Worn-out streets and strong fortifications, spacious villas and spectacular mosaics: the remains of Bulgaria's Roman heritage are diverse, a multi-layered glimpse into this country's past. And yet, there is a gaping hole in this rich canvas of long-gone life. While hundreds of sculptures, reliefs and mosaics depicting old deities, gods and goddesses have survived, bearing witness to Roman Bulgaria's religious landscape, only a handful of temples can be visited.
The most atmospheric of these is located near Kasnakovo, an ordinary, uninteresting village near Dimitrovgrad, surrounded by the rolling hills of southeastern Bulgaria.
Kasnakovo's ancient Roman shrine is small, yet stunning, as it is evidence of both the millennia-spanning religious traditions of the region and of the life and deeds of a particular person who lived 1,800 years ago.
From a hill overgrown with lush greenery springs water. Long before the arrival of the Romans, the local Thracians believed that these three springs had healing properties and were inhabited by nymphs, mythical creatures believed to live in water.
Under the Romans, in the 2nd century AD, a soldier of Thracian origin named Titus Flavius Beithykenthos, son of Esbeneios, reached the end of his 30-year military career. As was the practice in those times, Titus was given state land and became a prosperous landowner. The spring was part of his new property.
Titus Flavius decided to enhance the shrine. The springs were tamed, their waters caught in three arched artificial caves in the rocks. A colonnade was built. An inscription above the central spring instructed the visitor that the shrine belonged to Aphrodite and the nymphs, and was built by Titus Flavius and his wife, Claudia Montana.
Inscription by Titus Flavius, the retired soldier who turned Kasnakovo's sacred spring into a popular shrine in the 2nd century
Aphrodite and the nymphs probably showed some benevolence to Titus Flavius and his family: the remains of a luxurious villa on a neighbouring hill point to prosperity extending for several generations of the family.
The sanctuary also grew, attracting a significant number of worshippers as the years went by. Accommodation for pilgrims appeared, as well as a theatre-shaped precinct, probably for some kind of performances.
When Antiquity ended and pagan cults were banned, the shrine fell into disrepair and its most imposing buildings disappeared, but the sanctuary was not forgotten. The stories of its healing waters remained in local memory, and people continued to visit and pay their respects to the divine creatures that inhabited the springs.
Even today, they gather around the springs on Spasovden, or the Feast of the Ascension, on the 40th day after Easter. They light candles by the waters, and sacrifice a lamb. It is hardly a coincidence that in Bulgarian folklore Spasovden marks the beginning of the Rusalii Week. The Rusalii are supernatural creatures that love water and have healing powers, a later incarnation of the ancient nymphs.
The Nymphaeum at Kasnakovo was first excavated in 1945-1946; in 1968 it was declared a monument of national significance.
Today, the springs in the only Nymphaeum surviving in Bulgaria continue to babble in their artificial caves. The location is as idyllic as it was in Antiquity, with greenery and vast skies, and frogs jumping around the sacred waters of the nymphs.
Ancient marble decorations still surround the sacred waters of the nymphs
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.