Begliktash is a place that challenges the imagination. The sanctuary stands in a meadow that opens up dramatically before your eyes among Strandzha's oak trees. The anticipation builds up even before you start on the path because just where it begins is the Dragons Houses, a dolmen hidden by a canopy of tree branches.
Scattered seemingly at random, like the abandoned building blocks of a giant baby, some of the rocks which make up Begliktash weigh more than 100 tonnes.
Millennia ago the Thracians used the site as a shrine, and under the Ottomans it meant no more for the local people than the rocks, or taşlar, where the beglik, or sheep tax, was collected.
The first archaeologist to investigate the site was the Czech historian and archaeologist Karel Škorpil, who at the end of the 19th Century produced an early scientific account of the sanctuary. However, the broader public became aware of the existence of this fascinating place as late as the early 2000s. The reason? During Communism, Begliktash was in the midst of the Perla Residence, off-limits hunting-and-vacation grounds for high-ranking apparatchiks.
The first excavations of Begliktash began in 2003 and research concentrated on the sanctuary's central section. The finds revealed that the shrine was used between the Late Bronze Age (mid-2nd Millennium BC) and the advent of Christianity in the 4th Century. Most of the artefacts pointed to fertility rites, solar and chthonic cults: stone axes, ceramic fragments, flint knives and arrows, charred deer bones.
The researchers also tried to identify the different parts of the sanctuary and to give them meaning. Besides the nets of ritual basins and canals over the surface of the sanctuary, some of the rocks and boulders were interpreted as an altar, a throne, a menhir, a dolmen. A huge flat rock was identified as the bed where the priest would perform sacred sex in a ritual which aimed to revive nature; the so-called Great Dolmen, an imposing structure – 12 m long, 9 m wide and 5 m high – is believed to be a royal tomb.
As in other places connected with Thracian heritage, many historians disagree with this interpretation, but the claims are so fascinating that combined with the sheer size of the boulders – one of them weighs up to 150 tonnes – they turned Begliktash into one of the popular Thracian shrines in the country. Today the site is widely advertised as "The Bulgarian Stonehenge," repeated ad nauseam by tourist websites, blogs and sensationalist media.
But did the ancient Thracians really make Begliktash, collecting the huge rocks from all over the forest to create an elaborate megalithic complex?
Well, hardly. Actually Begliktash is a natural phenomenon; the Thracians made their shrine there only because they were impressed by what it looked like and saw in it the manifestation of divine powers.
Near Begliktash is another site of Thracian interest. About 2.5 km from the mouth of the Ropotamo River, on the top of the Lion's Head natural phenomenon, are the remains of a fortress the locals call Chengersko Kale or Valchanovo Kale. The fortress was active between the early 1st Millennium BC and the end of the 15th Century AD, and a strong wall of massive boulders not unlike the ones from ancient Troy and Mycenae still survives, at places rising at 1.5 m.
Treasure-hunters have been invading the site for centuries, searching for the gold of the legendary Valchan Voyvoda, a local brigand who used to rob Ottoman tax caravans. A dolmen is nearby.