Bulgaria’s Pernik to Rehabilitate Ancient Thracian Sanctuary Dedicated to Medicine God Asclepius
An Ancient Thracian asclepion, a sanctuary dedicated to Ancient Greek and Thracian god of medicine Asclepius, is to be rehabilitated and made accessible for visitors by the museum authorities in the western Bulgarian city of Pernik.
The Thracian asclepion near Pernik is the sanctuary dedicated to medicine god Asclepius which is closest to the Bulgarian capital Sofia, reports private Bulgarian TV channel News7.
The unique Ancient Thracian sanctuary is located in Pernik’s Daskalovo Quarter, between two highway lanes of the Daskalovo Road Junction, which is the where the Lyulin Highway and the Struma Highway meet.
The sanctuary of medicine god Asclepius was first discovered in 1979 during the construction of the road connecting the Bulgarian capital Sofia with the Gyueshevo Border Crossing Point on the border with the Republic of Macedonia (then the former Yugoslavia).
It is yet to be developed as a cultural tourism site because it has been long neglected by the local authorities and the residents of Pernik.
However, a wide range of Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman artifacts from the asclepion can be seen at the Pernik Regional Museum of History.
The Museum’s rich collection of artifacts from the sanctuary includes a lot of reliefs and sculptures dedicated to Asclepius and his daughter Hygieia, the goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, as well as the largest collection of slabs with different images of the supreme god of the Ancient Thracians, the Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros.
“Asclepius was worshiped here as well as in many other places in Bulgaria and the Balkans. Here he had a local nickname – Asclepius Kulkuzenos Keiladenos, meaning “god of the healing spring water” – because a lot of people came here to be treated with the water of Rudarshtitsa River,” explains Nikolay Sivkov from the Pernik Regional Museum of History.
He adds that the water of the river was slightly radioactive, and helped treat stomach and nerve illnesses, which is why the ancient people used to come to the asclepion near today’s Pernik all the way from the central parts of Ancient Greece. The water is used for spa treatments even today in a sanatorium in the nearby town of Rudartsi.
“When these people had had their treatment, they left here slabs with the image of the Thracian Horseman (Heros) as sacrifice gifts to god Asclepius. The images feature him going hunting, returning from a hunt, or holding his catch. There are also figurines, arrows, spears. We have found a lot of ancient medical instruments which also testifies that medical treatment was offered here,” Sivkov elaborates.
The archaeologists and historians from the Pernik Regional Museum of History think that the fact it was left in the middle of a highway is one of the reasons for the asclepion’s neglect as a tourism site.
Just as today, during the Antiquity period the site was situated on two major international roads – the road running from Serdica (today’s Sofia) via Pautalia (today’s Kyustendil) and Stobi (in today’s Republic of Macedonia) to the Adriatic Sea coast, and the road from the Middle Danube region down to the rivers of Timok and Morava, via Serdica, down the Struma River, to the Aegean Sea coast.
The easy access to the Ancient Thracian sanctuary of Asclepius probably made it very popular for the ancient travelers.
The asclepion has been recognized by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture as a “monument of culture of national significance”; it is supposed to be managed by the district and municipal authorities but now the Pernik Regional Museum of History has taken up this responsibility. It will be rehabilitating the site, and putting information billboards.
The Pernik Museum also boasts a large collection of ancient and medieval artifacts discovered on the hill of the Krakra Fortress, including cult figurines, statuettes, statues, inscriptions, and pottery. One notable find is an anaglyph (camaieu) of the Roman goddess of wisdom Minerva.
The museum also holds the only known silver seal of Bulgarian Tsar Petar I (r. 927-970 AD), ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire at its height, and son of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927 AD). It is believed that Tsar Petar I stopped at the Krakra Fortress on his way for his legendary meeting with St. Ivan Rilski, Bulgaria’s patron saint, who was residing as a hermit in the Rila Mountain.
The Ancient Thracians were an ethno-cultural group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting much of Southeast Europe from about the middle of the second millennium BC to about the 6th century AD on the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia.
Asclepius is an Ancient Greek god of medicine. He is one of Apollo’s sons. His daughters are Higieia (“Hygiene”), the goddess of health, cleanliness, and sanitation; Iaso, the goddess of recuperation; Aceso, the goddess of healing; Aglaea, the goddess of beauty and magnificence; and Panacea, the goddess of the universal remedy. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still a symbol of medicine today.
An asclepion – in Ancient Greece, Thrace, and Rome – was a shrine for healing dedicated to the cult of medicine god Asclepius.
The Thracian Horseman, also known as god Heros, is the supreme deity in the mythology of the Ancient Thracians. Heros is usually depicted as a warrior mounted on a steed slaying a wild beast. The precise origin and the concept of this deity remain unknown even though there are numerous theories about them. After the adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Early Christians considered the depictions of the Thracian Horseman as depictions of St. George. The contrary was probably truer – the motif of Heros might have been the basis for the depictions of St. George as a mounted horseman slaying a dragon.
The Krakra Fortress in today’s western Bulgarian city of Pernik is a medieval fortress of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). It is named after Krakra of Pernik, also known as Krakra Voevoda, a Bulgarian boyar, a feudal lord ruling over 36 fortresses in Southwest Bulgaria at the beginning of 11th century. He is known for his resistance against the invading Byzantine forces stopping twice the advance of Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025 AD) on Sofia (Serdica, Sredets). Krakra of Pernik ruled during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Samuil (997-1014 AD) but often acted against Byzantium with his own forces.
