Huddled deep among the barren hills of the Eastern Rhodope, Tatul could be any one of the many hamlets that you will pass through while driving through the area. Yet, Tatul is certainly not an ordinary Rhodope village. A high rocky hill rises about 300 m south of it, crowned by one of the most peculiar megalithic structures the Thracians have ever made.
On a hilltop, a 4.5-metre-high monolithic stone mass rises in the shape of a truncated pyramid. A semi-circular niche that overhangs a sarcophagus-like stone tomb is carved into one of its sides. A second rectangular basin is carved out at the top of the pyramid. It is nearly 2 m long, and its resemblance to a sarcophagus is stunning.
The second sarcophagus can be seen only if you climb a series of narrow, steep, vertiginous steps.
In spite of its spectacular appearance, the Thracian shrine at Tatul has not been extensively researched, bar excavations in the 1970s, which focused on its late Antiquity and mediaeval fortifications, and again in the 2000s.
The sanctuary appeared between the 18th and the 11th centuries BC, and continued its activity well into the 1st Millennium BC. During the Hellenistic era, at the end of the 4th and the first half of the 3rd centuries BC, the shrine was fortified with a wall enclosing several sacred buildings. One of these, the so-called Building 1, is Tatul's most impressive structure if you don't count the stone pyramid of course. Building 1 has been interpreted as a heroon, or a temple to a deified ancestor from the 4th Century BC.
And yet Tatul has acquired a different notoriety thanks to sensationalist media and the Internet. According to the well-publicised hype, the stone pyramid is where Orpheus was buried, the famed mythical musician who went to Hell and then came back. But how was it that the names Tatul and Orpheus began to be used in the same sentence?
Several ancient Greek sources note Orpheus as a Thracian musician, poet and prophet of the so-called Orphic mysteries. His playing the harp was so captivating and his songs so beautiful that there wasn't a single creature on earth that was not enchanted by his gift. The stories about how Orpheus was born, how he lived and how he died, however, differ depending on who tells them. All of his biographers were born centuries after he died.
There were two noted events in his mythical life, and they have stirred human imagination for centuries. The first tells of Orpheus's descent into Hell. The musician was so distraught by the sudden death of his wife, Eurydice, that he climbed down into the Kingdom of the Dead and, with a song, softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone. There was one condition: Eurydice was to walk behind Orpheus, who was not to turn round until both of them had seen the light of the sun. As is common in this kind of stories, Orpheus did turn round.
The second story follows from the first. The dejected Orpheus angered either a group of women or maenads of Dionysus (the accounts vary), who murdered him with their bare hands or by stoning. The suggested whereabouts of remains of Orpheus are Pieria, on mainland Greece (Aeschylus), and Dion, at the foot of Mount Olympus (Pausanias). His lyre and severed head were then carried by the Maritsa River and sea waves to Lesbos, where they started telling the future.
But in the 1970s some Bulgarian historians conjectured that the grave of Orpheus could be in Tatul. The hypothesis gained momentum in the 2000s, and in 2005 a find from the area gave it additional weight. Some villagers claimed to have discovered near the shrine a statuette of a nude Greco-Roman deity with a lyre. The artefact is from the 1st or the 2nd centuries AD and possibly depicts Apollo. Some researchers, however, claim that it is actually a rare image of Orpheus.
This bit of circumstantial evidence, boosted by the curiosity of tourists and media sensationalism, transformed Tatul. Today the shrine is popularly known as the "Grave of Orpheus" and the site is on the all the Rhodope tourist routes, complete with a concrete path, benches and signposts. Sadly, the metal roof protecting some of the excavated structures is not particularly inspiring for those who have set out to see this magnificent place.