Bulgaria as a country, if not a state, has been around for a while. Established in 681, it was an offshoot of the few viable Barbarian lands and federations that popped up in Europe, wreaked havoc, and disintegrated in the tumultuous times between the end of Antiquity and the start of the Middle Ages. In the centuries that followed, Bulgaria experienced both periods of triumph and moments of despair, and it ceased to exist as a political entity for 700 years under Byzantine and Ottoman domination. Amazingly, while time passed, wars raged, and peoples moved in and out, a silent witness to the beginnings of Bulgaria was shaped in rock, braving human oblivion and nature’s destructive forces of rain and sun, heat and cold.
The Madara Horseman was carved at a height of 23 meters into the vertical rocks of the Madara plateau, a couple of kilometers from Pliska, the first capital that Bulgarians established south of the Danube. Accompanied by a dog, an eagle on his shoulder, the rider is on the hunt for a lion. Three inscriptions in Greek surround his eternal hunt, capturing the words and deeds of early Bulgarian rulers.
Who exactly made the Madara Horseman is lost to history. When the Czech traveler and historian Konstantin Jireček visited, in the 1880s, the locals believed that the relief marked the burial place of a Latin (read “Catholic” or “Western European”) king who fell from the rocks during a hunt. Jireček himself thought that the ancient Thracians had carved the Madara Horseman. It is true that the ancient peoples who inhabited what is now Bulgaria between the 2nd millennium BC and the 6th century AD venerated a divine rider and depicted him on votive plaques, gold vessels, and funeral murals. The possibility that the ancient Thracians had carved the mysterious Madara rider relief appeared logical.
However, Jireček was wrong.
Detailed examination of the image reveals a high-back saddle and stirrups. Both made long-distance riding more comfortable and were developed by nomadic people in the Asia steppes. They were unknown in Europe before these Barbarians arrived from the East, in the 4th-7th centuries, the thunder of their horses’ hoofs heralding the end of Antiquity. Early Bulgarians were a part of this wave and caused terror in “civilized” Byzantium with their horsemanship, their skill in fighting and shooting arrows from horseback, and their battle tactics that combined the terror of the frontal attack of hundreds of galloping animals with the cunning of the false retreat.
To carve a relief so large and at such a height was a massive endeavor possible only for a man of considerable power. Historians suggest that an early Bulgarian ruler commissioned the Madara Horseman as a symbol of his control over the newly conquered land. This ruler was most probably Khan Tervel (700-721). He was the son of Asparukh, the man who led Bulgarians south of the Danube and humiliated the Byzantines into accepting a treaty that recognized Bulgaria’s existence as a political entity. Tervel was as formidable as his father. He actively and successfully meddled in Byzantium’s never-ending game of thrones and when Constantinople was besieged by the Arabs and close to surrender, Tervel came to the rescue and put a stop to the invasion.
The earliest inscription beside the Madara Horseman is by Tervel. Dated 705, it retells with calm dignity how the Bulgarian khan helped a deposed Byzantine emperor to retake his throne. The other two inscriptions share this sentiment and were left by the two other emblematic early Bulgarian rulers, Krum (803-814) and Omurtag (814-831). The inscriptions were in Greek as they were written before Bulgarians had their own script.
Omurtag also created a large religious compound around the Madara Horseman. This increased the spiritual and symbolic value of the place and demonstrated to everyone that the Bulgarians were invaders no more. They were here to stay, settled and comfortable in their new homeland.
In a trend that recurs in the Bulgarian lands with the arrival of each new settler group, this sanctuary did not arise from the empty ground. The ancient Thracians had had their own shrine there, just under the early Medieval relief, where they venerated water nymphs in a shallow cave with a sacred spring.
The Madara Horseman became the physical manifestation of the blending of the different peoples who, in the early Middle Ages, developed into what became modern Bulgarians. Only Slavs, the third constituent element of the Bulgarian people, are missing. In these early years, few of them lived around Pliska and Madara, the stronghold of the early Bulgarians.
The Madara Horseman probably lost some of its symbolic power as Bulgarians adopted Christianity in the 860s, moved their capital to nearby Preslav, in 893, and redefined themselves as a Christian nation. Time passed, memories faded, and new settlers arrived. