashion of the day. That was the time when the first vaulted tombs built of stone or bricks appeared in the Thracian lands, providing final resting place for those who could afford them. 

Thracian rock niches at Dzhanka

Thracian rock niches at Dzhanka