The Bulgarian ‘Loch Ness Monster’: the Water Bull of the Rabisha Lake near the Prehistoric Magura Cave
Rabbie the Water Bull, a minotaur mermaid from mountainous Northwest Bulgaria, has had an exciting, awe-inspiring fate.
Nessie vs. the Bulgarian Water Bull
The world famous monster Nessie from the Loch Ness in Scotland – whether it’s a seal, a plesiosaur, or a swimming elephant using its trunk as an air pipe – has got a very tough competitor legendwise:
The Water Bull from the Rabisha Lake in Northwestern Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian “Loch Ness Monster”, the Water Bull, is probably cooler, too.
First, because it (he?) inhabits a deep endorheic lake, i.e. one that’s not connected to any rivers, seas, or oceans.
Second, because it seems to be at least part human.
Third, because its dwelling is close to the Magura Cave with its stunning prehistoric cave paintings, and to the miraculous Belogradchik Rocks.
Even though the Water Bull and Nessie seem to be of very different species, the Water Bull of the Rabisha Lake could conquer the popular imagination of the world going in the footsteps of the Loch Ness Monster (given enough “viral” promotion, and all).
The legends about the Water Bull in the Rabisha Lake, i.e. the Bulgarian Loch Ness Monster first made media headlines in Bulgaria back in the late 2000s (when the first version of this article was also published).
Since then, obviously influenced by Nessie and its enviable global popularity, some have started to refer to the Water Bull from the Rabisha Lake in Northwest Bulgaria as “Rabby” or “Rabbie” (which accidentally happens to be the Scottish short form of “Robert”, so there is another “Nessie” connection right there).
Belogradchik Municipality, which includes the rather peculiar Rabisha Lake, a rather famous and picturesque place in the Bulgarian Northwest, has opened been hoping that the legends about Rabbie the Water Bull would help boost the inflow of tourists.
And they have probably helped in that regard – in 2018, Belogradchik and its landmarks (see below) were visited by nearly 120,000 tourists, including nearly 32,000 foreign tourists – about 20 times more than the municipality’s total population of some 6,000 people. The increase is notable compared with a total of fewer than 90,000 visitors in 2015.
First and foremost, Belogradchik is known for the Belogradchik Rocks – absolutely miraculous rock formations stretching for some 30 km in the western part of the Balkan Moutain (Stara Planina).
Back in 2010, the Belogradchik Rocks did pretty well in a global competition for the New Seven Wonders of the World, and even though they failed to make it to the finalists, they found a spot on the prestigious reserve list.
To complement the miraculousness of the Belogradchik Rocks, there is also the Belogradchik Fortress, an ancient fortification used in all major historical periods, from the Roman Antiquity all the way to the late 19th century!
Another truly amazing landmark, both natural and cultural, right near Belogradchik is the Magura Cave with its enchanting cave paintings by prehistoric people.
The Magura Cave has once again made headlines recently, though, unfortunately, for having been vandalized by youth who scribbled inside it. Luckily, not on top of the prehistoric cave paintings but near them!
In the past 2-3 years, Bulgaria’s authorities have been working on persuading UNESCO to grant the Magura Cave a World Heritage status, and it seems quite possible that the cave will deservedly make the list of World Heritage Sites in the foreseeable future.
Thus, the next third world-class tourist attraction Belogradchik Municipality has been working to add to its portfolio is the Rabisha Lake with its “Loch Ness Monster”, Rabbie the Water Bull.
The Rabisha Lake – Bulgaria’s Loch Ness
The Rabisha Lake (“Rabishkoto Ezero” in Bulgarian) is located between the villages of Tolovitsa and Rabisha, in the Belogradchik Municipality, to the northwest of Sofia (190 kilometers by car, app. 130 kilometers air distance).
It is the largest natural lake in Bulgaria’s interior even though with its area of about 3.25 square kilometers it is much more modest in size than the Loch Ness (56.4 square kilometers).
The Rabisha Lake has a tectonic origin. It was formed in the Quaternary Period, some 2,5-3 million years ago, and its depth reaches 30-40 meters.
“The lake has never been explored in detail so it is not unknown exactly what sorts of species from previous periods it is the home of,” then Belogradchik Mayor Emil Tsankov (in office 1999 – 2004; 2007 – 2011) told me when I first published a version of this article back in 2010.
One thing that stands out about the Rabisha Lake is the fact that it is an endorheic lake – no rivers flow out of it.
This has turned it into the object of many folk tales and legends of medieval Bulgarians who believed that water had to be in circulation all the time.
Thus, the people in the region thought the lake was bottomless, and was therefore the home of many scary creatures, some of the best from Bulgarian mythology.
The Legend about the Water Bull, the Rabisha Lake Monster
There are various legends about the Rabiska Lake Monster but several years ago Belogradchik Municipality picked the most “credible” one for a project designed to promote the lake as a tourist destination.
The legend, which dates back to the 18th century, has it that a fearful monster inhabits the lake.
Unlike Nessie and many other lake monsters, however, this one is no dinosaur; it is a lot more human-like. It is actually more like a minotaur. And like a mermaid. In fact, a minotaur mermaid of sorts!
The Rabisha Lake Monster, the so called Water Bull, has the head of a bull, the body of giant, strong man, and the tale of fish, or a mermaid.
In order to keep this terrifying beast at ease and buy their safety, the locals would offer as a sacrifice to the Water Bull the most beautiful young girl in the entire region.
They would hold a procession taking the girl to the Rabisha Lake where it would get on a boat together with many wonderful gifts, and would be send off to the lake’s interior to fall pray to the monster.
It is exactly this procession with a gorgeous young girl, lavish gifts, and songs and dances that a project of Belogradchik Municipality sought to revive, together with some other traditional folklore customs of the region.
However, the terrible story of the annual sacrifices to the Water Bull actually has had a happy ending.
The most gorgeous girl in the world was born one day in the village of Rabisha. When she grew up and the time came to offer her as sacrifice, she was placed in a boat and taken to the middle of the lake.
When the Water Bull saw her, he was so enchanted by her that instead of killing her, he fell in love.
He asked his sister, who was a sorceress, for help, and with her powers she made the beautiful girl immortal.
The Water Bull took his young wife to the bottom of the Lake, and never came back for more prey. The two of them are still believed to live happily down there.
Water Bull – Minotaur Mermaid or Wels Catfish
What might have given rise to such a legend as well as a number of other local legends about the Water Bull Monster in the Rabisha Lake which have slight variations?
Assuming of course the actual Bulgarian Loch Ness Monster doesn’t truly hang around down there.
The Rabisha Lake is actually proven to be the home of real water monsters.
Gigantic wels catfish have been caught there. The largest ones reach 5 meters in length, and a weight of 350 kg.
There have been various reports of spotting these fish monsters near the surface of the Rabisha Lake, mostly in the months of April and May, even though the wels catfish usually spend most of their time on the bottom of the lake.
This huge fish, a real underwater monster, might have been the cause of the Water Bull legend in the first place.
Legend or no legend, the Rabisha Lake Monster, Rabbie the Water Bull, has been helping Belogradchik boost its tourism, including through competitions for taking its photo.
Styling the Water Bull of the Rabisha Lake “the Bulgarian Loch Ness Monster” has been an attempt to brush off the world renown of the Loch Ness Monster, and this article is also guilty of that a little bit.
Nessie is certainly great for likely being some kind of a dinosaur but then, again, the Water Bull is a minotaur mermaid who is the hero of a great unintended love story.
Which one is more awesome? The mind boggles.
One should probably visit both the Loch Ness and the Rabisha Lake to decide!
Learn more about the Magura Cave and the Belogradchik Fortress in the Background Infonotes below!
*Note: The first version of this article was written back in 2010 for Sofia News Agency.
The Magura Cave featuring prehistoric paintings from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Aeneolithic, Copper Age) and Early Bronze Age is located near the town of Rabisha, Belogradchik Municipality, Vidin District, in Northwest Bulgaria.
The combined length of its corridors is 2.5 km; the cave has a permanent year-round temperature of 12 degrees Celsius (except for one warmer chamber where the temperature is 15 degrees).
The 15-million-year-old Magura Cave is a famous archaeological and paleontological site. Inside it, researchers have found bones from cave bears, cave hyenas, foxes, wolves, wild cats, otters, and other prehistoric animals.
The Magura Cave is home to 8 species of bats, all of whom are under protection. It was granted the status of a natural park in 1960. It is located close to the largest non-draining lake in Bulgaria, the Rabisha Lake.
In 1984, the Magura Lake was put on UNESCO’s Tentative List for consideration as a World Heritage Site.
The largest chamber in the cave is the Arc Hall, which is 128 meters long, 58 meters wide and 21 meters tall.
The oldest prehistoric paintings in the cave date to the Late Paleolithic period (Epipaleolithic) – about 8,000 – 6,000 BC; the latest are from the Bronze Age, and date to the period between 3,000 BC and 1,200 BC.
The more than 750 paintings depict primarily hunting scenes, religious ceremonies such as fertility dances, and deities. These include anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, geometric, and symbolic images. The drawings were painted with bat guano.
The most popular image from the Magura Cave is from the Cult Hall and depicts a large dance and hunting scene in two rows.
Because of a drawing showing the local mushroom Boletus, which has hallucinogenic effects, there have been interpretations that the paintings depict aliens.
Another group of the Magura Cave drawings from the Late Neolithic is seen as a highly accurate solar calendar calculating 366 days and a year of 12 months.
Before 1993, the Magura Cave had open access, and some of the drawings were vandalized by treasure hunters.
Together with the nearby Rabisha Lake, the Belogradchik Rocks, and the Belogradchik Fortress, the Magura Cave has emerged as one of the most popular destinations for cultural tourism in modern-day Bulgaria.
The Belogradchik Fortress is located near the northwestern Bulgarian town of Belogradchik within the Belogradchik Rocks, a group of beautiful rock formations in various shapes and sizes. One of Bulgaria’s most famous natural landmarks spanning, they span over an area that is 30 km long and 15 km wide.
The Belogradchik Fortress is also known as the Belogradchik Kale. (“Kale” is a Turkish word meaning “fortress” left over from the Ottoman period commonly used for the numerous ruins of ancient and medieval fortresses all over Bulgaria whose proper names are sometimes unknown.) Before the 19th century, it was also called “Belgrade”, a common name for cities and strongholds in the medieval Bulgarian Empire which is mostly known today as the name of the Serbian capital.
The Belogradchik Fortress is one of the best preserved ancient and medieval fortresses in Bulgaria even when keeping in mind that it was substantially modified by the Ottoman Turkish authorities in the 19th century.
While the bulk of the some 6,000 fortresses, cities, and monasteries that existed in medieval Bulgaria were destroyed by the Ottoman invaders, the Belogradchik Fortress was actually rebuilt by them and utilized as a military outpost in the often unruly frontier province of the Vidin region in today’s Northwest Bulgaria.
The fortress was first built by the Ancient Romans in the 3rd century AD as an outpost that was part of a communication network controlling the road from the Roman colony of Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria), whose ruins are located near today’s Bulgarian town of Archar on the Danube River, to the interior of the Balkan provinces.
The area around the Belogradchik Fortress contains ruins from a total of 17 such fortified Roman outposts that could communicate by passing messages using fire at night, smoke during the day, or the sound of huge drums in foggy weather. The closest of these small outposts, the Latin Kale, is situated just several hundred meters away from the fortress.
The Ancient Romans built the Belogradchik Fortress amid the Belogradchik Rocks utilizing their natural defenses. The initial outpost needed fortress walls only to the northwest and the southeast; its other sides were defended by the rocks towering at over 70 meters. The original Roman fortress among the rocks is known today as “The Citadel”.
The Roman fortress had two caverns hewn into the rocks for collecting snow and rain water. Remains from a Roman aqueduct have also been found nearby. The fortress has a preserved underground structure most likely built by the Bulgarians in the Middle Ages.
After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, the Belogradchik Fortress became a Byzantine (Eastern Roman) outpost. It was rebuilt in the 6th century AD under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565 AD) as part of a major effort for strengthening Byzantium’s defenses in today’s Northern Bulgaria against the invading barbarian peoples such as the Slavs and the Avars.
After the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) conquered the region, the Belogradchik Fortress remained a Bulgarian stronghold throughout the Middle Ages (with the exception of the period of the 11th-12th century when Byzantium managed to gain control over Bulgaria).
The Belogradchik Fortress saw major development at the end of the 14th century AD, under Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396), the ruler of the so called Vidin Tsardom, a remnant of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) in 1371-1396 AD. What was left of the Empire was divided by its last full-fledged ruler, Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) between his last surviving sons, Tsar Ivan Sratsimir and Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395) who received the so called Tarnovo Tsardom.
Tsar Ivan Sratsimir expanded the Belogradchik Fortress by encompassing an additional area behind a new fortress wall. Thus, it became the second most important fortress in the Vidin Tsardom, only to the capital, the Bdin (Vidin) Fortress, with the Baba Vida Castle.
After the expansion, the fortress covered a total area of 10 decares (2.5 acres). Its walls are over 2 meters wide, and up to 12 meters tall, and it consists of three sections connected with gates.
The Belogradchik Fortress was nonetheless captured by the invading Ottoman Turks in 1396, but still became one of the last Bulgarian strongholds to be conquered.
Instead of destroying it as they did with lots of Bulgarian fortresses and cities, the Ottomans used the stronghold as an outpost against the numerous haiduti (haiduks), i.e. guerrilla fighters in Northwest Bulgaria. At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, the Belogradchik Fortress was also utilized in fending off the campaigns of Austrian Empire, especially in the Austro-Turkish Wars of 1689, 1714-1718, and 1735-1739.
In the 19th century, the Ottoman authorities rebuilt the Belogradchik Fortress. The reconstruction was started in 1805 by French engineers, and was completed in 1837 by Italian engineers. Thus, it was modified with both Ottoman and European features, with the medieval Bulgarian towers being refashioned with firearm and cannon embrasures. The fortress could fit 3,000 troops.
The Belogradchik Fortress was used by the Ottomans in the suppression of the Bulgarians’ Belogradchik Uprising in 1850. At the end of the Uprising, this is where the Ottomans beheaded its leaders.
The last time the Belogradchik Fortress saw military action was during the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885 when the local Bulgarian guard managed to fend off superior Serbian forces. At the end of the 19th century, the fortress was used by local shepherds.
It was recognized as a monument of culture of national importance by the Bulgarian government in 1965, and was cleaned up and partly restored. It is managed by the Belogradchik Museum of History.
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