The glorious future of both Alexander the Great and Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was foretold by the priestesses of the famed Dionysus Oracle in Thrace. That's what we are told by ancient historians. Yet none of these ancient sources have given posterity a precise description of the shrine's whereabouts, apart from mentioning it was in the highest mountain of Thrace, in the lands of the Satri tribe. So far, historians have claimed mainly the Rhodope and the Stara Planina mountains as the location of the seer, who rivalled the Delphi-based Apollo Oracle in prestige and prophesying accuracy.
Since the early 2000s, a site near Kardzhali, in the Rhodope, has been actively promoted as the place where Dionysus priestesses predicted the future using wine, fire and divine inspiration. Its name: Perperikon.
Rising 470 m above the picturesque valley of the Perpereshka River, Perperikon stands atop a rocky hill, at the heart of a lush forest. The site has been intensively excavated, revealing walls, stairs, cisterns, churches, palace buildings, a necropolis and the remains of a medieval fort.
The so-called Throne Room
Covering more than 5 sq km, Perperikon is the biggest megalithic site in the Balkans. Its history goes back to the 6th Millennium BC, when people arrived here and filled the crevices with fragments of pots as offerings to the unknown deities or spirits they believed in. These people then disappeared from Perperikon. At the end of the 5th and in the early 4th millennia BC, after a hiatus of about 1,000 years, the hill again became the focal point of religious activity.
But it took some time before the first carvings on the bedrock were made – people started hewing in the rocks niches, altars, and basins in the 18th to 12th centuries BC, the final period of the Bronze Age. Gradually, a rock settlement was built around the shrine, boasting a fortified acropolis, a mighty palace and two neighbourhoods on the southern and the northern slopes of the hill.
Rock provided almost everything on Perperikon. The foundations of the buildings and the first floors were cut deep into the bedrock, reaching a depth of 3 to 4 m, and the inhabitants enjoyed amenities such as streets and sewages, also cut into the rock.
The most impressive building from this period of life in Perperikon is the so-called Palace, a labyrinthine construction of more than 50 halls and rooms, corridors and covered staircases. Its premises also hosted a ritual hall with an altar 2 m in diameter, also made of rock. The hall had at least two floors, and a throne is thought to have been hewn into its walls, which is where modern-day tourists love to have their pictures taken.
All around the rocks are covered with oval, rectangular and circular pits. Some of them were sacrifcial or were probably used for the production of sacred wine. Others served as storage spaces.
Perperikon experienced a decline in the period between the 4th and the 1st centuries BC, but when the Romans took over Thrace, activity resumed and the hill was adorned with new buildings. The old fortifications on the acropolis were reinforced, reaching almost 3 m in width.
Remains from an early Christian basilica
Christianity came in the early 5th Century, but unlike other pagan sacred places in the Balkans, Perperikon did not fall completely silent. Christians moved into the empty temples, built churches over them and turned the place into a stronghold for local bishops. The remains of an early-Christian basilica are now clearly visible. A replica of its marble pulpit stands on the site of the original, which is exhibited in the Kardzhali Museum of History. Close to it are the ghostly remains of a monastic necropolis, with graves dug out of the bedrock. From here the remains of a mediaeval tower are visible, a picturesque addition to the scenery.
Life on Perperikon came to an end in 1362, when the Ottomans invaded and people left the hill for good, leaving it to nature, which soon swallowed up the remains of the churches and the Thracian shrines.
The site was rediscovered by archaeologists between 1979 and 1982, but Perperikon only became a household name in the early 2000s, when excavations started again and the theory that it was the Oracle of Dionysus was promoted as a proven fact.
Archaeological research on the hill continues to this day and there is hardly a summer without some discovery announced to the media.
The medieval tower is among the best preserved structures at Perperikon