Perperikon –the Temple of Dionysus in Mount Rhodope

Perperikon –the Temple of Dionysus in Mount Rhodope

The fascinating remains of what many now believe to be the Temple of Dionysus, are perched high on a hill top in the Eastern Rhodope mountain range, around 15 kilometres or so from the town of Kardzhali. Currently the archaeological remains are still a work in progress and you approach the gravel car park up a dirt track. When visited in October 2005, it was free to walk around the ruins, but a charge of a few Lev was to be shortly introduced.

From the car park it is a steep scramble up a rough stony track that winds its way around the side of the hill until you reach the base of the ‘temple road’. This in itself is a magnificent insight into just what was achieved here. The ‘road’ is actually a passageway carved out of the rock. It climbs steeply up towards one of the main entrances to the temple some 200 feet or so higher up. Huge steps have been carved out of the base of the passageway to make the climb easier to negotiate as you make your way up, hemmed in by walls of stone rising over 20 feet on each side of you. The passageway ends at the fortress wall surrounding most of the temple on the top of the hill. You are then free to scramble around the remains of the temple and the palace, exploring the many rooms and chambers that once formed one of the most important places of worship and rule in the area.

The earliest archaeological finds at Perperikon, various pieces of pottery, date back to Neolithic times in around 6th-5th millennium BC. However, it is thought that at this early stage, there was no real settlement here and it was not until later on in the Bronze age that it became a definite place of worship, when various religions began to establish themselves. Perperikon has been used by many different civilisations over the ages but as archaeologists have excavated the area they have discovered that the ruins are incredibly similar to those described by the ancient Greek authors as the Temple of Dionysus in Mount Rhodope. Dionysus was the chief God of the ancient Thrace people although little is really known of the cult.

The palace or temple, just below the summit of the hill, houses many chambers, the most impressive being a huge hall which has literally been dug out of the rock and holds a number of stone sarcophaguses and you can also make out a giant alter and a stone throne. It is thought that the temple was in fact several stories high as you can still clearly see the holes in the rock where roof joists and beams would have been slotted in. As you wander through the ancient corridors and up the carved stone steps, you can make out a crude drainage system, where channels have been etched into the rock. One hypothesis is that the large stone alter was used for sacrificial purposes and the channels were to drain the blood away from the alter and down over the edge of the hill. From ancient scribes, it is known that the Thracian cult did sacrifice horses, bulls and possibly even humans. However, the other theory is that these channels were actually used to deliver sacred wine around the temple and archaeologists believe they have found several ancient wine presses in the bushes and undergrowth around the main temple site.

Above the great hall and the temple structure, sits the Acropolis, a fortress like structure surrounded by carefully laid stone walls. As the Roman Empire spread, it appears that Perperikon became an important and strategic Roman fort and the structure was renovated by the Romans for their own use. This included a sewage system to drain away waste and surface water and also there are two huge pits literally dug out of the rock floor and going down many feet. It is thought these were used as reservoirs to collect rain water. The sheer scale of the amount of rock that has been removed to form these and the rest of the ground floor structure is truly mind boggling.

Later on in the Roman period as the empire began to crumble, Perperikon appears to have been burned down. However, it was later revived and a Christian church built over part of the Acropolis. Then only a century or two afterwards, Perperikon was abandoned.

There is much to be explored at Perperikon. You can wander around the streets carved out of the stone and see stone pillars scattered around the place. It is fascinating to see the different rooms and imagine what they were used for all those centuries ago. And there is still a huge amount of work to be done. As successive cults and empires have colonised Perperikon and added their own unique touches, archaeologists have had to dig down through the layers of time to reach the stone base and try and decipher just what went on here. There are two ‘cities’ on the slopes of the hill but these have yet to be properly explored and excavated. This is a mammoth undertaking and no doubt as work continues, further discoveries will be made to shed light on the use and importance of this fortress perched precariously on the top of a rocky outcrop.

At the moment the area has not been particularly developed with tourists in mind. There is little in the way of safety ropes to stop you slipping over the edge of the cliff side and there are no real explanations posted around the site, except for the odd wooden signpost. The site is definitely not accessible for those who cannot cope with a fairly strenuous hike or who are not particularly sure footed. There are no facilities to speak of except for a couple of porta loos and a few locals with trestle tables selling various fossils and coins supposedly found in the area and the odd guide book if you are lucky. However, this forms part of the charm of the place. You are not restricted to following well-worn routes around the site and having to peer at areas from behind a rope barrier. You can literally clamber over walls and explore the overgrown hillside around the main fortress for hidden treasures. There is of course the worry that this will lead to the site being damaged and important archaeological finds being ruined but for now you can enjoy exploring an important strong hold of an ancient civilisation with no real restrictions.

For an in depth look at the history of Perperikon and a fascinating virtual tour around the area, visit the official site at http://www.perperikon.bg and also read about our more recent visit here on TheTravelBug Blog.

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