Bulgarian Archaeologists Discover Three Roman Pagan Temples, Nymphaeum at Ancient and Medieval Rock City Perperikon

An ancient water tank hacked into the rock in the ancient and medieval city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria has not been found to have been a fountain, and may have been a nymphaeum, a monument dedicated to the nymphs. Photo: TV grab from BNT

An ancient water tank hewn into the rock in the ancient and medieval city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria has not been found to have been a fountain, and may have been a nymphaeum, a monument dedicated to the nymphs. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A total of three Roman pagan temples, 49 public and residential buildings, over 1,000 artifacts, and what might turn out to be a nympheaum, a monument dedicated to the nymphs, have been discovered by Bulgarian archaeologists during the four-month 2015 summer excavations of the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon (also known as Perperik or Perperek) located in the southern District of Kardzhali.

The main objective of the 2015 summer digs – revealing in full the acropolis of Peperikon – has been achieved, archaeologist Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov, who has been leading the archaeological exploration of the rock city ever since it first started in 2000, has told reporters at a news conference presenting the results from this year’s work.

Perperikon’s acropolis has been unearthed at 95%, together with the central square of the ancient and medieval city, several streets leading up to it, and downtown streets with colonnades, Ovcharov has said, as cited by the Bulgarian National Television.

Perperikon was not just a large city. It was also a city that was created according to the finest tastes of the Roman aristocracy,” the archaeologist emphasizes.

One of the most interesting new finds is evidence that a room hewn into the rocks might have been a nymphaeum, a monument dedicated to the nymphs.

A frontal view of the alleged nymphaeum in the ancient and medieval city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria shows that one of its side was a masonry wall decorated with friezes; archaeologist Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov is seen on the right. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A frontal view of the alleged nymphaeum in the ancient and medieval city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria shows that one of its side was a masonry wall decorated with friezes; archaeologist Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov is seen on the right. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A canal draining off the water from the alleged nymphaeum fountain in the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: TV grab from BNT

A canal draining off the water from the alleged nymphaeum fountain in the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Initially, upon its discovery, the archaeologists thought that the rock room was a water tank. During their excavations, however, they have found it was a fountain from the 3th-4th century AD, with richly decorated friezes and a complex water management system.

“This is a unique facility that has no analogies in Bulgaria. Its analogous to monuments in large Roman Era cities such as Ephesus in Asia Minor and Petra in Jordan,” explains Ovcharov, adding, however, that further evidence is needed to confirm the hypothesis that the rock room was in fact a nymphaeum.

The alleged nymphaeum is 6 meters long, 5 meters wide, and 4.2 meters deep. Three of its sides were hewn into the rock, while the fourth side was a masonry of quadrae (i.e. large stone blocks) with decorative friezes.

“The fountain had two canals. One drained off the water, whereas the other was an overflow drain preventing it from overfilling,” explains the archaeologist.

“It accumulated about 100 cubic meters of water; but even though it was hewn into the rocks on its three sides, the fourth side was built with wonderful quadrae, and decorated with friezes. This leads us to believe that, in addition to having been used to store water, this facility was also a fountain that served the road coming from the valley. More excavations are to be made in this facility which appears similar to the nymphaeums in other Roman cities,” he adds.

Another view of the alleged nymphaeum from the Roman period in the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: Nenko Stanev, 24 Chasa daily

Another view of the alleged nymphaeum from the Roman period in the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: Nenko Stanev, 24 Chasa daily

In addition to the potential nymphaeum, a total of three Ancient Roman pagan temples have been discovered during the excavations of Perperikon’s acropolis over the summer of 2015.

These are a temple of Apollo, a temple of the Thracian Horseman, also known as Heros, the supreme deity in the mythology of the Ancient Thracians, as well as a Mithraeum, a temple of Roman mystery cult god Mithra stemming from the Persian and Zoroastrian mythology.

The ancient cult practices at Perperikon go back to the 2nd-1st millennium BC when the Ancient Thracians built there a huge shrine for wine and fire rituals in honor of god Dionysus.

The Romans who conquered the city subsequently kept and respected the older cults of the Thracians.

Inside the first temple, that of god Apollo, which was found at the beginning of the 2015 archaeological excavations, the archaeologists have discovered a bronze figurine of Apollo.

The Apollo temple is located on the very top of the acropolis hill next to the colonnade leading up to the largest public building of Perperikon in the Roman period.

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov shows rock niches that may have been used as altars in the Roman Era temple of the Thracian Horseman (Heros), the supreme deity of the Ancient Thracians. Photo: TV grabs from BNT

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov shows rock niches that may have been used as altars in the Roman Era temple of the Thracian Horseman (Heros), the supreme deity of the Ancient Thracians. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Perperikon Structure 1

In the second temple, the archaeologists have unearthed a marble head of the Thracian Horseman deity which is probably a fragment from a slab that was at least 1 meter tall. Three years ago, a marble slab with the image of the Thracian Horseman was found on the same spot.

Inside the rock that Perperikon’s Thracian Horseman temple is built into, there are also two niches which were probably used as altars.

One of Bulgaria’s leading experts in Roman archaeology, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, has hypothesized that the third temple may have been the city Mythraeum of Perperikon, the temple of Mythra.

The ruins of what is said to be Perperikon's Roman Era Mithraeum, a temple of the mystery cult for Mithra. Photo: TV grab from BNT

The ruins of what is said to be Perperikon’s Roman Era Mithraeum, a temple of the mystery cult for Mithra. Photo: TV grab from BNT

In it, there is a water pool, stone seats, and hoops hewn into the rock to which bulls would be tied before they were sacrificed to Mythra.

“The buildings of the acropolis were extremely grandiose. The largest one was 26 meters long, it had at least two floors, and was covered with roof tiles,” Ovcharov says, as cited by the 24 Chasa daily. Some of the building walls have been preserved at a height of 1.5-1.9 meters.

“These are public buildings of the insula type. People lived in them but they were also meeting spaces for the urban population. In them, the Romans and the Romanized Thracian population made sure to provide for themselves all necessary facilities,” he adds.

In his words, the excavations have now revealed the Roman Era urban planning of Perperikon, a city which was a bustling center throughout all major historical periods.

He notes that narrow streets among the buildings lead to a main street that was 3 meters wide, which in turn led to the main square of the city of Perperikon in the Roman period. Part of the colonnade of the Roman square has been preserved.

Part of the Roman Era colonnade in front of the largest building in the acropolis of Perperikon has survived. Photo: BNT

Part of the Roman Era colonnade in front of the largest building in the acropolis of Perperikon has survived. Photo: BNT

The archaeologists and restorers working at the ancient and medieval rock city in Bulgaria’s Kardzhali Municipality have managed to conserve seven medieval homes which were dug into the foundations of Ancient Roman buildings.

“The preservation of the so called dugouts was extremely difficult because their soil gets washed out by rain. The restorers have managed to do an excellent job, and now the tourists will be able to see the interior of these 12th century homes,” Ovcharov says referring to the partial archaeological restorations at Perperikon running parallel to the recent excavations.

The 2015 summer digs have been the largest archaeological excavations at the rock city of Perperikon in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria since its exploration started 15 years ago.

The excavations and restoration have been funded with BGN 220,000 (app. EUR 102,000) from the Bulgarian government, which is really lavish considering that a wide range of archaeological sites in Bulgaria have remained underfunded in 2015.

“We had to receive this preferential funding because we had to achieve the long-anticipated goal of the complete unearthing of the acropolis with its shrine palace of the great [city] of Perperikon, Ovcharov has declared.

The more than 1,000 individual artifacts discovered recently in Perperikon include mostly Roman items but also artifacts from the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages such as a rare gold coin of Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 986-1025 AD).

The ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon has a 7,000-year history. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

The ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon has a 7,000-year history. Photos: TV grabs from BNT

Perperikon Structure 3

Over 1,000 artifacts, most of them from the Roman period, have been found during the 2015 summer excavations of the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: TV grab from BNT

Over 1,000 artifacts, most of them from the Roman period, have been found during the 2015 summer excavations of the rock city of Perperikon in Southern Bulgaria. Photo: TV grab from BNT

“All of these artifacts show us the entire 7,000-year history of Perperikon which started in the Prehistory, and ended in 1362 AD [when it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks],” concludes archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov while looking forward to the 2016 excavations which will focus on the southern suburbs of the ancient and medieval rock city.

Also check out our stories about the other recent archaeological finds in the ancient and medieval rock city of Perperikon:

Archaeologist Finds Clay Lamp with Eros, Other Roman Age Artifacts in Ancient and Medieval Rock City Perperikon

Archaeologist Finds 14th Century Monogram, Coins of Bulgarian Tsars at Ancient and Medieval Rock City Perperikon

Archaeologist Discovers Gold Coin of Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer in Bulgaria’s Perperikon

Bulgarian Archaeologists Find Roman Temple, Apollo Statuette in Excavations of Ancient Rock City Perperikon

Background Infonotes:

Perperikon (also called Perperek or Perperik) is an ancient rock city located in the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria, 15 km away from the city of Kardzhali.

It is a large-scale archaeological complex including historical monuments from different ages. Those include a megalithic sanctuary dating back to the Neolithic Age, the 6th millennium BC, a Bronze Age settlement, and a holy rock city established by the Ancient Thracians later taken over by the Romans, Goths, and Byzantines, respectively.

In the Middle Ages, especially during the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), it was the site of a strong fortress and a royal palace that Bulgaria and Byzantium fought over numerous times.

Perperikon has been excavated since 2000 by Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov who has found evidence that the mythical ancient Temple of Dionysius was located there. The rock city and fortress at Perperikon, not unlike the vast majority of the medieval Bulgarian fortresses, were destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 14th century.