11 December 2010

The Bizarre Belogradchik Rocks

The western slopes of the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria are home to a bizarre rock formation which has fascinated and intrigues both locals and visitors alike for thousands of years. Often reaching several hundred meters in height they vary in shade, as do the many legends which surround them.

The nearest town to the formation is Belogradchik and it is from this pretty town of seven thousand people that the name is also taken. The Balkans are full of myth and legends and no place echoes with the mythology and folklore of the region more than the Belogradchik Rocks.

The formation is made from limestone, sandstone and conglomerates. These are composed of fragments or clasts of pre-existing rock bound together in a matrix and sedimentary in nature. Sedimentation happens when rock particles which are in suspension are removed from the fluid in which they are contained and form rock.

The different compositions of the formation are reflected in their wonderful and divers shades of color which vary from a rich red to a pale yellow with plenty of grey too. Over the millennia the rocks have been weathered by the elements so that they resemble objects or even people. A Bulgarian Natural Landmark, if ghosts exist this place will have them aplenty.

What makes the place even more interesting is the location of the fortress, set within the rock formation. It too takes its name from the town of Belogradchik but it is also known as Kaleto from the Turkish for fortress – a name which echoes the place’s Ottoman past. An almost impenetrable stronghold, it is the Helm’s Deep of Bulgaria.

Spread over an area of more than 50 square kilometers the central group of rocks in the formation is to the south of the town – and this is where the visitors flock. There you have rocks which bear names such as Adam and Eve, the Dervish, the goddess Bendida and the Rebel Velko.

There are four other groups of rocks which make up the formation as a whole. The Permian period of around 230 years ago saw the beginning of the formation when the Balkan Mountains were formed by the tectonic cycle. The whole region was elevated, yet it later became the floor of a shallow see in the following Triassic period.

During this time many rocks were destroyed to gravel, clay and sand. This mixture was deposited in to the sea basin by the local rivers. Over a vast period of time the sediment piled up and became the thick layers of sandstone and conglomerates that we see today. These have been shaped and rounded over time by the sheer force of water against it.

The Jurassic period saw the layered materials bonded together and the climate became dry and hot. This then produced a great deal of iron oxide, whence the formation gets it occasional reddish color. The slowly settling crust then meant that the lighter sandstone amalgamated with the conglomerates.

The dawn of the Neozoic period saw the area turn to dry land. As the land folded the conglomerates and limestone cracked, which created large rifts in the local geological structure known as an anticline, of which the Belogradchik area is one. The way this happened encouraged erosion in the area to be vertical so that the rock shape was systematically changed to create the small valleys and passes that we see today.

Science aside, stories abound about various parts of the formation. One part of the formation is known as The Madonna. The story goes that this is the remnant of a nun whose beauty caused great envy among her peers. One day, during a festival, a handsome young nobleman appeared and the two began an illicit affair.

Like all illicit affairs of legend, theirs was discovered. The nun (now with baby) was expelled from her convent. Yet as she left the sky turned dark and a cataclysmic event destroyed the convent. The nun, her child, the monks who had judged her together with her young noble lover were all turned in to stone.

Another part of the formation is known as The Schoolgirl. This young woman fell in love with a blacksmith but her old teacher – a hunchbacked dervish – was jealous of this love. One day he followed her to a local spring and attacked her.

The girl managed to flee but turning a corner she ran in to an angry bear. Still pursued the girl had a choice – to be attacked by her ursine enemy or to succumb to rape. She chose to be eaten by the bear but as this was about to happen the sky turned dark.

All that was heard was three cries – that of the girl, the bear and the dervish. Then nothing, silence. When the light returned all three had been turned to stone.

These stories form part of the fascinating mythology and folklore which surrounds the Belogradchik Rocks. Even without them the place is an amazing discovery for the visitor. Yet stories like these add to the character of the place, giving it an edge which borders on the sinister. So the delight of sightseer is heightened even further by these spooky legends of the rocks.