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Katya Melamed


The geographical position of the Rhodope Mountains predetermines to a great extent their worth as an autonomous ethno – cultural region. Since a very early date, as well as during the Middle Ages, and even in the modern times, their role of a cross-road is well known and exploited. Roads connecting the Western Thrace to Asia Minor, and Moesia to Aegean Thrace cross the mountain. Their strategic meaning provokes an unceasing pursuit of total control over these roads, and fortresses that safeguard them. We can examine the same ambition also during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. The most mass and determined forcible conversion into Islam in the Bulgarian territories happened exactly in the Rhodopes in the late 17th and 18th c. The goal was just the same – firm control over the road to Istanbul.   

The stream of Maritsa River and its right feeders coming from the Rhodopean hills are studded with fortresses. There is hardly a summit that has not been fortified. The investigations show the Thracian fortresses were reconstructed into Byzantine ones, and later once again repaired by the Bulgarian State. Some new strongholds have been also constructed. Quite often the fortresses are very close to one another to keep a visible connection and to form fortified lines controlling the roads along the river valleys and through the passes.

At the same time the demographic status there has been preserved comparatively unaffected, notwithstanding the changes enforced by the political circumstances. Some enclaves have survived vital enough to continue the traditions against altering background. As a consequence, the Rhodopes seem to be the most beneficial area to explore the mechanism of cultural continuity. The demographic changes there have not been abrupt compared to today’s Northern Bulgaria for example – the turbulent Barbarian road enclosed within the Danube River and the Balkan Range quite often beyond control.

We have to note also the natural peculiarities of the mountain – quite soft and low, friendly to life, inhabited as early as the Prehistoric Ages. We can compare it with the Rila Mountain for instance – high and rocky, described as the Great Rila Desert in the life of St. John of Rila living in the 10th c.

Today the studies of the Prehistoric and Thracian Ages in the Rhodope Mountains are well developed. Most of the results have been already released, and discussions are often provoked.  In general – as it is beyond the subject of our talk today, some of the academics are tending to see the mountain as a giant sanctuary of a cult concentrated mainly on the rock configurations – natural as well as additionally worked out by men. Later the sanctuaries were adopted and reconstructed by the Thracians – I would take their general name whatever it might mean. The debate is often provoked by the niches in the rock, known from many places in the mountain. As an example I shall point to the rocks in Benkovski village, Kardzhali region. We do not know the way this giant tortoise [to:tъs] looked like in the past. However, it obviously had attracted attention – if not some cult practices. There are niches in its head cut by man and similar to many others in the rocky massifs. The traces along the backside of its head might be natural – I have observed many similar grooves left by melting snow and water running in the spring. The broken line – perhaps a snake though is sure a work of man. Similar combinations of God’s freaks and man’s action are peculiar of the Rhodopes and incite heated discussions – it seems hard enough to find the exact limit and the precise proportion.

Often sanctuaries had been developed next to water sources, especially springs bursting out from rocks. We know them from much later time, adopted and held in reverence by Christians, and Muslims after them. However, the traces of some earlier layers are well readable.


In the 1st c. AD the Roman colonization of the Balkan Peninsula put an end to the sovereign Thracian kingdoms. The demographic picture began to change much more actively in the today’s Northern Bulgaria as a result of the location of the Roman legions along the Lower Danube Limes.  Southern Bulgaria, and the Rhodopes in particular remained comparatively tranquil. The Roman province of Rhodopa was established in the late 3rd century after the administrative reforms of Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305).

The 4th c. was crucial. The religion and administration changed, the Eastern Roman Empire established its new Capital city of Constantinople and the today’s Bulgarian territories were transformed from a periphery of an Empire into a hinterland of the new metropolitan. The population in the south though did not changed dramatically. The Thracians outlived the conversion preserving many of their cultural characteristics. They adapted to the new context and still they did not forget their inherent traditions. The necropolis in Borovitsa, Kardzhali region comes as a good example.



