Nikolay Ovcharov: Latest Excavations Support Our Dionysus Temple Hypothsis

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Nikolay Ovcharov: Latest Excavations Support Our Dionysus Temple Hypothsis

Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov leads the archeological team that in 2000 discovered an amazing ancient city on the hill of Perpericon in Bulgaria's Rhodope Mountain. The city was first built by the ancient Thracians who inhabited an area extending over most of modern Bulgaria, northern Greece and the European part of Turkey. The Thracian tribes were ruled by a powerful warrior aristocracy rich in gold treasures. The team of Prof. Ovcharov continues the excavations at Perpericon willing to prove that this place actually boasted the legendary Dionysus Temple known throughout the ancient world.

Prof. Ovcharov answered questions of Milena Dinkova

Q: What is actually Perpericon?

A: This is the most important archeological discovery made in Bulgaria in the last decades. I must say that it has not been completely unveiled yet as excavations are likely to continue for a long time. There were previous attempts to start explorations at the hill called Perpericon, some 250km southeast of Bulgaria's capital Sofia, that was earlier known for the ruins of a mediaeval fortress. However, all of these attempts failed. Until 2000 when our expedition, poorly subsidized by the New Bulgarian University, made discoveries that stirred great media interest.

What we found at Perpericon is a dead city entirely graved into the rocks. It was dated back to ancient times. The city is divided in four basic parts whereby I do not include the numerous satellite settlements in the vicinity of Perpericon. On the hilltop, there is an ancient fortress - an acropolis - which walls are 2.8 to 3m thick made of huge stone blocks. They have been so precisely polished to fit that no cement has been used at all. The acropolis encloses buildings with sunken lower storeys and streets that lead to preserved thresholds.

The most impressing part of Perpericon is the temple-palace situated just below the acropolis and connected to it by the fortress wall. This is a huge complex - its ground floor - also graved into the rocks - has a surface of 17,000sq m. It is made of fifty separate rooms, halls and staircases.

The last two components are the northern and southern suburbs but they have not been unearthed yet.

Q: What is your hypothesis about the ancient occupants of the temple-palace?

I will start with the 100-meter ancient road that leads to the palace and to our hypothesis, too. We discovered it in 2000 and we think it look as the typical "Road to the Temple."

Our work on the hill in 2002 enlightened the chronology of the human activities at Perpericon. We now know Perpericon can boast almost 8,000 years of history. Its first zenith was in 18-12 century B.C. This is the time of the fabulous Mycenaean culture. This is also the time of establishment of the ancient Thracian states and the Thracian religion - the orphism. The Thracian kings became high priests as well, so the temples were built in their capital cities.

According to Herodotus, the Rhodope range was inhabited by the Thracian tribe of the bessies. He also said that the bessies built the legendary Dionysus temple that was equal to the ancient Greek Apollo temple in Delphi. Like Delphi's sanctuary, the Dionysus temple had an oracle that made great prophesies such as the foretell of the victorious march around the world of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. Later on, in the Roman age the oracle predicted that Octavius Augustus would create the Roman Empire.

Our hypothesis, totally supported by the latest finds, has it that the legendary Dionysus temple with the oracle can be found at Perpericon.

Q: Apart from the geographical situation of the hill in the Rhodope range, what are the other leads that brought you to this conclusion?

A: During the latest excavations in 2002, in the western wing of the palace we discovered a very curious hall that fits the description of the ancient historians about the Dionysus temple. This is a spacious oval hall with a diameter of 30m. In its center, there is a round altar erected 3m above the floor. This totally fits the description of the rituals in the Dionysus Temple in which the ancient poured wine into the altar and watched the range of the altar fire to make a prediction whether a given event will occur or not. I would like to point at the fact that the main hall of the Dionysus Temple had no roof so that the fire could rise. The hall that we found is open to the sky.

Q: Is the name of the hill - Perpericon - connected in any way to the ancient coin called hyperper.

A: In 4-5 century A.D. when the Christianity has already spread, Perpericon still lived on as religious center. It has been turned into Christian episcopy. In 8-12 century A.D., a Christian city was build at the foot of the hill as the Episcopal seat of the Eastern Rhodopes. The excavations unearthed splendid churches and we found Europe's second largest collection of lead seals used by high-ranking mediaeval dignitaries.

All this, together with the finds on the hill, indicates a very high standard of living.

Perpericon is actually the Byzantine name used after the 10 century A.D. The first name of the city is Hyperperacion which is difficult to translate. Hyper is the Geek word for "over", "above" while pyros is "fire."

In 2002, we found something that made us think we can unravel the ministry of the name. 2km to the north of Perpericon, we found one of the largest ancient and mediaeval gold mines in Europe.

And that is how we come to the link between the city of Hyperperacion and an ancient gold coin called hyperper. The 22-carate gold coin was introduced by Byzantine emperor Alexius I in a time of great inflation. We asked ourselves where the huge amount of gold needed for the coins came from. It might have been extracted from the mines that we now unearthed. So we think that the hyperper coin was named after the city of Hyperperacion.

Q: Perpericon can obviously be a very powerful tourist attraction. Do you have visitors at the hill?

Perpericon has become popular after CNN Europe showed a reportage about the first discoveries in 2000. Since then, it has been much talked about. Last year, 15,000 tourists have visited Perpericon and this year I expect a real boom. Currently, we prepare an Internet site about Perpericon that is to be launched in two months. It will provide in-depth information about the discoveries and will promote the ancient city as tourist attraction.
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