The Thracian Step Pyramid near Kovil (Bulgaria)

Here I bring you a quick update on a relatively recent archaeological discovery that has taken my interest. I am talking about the Thracian rock pyramid researched by Vassil Markov and his team of archaeologists. Markov is the head of the university research centre for ancient european and eastern mediterranean cultures at Bulgaria’s south-west university. According to the survey, this has been dated to be a thousand years older than the pyramids from Egypt. However, this is a more peculiar type of megalithic monument. What seems to have happened in Bulgaria is the use of a natural rock formation which later on was used for sacred rites. The landscape of Bulgaria seems to have promoted this culture of rock-cut ancient monuments. Georgi Nehkrizov advises of the use of rock-cut graves and tombs by the ancient Thracians in this area, however the phenomenon of rock-cut niches and altars seems to be exclusive and specific to the area where this pyramid has been found, in the area of the Rhodope mountains. However most of the sites of these characteristic that you can visit in Bulgaria seem to be just suitable pieces of volcanic turf or limestone, use for religious practices, like in the case of Tatul Village, Perperikon and Belintash – some of the most famous Thracian sanctuaries in the area. But what has been found in Kovil goes a step beyond.

The actual site consists on 5 different mountainous layers, in the fashion of steps, which reach up to 15 metres of height. Markov’s team has found evidence of the use of this place for ritual purposes as far back as the year 4500 – 4000 BC. However, it seems that the altars that can be found at the site are later additions. They are believed to date from around the 2500 BC. Nevertheless, this is proof that this location must have been a long and well established religious centre, otherwise the activity would have ceased or change in nature, rather than emphasised. The altar carved in the lowest step is illuminated by the sun at dawn during the equinoxes, which also applies to the altar located in the upper level. This has led Markov to believe that this was potentially used as a temple devoted tot he cult of the sun. In addition to the altars, there are some mysterious entrances carved on the rock, which meaning has proven yet difficult to ascertain, but could be related to a similar find in another Thracian site – Ilinitsa. The shrine in Ilinista is known as the Womb Cave: a vertical entrance  into a cave resembling a human womb. Markov’s assessment is that this could be a similar type of shire, but on a smaller scale. The archaeological survey has recovered ceramics dating from the Chalcolithic to the Roman period, suggesting that the site was in use up to the conversion of Christianity brought to the Thracians by Rome.

But the wonder of Kovil do not end there. Markov’s team have identified this site as part of a much larger prehistoric complex – in a similar fashion to recent archaeological surveys of other megalithic structures such as Stonehenge. The entirety of this network expands for a square mile. The latest finds within the complex are two smaller pyramid-shaped rock outcrops. What is fascinating about this, is Markov’s own surprise upon finding the site. Thracian sites of similar characteristics are well-known to the locals and there are many other locations nearby which were known by the researcher and his team – whose original enterprise was to investigate further these sites to compare them with others in different geographical regions of Bulgaria. And it seems they did more than developing already established finds, but to discover something entirely new.

As always, I am glad to bring you news from parts of the world which we tend to forget they exist. And I must say, after looking into these sites in the Rhodope Mountains I am deeply curios and eager to go visit sometime. Hopefully further archaeological surveys of the area will keep on bringing forward the picture of Thracian culture in Bulgaria in the coming years.

In the meantime, if you are curious, I would recommend you try to get hold of A Companion to Ancient Thrace by Emil Nankov and Denver Graninger, which only came out in 2015 and has a plethora of fascinating research papers.

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