The Late Antiquity necropolis near Borovitsa belongs to a group of necropolises of earlier dates – the Thracian tumular necropolis near Vishegrad (second half of the 2nd – mid 3rd c. AD) and the necropolis in Veselchani, Kardzhali (late 3rd – 4th c.) organized over a tumulus from the 4th c. BC. Both of them are pre-Chistian, the first one with cremation, and the second one – with inhumation and a single grave with cremation. After the burial, they had encircled the graves with rings made of crushed stone or boulders, and afterwards – accumulated a mound. We are interested now in the stone rings below the mound. Notwithstanding the change of religion probably about the mid-4th c. the idea demanding these rings survived and they went on making them around already Christian graves as in Borovitsa. We have a similar practice documented also in the Western Rhodopes.

The same element of organizing the burial place – a stone circle around the grave, but without tumuli above, we can find quite clearly preserved as late as the late 19th c. It has been observed in a Muslim context. The necropolises in question have been long since abandoned. The people from the villages around believe the necropolises are Muslim and still the sites need some verification, as they have not been researched archaeologically. We are not sure of their date either. However, the necropolis in Ptichar village is probably from about 1830 – 1850. The villagers tell the story of some evil spirits with a single eye – perý, and the stone circles protected the dead men against them. The other necropolis, in Letovnik village, is of an unknown date. There are oak trees about 300 – 350 years old on the burial ground. The people still remember the practice to plant out an oak when the cemetery was organized to serve as a guard. Graves with similar stone circles are also known from some other areas of the Rhodopes. This aspect has not been yet studied in detail.  


The Thracians began also to construct churches - not always above their old pre-Christian sanctuaries, but in most of the cases on some heights that faced the rising Sun they traditionally venerated. I shall only mention Perperikon and Nicopolis ad Nestum as famous rich bishop’s seats. Even more interesting appear to be the local churches displaying the old manners of building and planning far away from the standards of the Empire.

The church in Nova Mahala, Batak municipality, and the monastery developing around it is one of the examples earliest in date of church architecture accomplished in a Thracian manner to serve Thracian Christian community, probably of Bessoi.


The village of Nova Mahala, Municipality of Batak is located high up in the Western Rhodope Mountains. We unearthed Early Christian church, monastic buildings around it and a necropolis with graves without skeletons in them. The date of the necropolis is the 4th – 5th c. well supported by imported ceramic vessels. The theme of the empty graves – not at all kenotaphions – is quite curious. I will mention only that the practice to perform burials with inhumation and after 5 or 7 years, depending on the qualities of the soil, to open the grave, wash the bones with wine and move them to a special ossuary next to the local church, is peculiar of well defined regions in the Western Rhodopes (the western areas of the province of Rhodopa), Eastern Macedonia and Southern Thrace. Archaeologically it is known since the 4th c. AD on, and ethnographically it is well described till the late 19th c. The official religion in these regions is undoubtedly Christian. Nevertheless, we have once again some evidence of a practice emerging obviously in pre-Christian times and persistently followed till modern days. 

The church in Nova Mahala displays three building periods with reconstructions of the original plan. It was entirely abandoned about the 17th c. after serious demographic changes in the region with the arrival of Yörük  – Muslims settlers. 

The original plan was constructed about the mid 4th c. It is composed of a small narthex, naos and apse. The entrance is opened in the southern wall. The building was set up upon a slope of significant west – east displacement that predetermined its peculiarities. The naos is nearly 14 m long and 7 m wide thus keeping the classical proportion of 2:1. In the apse we found traces of synthronon. A baptistery was constructed in the middle of the naos. It was rectangular in shape, oriented east – west, with three steps at each of the short sides, and a seventh step in the middle of it as a small platform.

About the early 6th c. the plan was reworked. A chapel was added along the northern wall, also with an apse. We found two large pithoses in it dug into the ground – it was used likely for a baptistery, as the one in the naos was neglected and covered with large slabs.

Both building stages employed crushed stone fixed by yellow clay. Mortar was not in use. The roof was of a saddle type.


The combination of walls built with natural unprocessed stone fixed by clay and decorated with glass windows comes as one of the peculiar details of the early church building in Nova Mahala: masonry entirely following the local tradition far away from the standards of the Empire and alongside – a population rich enough to buy expensive glass windows and thymiateria most probably imported from Thessalonica or Nicopolis ad Nestum. The model finds quite close parallels with the church of the same date in Bansko at the foot of the Pirin Mountain I have explored recently. Obviously the population belonged to a similar culture and mastered similar building manners and living standards in general. We can also suggest similar origins, historical development and approach to the social environment. Curious enough, next to the church in Bansko I have revealed a depot of ceramics various in shapes but from the same date. Among the fragments I have distinguished some pieces made with talc and sure brought from the Rhodopes on a certain occasion I still cannot identify. I shall come back to this type of pottery later again. It is peculiar only for the Rhodopes and very indicative.

