Strandja is a mountain with thousands of years of history, whose lands and spiritual spaces have preserved the heritage of several civilizations. The oldest traces of life in the mountain, stone axes and ceramic fragments found on the Ahtopol peninsula, date back to the Neolithic and the Copper and Stone Ages (6,000 -3,000. BC).
Through the centuries it has been called Tratonzos, Salmidessos, Mons Astikus, Hemimont, Paroria. However, for various reasons it remains almost unknown in the historical geography of the ancient world. There is more information about the Strandja coast, which was called Salmidessos during the Bronze and the Early Iron Ages.
As a coastal mountain, Strandja is inextricably connected to the water and the sea. The rich ore and marble deposits, combined with the dense oak forests providing abundant high quality wood for the construction of ships, create favorable environment for the development of mining, seamanship and trade. Not by chance, the famous ancient Greek colony Apolonia (today’s Sozopol) was founded in 610 BC on a small peninsula in northern Strandja.
The oldest known population of Strandja, as well as of the rest of our lands, were ancient Thracians. The Thracians were numerous tribes of Indo-European origin, which formed an ethnic identity in the middle of the second millennium BC on the lands between the Aegean Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. But they were constantly fighting among themselves and with their non-Thracian neighbors, which led to a change in their tribal territories. According to the historians in Strandja, during the different centuries of the first millennium BC, the region was inhabited with ancient Thracian tribes – Thynes, Astae, Scyrmiadae, and Melanophagi and Nipsaei in the northern parts.
Religious beliefs and megalithic culture
During the Early Iron Age (XII - VI century BC), the Thracians practiced their religious rituals outdoors, most often among the rocks. Since the Bronze Age, their religion had been based on the worship of the God of Sun. These religious beliefs have been preserved in Strandja up to the present day – in the rock sanctuaries, dolmens and altars, as well as in the archaic folk rites. One of the most important features of the mountain and its coast is the presence of megalithic culture. Stone tombs, known as dolmens, from the Thracian times are scattered around Strandja. They are constructed entirely of stone plates weighing a few tons. Although they surprisingly survived during the ages, the majority of them were unfortunately destroyed in the civilized twentieth century by hunters and ignorance. The studied dolmens in Strandja date back to the first millennium BC.
The most famous monument of the ancient Thracian culture in Strandja, the domed tomb-sanctuary in the "Mishkova niva" area, is located three kilometers southwest of the town of Malko Tarnovo. It evolved over the centuries from a dolmen with krepis and earth mound to a monumental sanctuary-mausoleum. Finished in the Roman period (II - III c. AD) with large marble blocks, it was used as a place to honor a mythical ancestor-hero, and as temple of God Apollo-Aulariok.
State formations and political changes during the Antiquity and the Middle Ages
In the middle of the first millennium BC, the mountain was inhabited with the Thracian tribes Thynes and Astae, which were under the rule of the newly established Odrysian kingdom. The Thracians who lived in Salmidessos (today’s Midiya, Turkey) were terrifying the seamen with their violent pirate raids for centuries. The Thynes are one of the most combative tribes and the most experienced in night attacks. The name of cape Thyniada (today’s Ineada, Turkey) comes from their tribal name.
More than 60 remains of Thracian fortresses in Strandja have been studied. They are a proof of the endless tribal wars, conflicts and foreign invasions during the first millennium BC. They are built of solid walls, made of large stones without welding. Examples include: "The Big Kale" near the Mladezhko village, "Gradishteto" near Bulgari village, the three fortress walls surrounding the Village of Brodilovo, "The Big Gradiste" southwest of Malko Tarnovo, the Silivarsko Kale and others. Some of the fortresses were used during the Middle Ages.
After the collapse of the Odrysian state in the last two centuries BC, the Astae established their own state – the Astae Kingdom with capital city Bizia (today’s Vize, Turkey). In 45 AD, Rome finally invaded the whole Astae Kingdom and included its land in the newly established Roman province of Thrace. The Roman rule in Strandja has left traces in hundreds of places with cemeteries, travel stations and antique buildings. In the “Propada” area, a large Thracian necropolis uniquely combines four different types of tombs, dating back to the II – IV century AD.
