Perperikon, promoted as the supposed site of the famous oracle of Dionysus, is probably Bulgaria's most popular Thracian rock site. But the Rhodope is home to a place which can rival Perperikon in importance, grandeur and charm.
Gluhite Kamani, or Deaf Rocks, is far less crowded and only partially researched, its atmosphere of discovery still untouched. There's no echo there, which gave the place its name and adds to the feeling of walking amid living mystery.
Situated below the 708-metre-high peak of Sveta Marina, the highest in this part of the Rhodope, the shrine is about 3,000 years old.
The surface of the Deaf Rocks is peppered with hundreds of cavities and niches in a shape that could generally be described as trapezoid, but with plenty of other forms: rectangular, square, circular, oval and curvy. Some of the niches are close to the ground, but the majority are carved at heights – some up to 20 m – that make them impossible to see unless you crane your neck. One above the other, the niches cover almost every square metre of the rock. Graffiti of 20th Century locals and 21st Century tourists can be seen at the height their writers' hands could reach.
Gluhite Kamani is the largest group of rock niches in Bulgaria, more than 500 of them are hewn into the rock here.
Niches cover most of the rocks at the site
The complex was used intensely in the Early Iron Age (11th to 6th centuries BC), but it is still unclear if the niches do not actually predate it.
In any case, Gluhite Kamani is more than a collection of rock niches.
The path leading to Gluhite Kamani meanders up in an oak forest and ends at the top of a hill. The ground there is pitted with the trenches left by the archaeologists, revealing the remains of once-impressive buildings. The plain of the Arda River unfolds to the south, while the northern side of the platform is marked by another huge rock.
Most of the time the site is quiet and mysterious
Ages ago, a room was carved into it. Some believe it was a rock tomb for some ancient Thracian nobleman or priest, but new research points to a later date of carving and a different function. The room is now thought to have been part of a church from the late Antiquity, a period when Christianity took over many of the former pagan shrines, Gluhite Kamani included.
And there is also the staircase, a line of 33 low, narrow steps, eroded by wind and water, which climb to the very top of the rock. Ascending the stairs is a challenge for those fearing heights, but if you take it, the effort is richly rewarded. At the top, the Rhodope wind sweeps over the stones and the remains of an ancient altar, rustling the bushes and flattening the reeds growing in the pool of rainwater which has been filling a three-by-three-metre rock cut cistern since the Deaf Rocks was abandoned.
To the north is a stunning view to the valley of the Maritsa.
The Deaf Rocks was not only a sanctuary. A sizeable city used to stretch out around it, covering an area comparable with and probably even greater than that of Perperikon. Life in this place did not cease even in the turbulent 5th and 6th centuries AD, when pagan Antiquity slowly and painfully gave way to the Christian Middle Ages. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a palatial building and a church from this period. The latest traces of habitation are from the Middle Ages, dating to the very beginning of the 13th century. This is why some historians believe that the Gluhite Kamani fortress was destroyed by the knights of the Fourth Crusade who passed by on their way to Constantinople.
While archaeologists are carefully excavating the site, trying to discover its past and secrets, the lives of its inhabitants and their religious beliefs, local people have never been reluctant to recount, or create, various stories about the Deaf Rocks. According to one of them, a wealthy Thracian ruler was buried there, together with enough gold to fill nine of carts. Many treasure-hunters have been after the hoard ever since and, if the rumours are true, some of them were lucky to come away with enough gold to build a house. Regretfully, while doing this, they destroyed a significant part of the site, including walls which had withstood the elements for centuries.