The glass from both churches is now in a process of work in an interdisciplinary project of the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.


I have mentioned Bansko church as a parallel not that much for the similarities of plans but for the similar building manners, similar position within the environment and similar approach to the demands of the day. Both regions were inhabited by Thracians who, according to reliable written sources, were Christianized about the mid 4th c. They started to build churches often at spots – inclined slopes entirely facing the sunrise and usually associated with veneration of the Sun. They never left off their traditional building manners – crushed or natural stones fixed by clay. Certain data – as the expensive glass in Bansko or the imported pottery and window glass in Nova Mahala suggest they had the resources as well as connections with large production workshops in the large cities of the Empire. Thus we can observe an interesting combination, which probably has to open a new column in the traditional classification and typology of the Early Christian architecture. There we can explore the question of the resources and priorities of hundreds of local communities within the Byzantine commonwealth, which undoubtedly adopted Christianity and still kept on their traditional manners. Among other things, the problem of continuity remains one of the most interesting in the history of culture. Especially concerning territories of the Balkan provinces of Byzantium, and especially the mountainous areas.      


The question of the Slavs colonizing the Rhodopes still remains in doubt. There are though some elements to suggest that certain Slav groups have crossed the mountain as one of the roads of their migration was running through the mountain. It seems we cannot talk about a mass colonization but in any case some groups – tribes or families settled down there. The presence of early Slav pottery is beyond any doubt. A type of pottery prepared with talc is very interesting and indicative – its study is a project still under work together with a geologist from the Earth and Men Museum in Sofia. I shall come to it again when reach Sedlari.

The small groups of Slavs adopted Christianity comparatively soon, far before 864 when the new religion was officially recognized in the Bulgarian State. Some Slav Christian necropolises have been explored dating from the early – till mid 8th c.


The question with the Bulgars is even more complicated. I do not think large groups – if any of them settled down in the Rhodopes. We can think rather of garrisons in charge to guard the roads not covering the entire territory of the mountain. We have rare traces mainly in its periphery.


Regardless of the course of time and alternating background, some of the old traditions and believes survived though a bit Christianized. Especially interesting example are the fields of Sedlari village, Momchilgrad municipality.



The area lies in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, in the Valley of Arda River. Since the 14th c. the population there is mainly Muslim, changing entirely the traditional culture before them.

Sites of various dates have been explored on a broad terrace below the village, along the left bank of Varbitsa River (former Syutliyka), feeder of Arda. Let us start with a Tell dating from the Neolithic and the Copper Age. It is curious to mention the Tell served as a workshop rather than a regular settlement, judging from the artifacts found there. There is not any flint available in the region, but plenty of jasper, chalcedony and agate instead used as raw materials to produce tools and weapons to meet local demands as well as for trading. A stone fortification and a Christian church were constructed over the Tell, dating from the 10th – 12th c. A large Christian necropolis from the 11th – 13th c. was organized south of the Tell. Below it, the newest research revealed traces from the Bronze and Iron Ages, as well as a village from the Early Byzantine Age.


We better think of Sedlari terrace as a road leading from the inland territories through Makaza Pass to Greece and the Aegean Seashore. Obviously it was among the active ancient roads quite often traveled in both directions. Today it bears traces of all the ages mentioned as imported Greek ceramics, Maroneia coins, Thracian coins and Archaic painted vessels. The road was well known in modern time as well. Till the early 20th c. the camels loaded with poppy-seed (Papaver, afyon to use the Turkish word), a traditional local crop before tobacco, descended along it to reach the Aegean markets. Today a new road is under construction over the ancient bed connecting Bulgaria to Greece through the same Makaza Pass. 


In the second half of the 6th c. the same terrace was inhabited by Slavs leaving behind them peculiar hand-made pottery quite a rare find in Bulgaria of today. Some of the pots have been shaped of clay lavishly mixed with talc. This type of pottery can be traced back to the Iron Age in the region. The rocks with talc are to be found nearby.  The tradition of mixing clay with talc survived through the centuries; the Slavs also acquired the practice. That means they lived there long enough to learn the technology, and also there were still local people to teach them. This is a new aspect of research – the aspect of steatite ceramics.


Many more than 50 pits were discovered in the southern periphery of the Medieval necropolis as well as to the west of it, next to a rocky deserted hill. They are dating from the late 11th – 12th c. AD. This date makes them rather bizarre and distinguishes them from the general cultural nature of the age, undoubtedly subjected to the Christian ideology and practice. Nevertheless, their place among the Christian graves suggests the same community served them too. Obviously here we have a clear example of at least two coexisting models of human behaviour within the same society – according to the formal etiquette and according to the old pre-Christian practice.

Although a bit diverse at first sight, all the pits contain elements that constantly recur in every one of them.



Unprocessed stones various in shape, size and number are present in all the pits. We find them at various places – at the very bottom of the pit, below the filling, in the middle of the structure, or at the surface of the terrain of that time.  Usually stones cover the mouth of the pit. They do not seem arranged, but rather thrown at various moments of the rite. Many of the stones have been on fire, some of them quite long judging from their black colour and structure. Nevertheless, there is not any doubt that the fire has not been burning inside the pits. The stones have been brought along from somewhere else – from the home hearth or from a fire specially arranged at some other place. The stone appears to be the most stable element of the rite – and of the construction of the pits.



Numerous large pieces of coal have been mixed with the soil filling the pits. At some places we find the traces of whole burnt down branches. Like the stones, the coal has been also brought from a fire set somewhere else. We can try to reconstruct the practice: they dug a pit usually of a circular shape, with a diameter of 1 m, and a depth of 1 – 1,50 m. When the pit was ready, they threw a handful of coal and a couple of stones, then filled up some soil, then more stones and coal till the hole was filled up. At the end they threw stones again, adding a piece of meat and iron. Unfortunately, we still don’t know the words that accompanied all these actions.



Ceramic fragments of various number and date are present amongst the stones at the surface, as well as in the filling of the pits. Usually they are small in size, often their edges taken off. The fragments latest in date come from the 12th c. – a sure factor to date the whole structure.

The ceramic fragments provoke the greatest troubles for interpretation of the practice. The troubles come with their various dates and condition. So far we have not enough pieces of a single vessel that allow its reconstruction. This circumstance means that the rite did not require whole vessels although they had to break down them at some moment at the very spot – the rite did not require to bring along a pot full of cooked sacrificial food. During the practice the participants did not share meal – something like funeral or commemorative feast. It seems well possible the ceramic fragments came accidentally with the soil filling the pit. As I have already mentioned above, the terrace was actively inhabited in the course of a very long period of time till the 13th c. and its soil is heavily loaded with ceramic fragments. The lack of whole pots and the variety of dates reject (almost reject – to be entirely sincere to the past we don’t know in its innermost moments) the involvement of cooked food or drink in the rite that left these pits behind.


Nevertheless, there was a sacrificial food involved. Most of the pits contain ANIMAL BONES. D-r Lazar Ninov, the osteologist of the National Institute of Archaeology has investigated them to specify they belong to the usual kinds of domestic animals – sheep, cattle and pigs. They have left some pieces of meat or the animal head. We don’t know if the meat was raw, anyway, the bones do not display traces of smoke. In any case the presence of animal bones as remains of pieces of meat suggests shared meal – between the inhabitants of the world of living and the world beyond or a sacrifice. We have to imagine that the rest of the sacrificial animal was left for the living – members of the family? members of the community? the principle performer of the rite?


And finally – the IRON. Between the stones covering the mouth of the pit, alongside the ceramic fragments and the animal bones, we usually find a piece of iron. In most of the cases it is a shapeless piece, burnt down, eroded, already out of use. In some other cases it is a knife, a nail or another iron element from a house construction. The presence of iron in general, as well as the shapes better preserved also adds to the arguments for dating the pits from the Middle Ages.