The fortress of Pernik was founded after 809 AD when Khan (Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) conquered Serdica (today’s Sofia) for Bulgaria, probably during the reign of his son, Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD). Before that, the strategically located hill was the site of a major Ancient Thracian fortress from the 6th-5th century BC. Krakra was a relatively large fortress in medieval Bulgaria, with a fortified area of about 50 decares (app. 12.4 acres). Its fortress wall spanned 800 m lining the natural curves of the plateau, and was 2 m thick. The fortress was last used before the Western European knights from the Third Crusade passed nearby in 1189-1192 AD, and after that was abandoned. It was besieged twice by Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-slayer, in 1004 and 1016 AD, both times unsuccessfully as the defenders prevailed under the leadership of Krakra of Pernik, as described by 11th century Byzantine historian John Skylitzes (ca. 1040-ca. 1101 AD). The 1016 siege was especially fierce; it lasted 88 days, and cost the lives of many Byzantine soldiers, which is why the valley below the fortress is still known today as “The Bloody”. When all of the First Bulgarian Empire was conquered by Byzantium in 1018 AD, the Krakra Fortress was the last to fall. The ruins of the Pernik fortress today feature remains of the fortress walls, residential buildings, a crossed-dome church, a large three-nave basilica, and a small two-story tomb church. This is where Bulgarian archaeologists have found a silver seal of St. Tsar Petar I (r. 927-970 AD), the only silver seal of a Bulgarian monarch from this time period. Tsar Petar I made a stop at the fortress on his way to meeting Bulgaria’s patron saint, St. Ivan Rulski (876-946 AD), who was living as a hermit in the Rila Mountain.
In 2013-2014, Pernik Municipality carried out partial restoration of the Krakra Fortress with BGN 5 million (EUR 2.5 million) of EU funding under Operational Program “Regional Development”. Unfortunately, the builders used “alternative” materials for some of the restoration giving the restored fortress wall and gate a “plastic” look. Thus, the restoration of the Krakra Fortress has become notorious among Bulgaria’s archaeological restorations, with critics claiming that the EU money was likely embezzled by local politicians and/or construction entrepreneurs who used cheap plastic instead of proper materials. Bulgaria’s some 6,000 ancient and medieval fortresses were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century AD, and archaeological restorations are seen today as a means of restoring the national memory and promoting cultural tourism. However, the notorious restoration of the Krakra Fortress and some other archaeological sites such as the Yailata Fortress on the Black Sea coast have made archaeological restorations a highly controversial public issue over alleged embezzlement and clientelism.
St. Tsar Petar I (r. 927-970 AD) was a ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). He was the second son of Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927) and his successor. Unlike his father, Tsar Petar I did not wage victorious wars, and dedicated his reign to Christianity, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the Old Bulgarian literature and culture. It was for the most part a period of peace, which, however, ended in a decline by the 960s. Because of his patronage of religion and culture he was canonized as a saint by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. During his reign Tsar Petar I was faced with revolts by two of his brothers claiming the crown; a rebellion in Serbia, then a Bulgarian province; and the rise of the Bogomil Heresy, a medieval Bulgarian sect which subsequently found its way to Western Europe where it was known as Catharism (practiced by the Cathars or Albigensians); it was similar to Paulicianism in Armenia and Eastern Byzantium. Tsar Petar I is also known for his meeting with Bulgaria’s patron saint, St. Ivan Rilski (876-946 AD), who was a hermit in the Rila Mountain.
Relations between Bulgaria and Byzantium worsened after 965 AD, leading Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas (Nikephoros II Phokas, r. 963-969 AD) to advance, and to instigate an attack on Bulgaria from the northeast by Kievan Rus led by Knyaz Sviatoslav I Igorevich of Kiev (r. 945-972). In the resulting campaign, the Kievan Rus ruler defeated the Bulgarian forces and captured some 80 fortresses in Northeast Bulgaria. A second invasion led by Knyaz Svietoslav in 969 AD reached the Bulgarian capital of Veliki Preslav (“Great Preslav”). As a result, Tsar Petar I retreated as a monk in a monastery and died the following year. He was successed by Tsar Boris II (r. 969-971 AD), who waged a war against Byzantium in alliance with the Kievan Knyaz Sviatoslav. He reign ends after the Byzantine forces under Emperor John I Tzimiskes defeated the Bulgarian and Kievan Russian troops and captured the Bulgarian capital Veliki Preslav, after which Tsar Boris II and his brother, later Tsar Roman I, were taken captives to Constantinople. Bulgaria survived in its western lands under the leadership of Comita (Count) Nikola, and his four sons, David, Moisey (Moses), Aron, and Samuil (Samuel), who was Tsar of Bulgaria in 997-1014 AD, known as the Cometopuli Dynasty (House of Cometopuli), and waged a war of attrition against Byzantium until 1018 AD.
While the saintly Tsar Petar I was considered a weak ruler in terms of military and diplomatic relations, he was the longest reigning ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire. He was deemed a good ruler in the Middle Ages, and later Bulgarian leaders who sought to restore Bulgaria’s independence and power adopted his name: Tsar Petar II Delyan (r. 1040-1041 AD) as a rebel leader); Constantine Bodin crowned Tsar Petar III (r. 1072-1071 AD as a rebel leader), and Tsar Petar IV Theodore (r. 1185-1197 AD) who succeeded in restoring Bulgaria and creating the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) together with his brother Tsar Asen I (r. 1186-1196 AD).