During the Roman times, large scale mining and metallurgy were developed in Strandja. In the “Sguriite” area near Rezovo is located the biggest deposit of ancient slag in Bulgaria with a volume of hundreds of thousands of tons.The ruins of a number of small early Byzantine fortresses are located on the rocky shores of the Veleka and Rezovska rivers. They are part of the huge defense system of fortifications of the Roman Emperor Justinian the Great (527-565 AD), which was built to stop the Avar and Slavic invasions.
Strandja became part of the Bulgarian State in 705 during the rule of Khan Tervel. A century earlier, the mountain was already populated by Slavs, mixed with numerous survived Thracians. After 705, proto-Bulgarian military men probably also settled in the mountain to guard the border. According to prof. Bozhidar Dimitrov, the Village of Bulgari in Strandja was founded by their heirs.
In 971, at the very beginning of the conquest of Bulgaria, for two whole centuries Strandja was a Byzantine province, but it preserved its Bulgarian identity. During the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, the ongoing Byzantine-Bulgarian wars were constantly changing the status of Strandja. The border moved north or south, but it was mainly running along its central ridge. In 1308, the Catalans, Spanish mercenaries serving the Byzantine Empire, passed through the Strandja passages. After a riot, they ravaged the Byzantine Eastern Thrace, and then together with Turkish allies invaded southern Bulgaria. Until their defeat by the Bulgarian troops, they committed horrible acts of violence, the memory of which is preserved in folk traditions to the present day, 700 years after it happened.
In 1369, the Turks conquered the whole Eastern Thrace and then Strandja with its Black Sea cities. After that the coast was conquered several times by them and again returned to the Byzantine Empire until its destruction in 1453. During the first centuries of the slavery, most of the villages in Strandja supplied auxiliary troops to the Turkish army, and others had the duty to guard the mountain passes. Such villages were exempt from some taxes, while men had the right to wear arms - a status that was saved until the early nineteenth century. At the same time, the privileged area “Hasekiyata” was founded. It included 17 villages, situated mainly along the Bosna ridge of the mountain. Muslims were not allowed to settle there.
In the early 17th century, started the collapse of the feudal system and the development of homesteading in the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the number of the Muslim population in Eastern Thrace highly decreased due to the constant wars led by the Empire and the frequent plague epidemics. This resulted in a strong demand for agricultural population by the Turkish agas and beys-chifliks, to deal with their vast desolate lands. Having been most hard-working, the Bulgarians were preferred settlers. In the late 17th c. and throughout the 18th c. Strandja and the Eastern Rhodopes were the major center for settlement of the Bulgarian ethnic group in the fertile plains of Eastern Thrace. Because of that during this period Bulgarian villages emerged all around Eastern Thrace as far as the walls of Constantinople.
Emigration to Russia
During the anarchy in Kardzhali (1785-1810), the population in Strandja was forced to go to Istanbul and Edirne in the south, or the Sozopol harbor in the north, where in 1806 and 1807 the whole Russian fleet transported refugees to the southern Russian ports. During this period, one of the most tragic moments in the history of the Strandja population took place, the so-called "Karaevrenska catastrophe" (1803, Bliznak village). The Kardzhali hordes lit the tower of the local spahee and several hundreds of people burned alive, including many women and children. This tragedy affected the people so much that they recreated it in dozens of folk songs and legends.
Meanwhile in Strandja and the surrounding lands were wandering the armed groups of Valchan and Indzhe. Legends about the treasure of the leader Valchan, hidden somewhere in the mountain caves, are still told nowadays.
The Bulgarian armed assistance to the Russians during the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29, and the return of the Turks caused a new wave of refugees, a lot bigger than the one in 1806-1807. Entire families and even villages emigrated. It is estimated that for a 30-year period (1800-1830), the number of emigrants from Southeastern Bulgaria, including Strandja, exceeds 130,000 people. Today there are dozens of villages of Thracian refugees in Southern Ukraine, Crimea and Moldova, many of which are named after the old settlements. One of the neighborhoods in the town of Nikolaev in Ukraine is called "Ternóvka", because 180 years ago refugees from the town of Malko Tarnovo settled there.
During the next decades of the Turkish rule, Muslim population / muhadzhiri / settled in the depopulated Bulgarian villages. Thus some of the Strandja villages at the end of the 19th century were entirely or predominantly Muslim, e.g. the villages Bliznak, Evrenozovo, Mladejko, Dingizovo / Moryane /.
National Liberty War
After the liberation of Bulgaria in 1878, the Treaty of Berlin returned Strandja to the Ottoman Empire. New emigration wave headed to the free Bulgaria, while the people who remained in Strandja and Eastern Thrace continued the fight for national freedom. Under the management of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), revolutionary committees were created across the whole mountain. There were military detachments and many battles. On June 29, 1903, in the "Pétrova niva" area IMRO decided to declare the Preobrazhenie Uprising. It broke out on August 5 (the Day of the Preobrazhenie of the Lord) in support of the Ilinden Uprising, which broke out two weeks earlier.
Without any chance of success against the overwhelming superiority of the enemy and in close proximity to the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the people from Strandja sacrificed themselves to help the rebels in Macedonia and to show the world their intransigence towards the slavery. For several days Strandja was set free. The epic struggle lasted for 26 days and it put a few thousand poorly armed rebels against the 40-thousand regular Turkish army and numerous irregulars. There was glow of fires over the mountain – more than 60 villages were burnt, and thousands of old men, women and children were killed or kidnapped. Three-quarters of the population left their homeland and found refuge in Bulgaria.
The final accession of today's Strandja to Bulgaria took place after the disastrous Second Balkan War in 1913, when to the kingdom of Bulgaria were added today’s municipalities of Tsarevo and Malko Tarnovo – tiny part of the land of Strandja and Eastern Thrace with predominantly Bulgarian population back then. The hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians who remained abroad were forced to leave their homelands and accept the fate of refugees in the free Bulgaria.
Thracian Cult Complex in Mishkova Niva
It is located on the southeastern slope of the Big Gradishte peak (710 m a.s.l.), about 3 km southwest of Malko Tarnovo. The complex included a tomb-sanctuary, a fortified building (Villa Rustika - home of the temple service people), a necropolis, ancient plumbing, a castle and a mine. The iconic building was also a tomb of the Thracian chieftain-priest and hero. In V-III c. BC the sanctuary was a dolmen with krepis. Later in II-III century AD, a monumental mausoleum was built around it- a place to pay respect to the mythical ancestor-hero, as well as a temple of the God Sun - Apollo. This temple played a key role in the religious life of the Thracian tribes in the whole mountain. The entire complex illustrates the transition from the dolmen to the tomb, and also the cultural connection with the Mycenaean period. A quadrilateral marble altar, discovered in the Mishkova niva area, attests for the old mining in this region. This proves that on the place of today's Malko Turnovo was located the center of the Roman metallurgical production in Strandja.
Thracian Necropolis and Tombs in the Propada Area
It is located 3 km northwest of Malko Tarnovo on the slope of a hill with about 40 burial mounds. The complex, consisting of four different types of tombs and cyst graves, functioned as a kind of "city of the dead" during the Hellenistic and the Roman ages. Coins were found in the graves made of marble blocks, testifying for the existence of the "Haronov obol" – a custom of paying for the passage of the dead through the underground river Styx. A small bronze coin (obol) was placed under the tongue of the person to be buried in order to pay Haron - the ferryman of the underworld. The archeological dating indicates that the site was last used in the IV century BC. The architecture of the domed tomb on the top of the hill fully corresponds with the dated V - III c. BC Thracian cult buildings under a mound. It was used many times in the period up to the IV century AD.
Thracian Rock Sanctuary in "Kamenska Barchina"
It is located 10 km away from Malko Tarnovo on the way to Tsarevo. The sanctuary was declared a natural monument. Its name comes from the dialect and means stone hill. As in many other cultures, in the Thracian civilization the stone was a symbol of the divine power, the lasting and the eternal. The sanctuary is a complex of interesting formations of rare for Strandja conglomerate rocks among impressive panoramic views. One of the rocks has the shape of a mushroom, whose base has a narrow slit. It is believed that the person who successfully crawls through the slit will get rid of all diseases and will be healthy all year round. "Solar circles" associated with the solar cult and God Apollo are carved on another high rock, illuminated by the sun all day. The round altars carved almost everywhere in the rocks were used to prepare the "holy wine" and to perform sacrifices by libation liquids (water, milk, wine, blood).
Archaeoastronomical investigations indicate that at least since 2500 BC the rising of the Sun God has been observed in the summer solstice at this place and important rituals for the Orphic religious-philosophical system of the ancient Thracians were performed.
Four kilometers away from the sanctuary is the Kachul area, in which there is a hunting lodge of The National Hunting Station - Gramatikovo and Arboretum. There are marked trails from Kachul area that lead to two of the most sacred places in Strandja - Indipasha and Golyamata Ayazma (The Great Holy Spring).
Remains of a Fortress Wall
Back in ancient times Ahtopol was surrounded by a massive wall, which at places was 10 meters high and 1.5 to 2 meters wide. It was built on the edge of the rocky coast of the peninsula and fortified with towers. The remains of at least two of them can be seen on the southwest side. Most probably the main gate of the fortress was located there as well. During a strong earthquake in the Hellenistic era, part of the wall collapsed into the sea, and it still can be seen there today. The medieval fortification was almost completely destroyed by the Turks after the final conquest of the city in the fifteenth century.
Remains of the St. Yani Monastery Complex
Going south of Ahtopol and around the harbor bay one will end at the opposite hill, whose shores also descend steeply to the sea. The half-destroyed St. Yani Church is situated at the highest point of the hill. The date of construction has not been defined. Only the eastern part of the single-nave building has been preserved - the apse with the altar space, which is separated from the ship by a massive wall, cut by two holes.
It is located 4 kilometers north of Bulgari village, on a naturally fortified hill confined by steep western and southern inclines and a precipice to the north. The fortress covers an area of about 11 ha. The finds discovered in the region around the fortress allow us to assume that it was most probably built in the beginning of the VI century, during the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-518).
The wall of the fortress, which is built by stone blocks without welding, follows the crest of the hill. Its width is between 2.8 and 3 meters, and it reaches a height of 0.2 to 1.5 meters (6-7 rows of stones) in the excavated sections.
It was included in the structure of the third barrage line formed in Strandja – an essential element of the Byzantine defense. The fortress was occupied by army garrisons only in times of severe threat, as represented by the large Slavic and Avar attacks on the Balkan Peninsula in the VI century. A small church was erected on the highest place of the construction, with a comprehensive panorama of the region.
The first stage of exploitation of the fortress ended in the VI century, and the second - in the period XI-XII centuries.
A necropolis (V-VI century) consisting of about 20 mounds is located 150 meters from its western wall.
Ethnographic aspect and population
Strandja region is inhabited by three ethnographic groups – ruptsi, tronki and zagortsi. For centuries they have lived in a close daily cultural relationship.
The territory of Strandja Nature Park is inhabited only by people from the ruptsi etnographic group.
The Strandja (eastern) ruptsi are considered one of the oldest Bulgarian population in SoutheasternThrace. Even today, this group takes up the largest territory in Strandja, though due to depopulation of the villages its number is constantly decreasing. The Malko Tarnovo and Tsarevo municipalities, the southern part of Primorsko municipality, as well as several villages in Sredets municipality are entirely composed of ruptsi. Their everyday life, manner of speaking and certain looking at things bear resemblance to that of the community of ruptsi in the Rhodopes. The folk culture of the ruptsi abounds mostly with remnants from the religion and ritual system of the pre-literature era of social development of Southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. The Christian layers over the culture here are not always able to hide the ancient substratum. On the other hand, the dialects of the ruptsi (the largest dialect group in Bulgaria) are much closer to the Cyril-Methodius (Old Church Slavonic) language. The dialect of the Strandja ruptsi has some ancient Slavic words like: „podzima” (autumn), „domovit” (wealthy), „iznik” (sunrise), „brustya” (cut off hornbeam branches as food for animals), “zhelva” (turtle), etc. There is also a small group of words of Greek and Roman origin: „harcoma” (copper boiler), „lahana” (cabbage), „skala” (wooden ladder), „mesal” (tablecloth), and others. This vocabulary exhibits language traces from the earlier contacts with the local population in the southern confines of the Balkan Peninsula – making reference to the names of everyday objects, whose terminology is quite stable and does not easily succumb to foreign influences.
Researchers derive the etymology of the name “ruptsi” from “rupa”, which in the dialect of the Strandja and the Rhodopes ruptsi means old mining shaft, furrow in the ground. Even more so, there is an old tradition in the mining and metal working in both Strandja and the Rhodopes, and the territory of both mountains is saturated with traces of ancient mining treatments.
The old ruptsi settlements in Strandja are: Rezovo, Bulgari, Kondolovo, Gramatikovo, Slivarovo, Malko Tarnovo, Brashlyan, Zvezdets, Stoilovo, Biala voda, Kalovo, Zabernovo, Vizitsa (the expatriations of the ruptsi population from the mountain throughout the different eras are not included). After the Second Balkan War (1913), the population of ruptsi from the Central and Southern Strandja, and Eastern Thrace settled in the northwestern outskirts of the region – in the Evrenozovo, Bliznak, Mladejko, and Belevren villages as well as in the coastal areas Ahtopol, Vasiliko (Tsarevo), Kalandzha (Sinemorets), Kosti, Brodilovo, Varvara, Fazanovo, Kiten, and Primorsko.
The main livelihood of this ethnographic group was the highly developed animal husbandry, the mobile sheep-breeding, and the not so developed mountainous agriculture. Secondary in importance were the woodmanship, the ore mining and the burning of charcoal, which is associated with metal working.
The second largest ethnographic group in Strandja after the ruptsi are the tronki, from the word “tronka” (small), which the population in this area uses often. It is bordered by the rupska area to the west, which includes the villages along the upper stream of Fakiiska river and continues south to Lozengrad (today’s Kurklareli in Turkey). The tronki villages are nowadays located in the mountainous part of the municipality of Sredets – Momina church, Fakia, Kirovo, Golyamo Bukovo, Gorno and Dolno Yabulkino, and others. The dialectological studies show that among the tronki there are older settlers from the western Bulgarian lands (Kyustendil, Sofia, Ihtiman).
The main livelihood of the tronki was agriculture, which was largely due to the favorable natural and geographic conditions in the area. Secondary in importance were the sheep-breeding and cattle-breeding.
The representatives of the third ethnographic group in Strandja – the zagortsi – inhabit the northern and western outskirts of the mountain – the area known as Ravna gora. The population of the Strandja settlements Sredets, Chernomorests, Zidarovo, Rosen, Ravna gora is also composed of zagortsi. Most of our historians believe that the zagortsi in Thrace are Mizian settlers from Southeastern Bulgaria, which is also suggested by their name – “zagortsi” – coming from behind the mountains.
The livelihood of the settlements of zagortsi is characterized by intensive agricultural activity and well-developed stock-breeding (cattle-breeding and sheep-breeding).
The three ethnographic groups in Strandja also differ from one another by some calendar customs, and the associated with them rituals sang in local versions for each of the three groups – „Yanyovoto boule”, „Butterfly”, „Kukers”.
Along with the other features, the female rupska costume differs from the tronska and zagorska ones mostly by the purple (violet-red) apron for the older women and the scarlet (knikata) apron for the young girls, with two parallel white stripes at the bottom.
Today, the territory of Strandja Nature Park hosts 21 settlements with a population of about 7,000 people. The entire municipality of Malko Tarnovo, the majority of Tsarevo municipality and a very small part of Primorsko municipality fall within the borders of the protected area.
Ethnographically speaking, the population on the territory of the Park belongs almost entirely to the southern rupska community.
After the formation of the Bulgarian nation (ІХ – Х century), and regardless of the ups and downs, events and trials of time, up until 1913, the entire mountain (with the exception of small coastal areas) has always been of a predominantly Bulgarian character.