It is very important to point out that the iron is involved within the rite as an element rather than as an artifact. Numerous ethnological investigations of the beliefs and practices of the Rhodopes population (and not in the Rhodopes alone) specify the iron as one of the mightiest apothropeus – an element protecting against the Evil. Most probably the iron appeared in the same role in our pits. In contrast to the ceramic fragments with still hesitant interpretation, the iron undoubtedly took part within the rite. Whatever reason called forth digging a hole into the earth, and then filling it with stone and coal, it also included the idea of beating back the Evil and protecting the living against it.  It seems that the iron piece marks the closing stages of the rite, something like the end of the charm. Perhaps we can express it with the words of  “Let it be”, “Let sleeping dogs lie”, and if unfortunately it still rises up and worms its way, the iron is there to push it back. 


The pits in Sedlare certainly reveal a rite we still don’t know in detail. Their date is sure although it provokes bewilderment having in mind they have been dug into a long since Christian context. Their cult nature is also beyond any doubt. We cannot interpret them as storage area as they are within a necropolis, between the graves. They are not refuse pits either, as we can think a bit about the kind of refuse they had in the 12th c. – not yet glass in villages, the metal expensive too much to throw away, and all the natural materials reused.

I would also pass over the universal interpretations of the pit – a hole into the earth, as one of the possible roads to Beyond (alongside the cave). Let us recollect the heroes who when necessary, take a hole in the ground to go down to the Nether World:  looking for their love lost in death like Orpheus or Soslan – the solar hero from the Epos of the Narths, inheritors of the Alans, or going through severe trials like Odysseus and Theseus, and also Herakles who managed to bring Cerberus himself to the world of living.

Still another universal option for interpretation is the attempt to hide a secret, to trust the very earth with an awful secret hoping it would not get round the men. The well-known illustration is the story of Tsar Traian who had goat (ass’s) ears.

Perhaps it is better to concentrate on the stone, which obviously unify the archaeological portrait of the pits in Sedlare. A group of Bulgarian folk songs known from various regions in the country advise a childless woman to take a white stone next to her breast waiting to have it transformed into a boy. In case the mother does not obey some requirements after the miraculous birth, the boy would become a stone again. Let me present some original texts:

…Maria listened to her mother, // and went down to Tundzha River,

To Tundzha River and to Maritsa River, // and took a white small stone,

And washed it well, // and wrapped it up in worm diapers,

And put it in a gold cradle, // then Maria cradled it,

Cradled and began to sing, // three hundred songs she sang,

And never uncovered it. // When Maria uncovered it,

What a great miracle, // the stone had become a boy.

           (A song known in Tryavna, Novi Pazar and Tarnovo regions)


…I had a miraculous dream // to wake up early in the morning,

To take my white coppers, // to go to the Danube River for water,

To enter the Danube waist-deep, // to take a marble stone,

To wrap it up in a piece of cloth, // then to slip it under my bosom,

On the left side next to my heart - // when my heart breathe

To warm up the stone, // when the time comes,

To have the stone changed into a baby boy.

                   (A song known in Sofia region)



They also buried a stone to prevent the death of the surviving twin or a child born in the same month: they measured the child with a black thread and weighted him / her out. Then they took the black thread and a stone inscribed with the weight to the grave and buried it saying, “Here is your brother”.

We can add still another similar motif known from another ethno-cultural community. It confirms the universality of this idea. The story comes from the cycle of Soslan, one of the major characters among the Narths in the Ossetins’ Epos. The name Soslan means born out of the womb of the stone and most probably bears Turkic origins. His miraculous birth was out of a river stone, as once a shepherd faint with desire relaxed on it.


The relation between stone and fire seems to be very significant, as many of the stones in the pits have been burnt. The fire is also a universal element. Most frequently it is associated with the Sun. Among all the others, the Slavs also knew well some practices involving fire. They kept them long till the late Middle Ages and we often find their traces in the Christian necropolises. We also have them described in various theological works reproaching the heathen rites. St. Gregory the New in his Word of the Devout One, known from a Russian copy from the 15th c., blames those who “lay the table for the rozhanitsite, and pray to the wood-nymphs offering them loaves, …and those who pray with fire to the wood-nymphs, and to Mokosh…”.

So far the date and the comparative analysis of the pits in Sedlare, as well as the context they are within, suggest quite convincingly a Slavic cultural tradition.    








 The Rhodope Mountains are very fruitful soil for studying the peoples’ flexibility against the constant changes of the environment – not natural, but social, political, religious, administrative or whatever it might be. A good illustration of historical development within a closed area. A fascinating place for ethno – archaeology.


Contributed By Katya Melamed

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Contributed By Katya Melamed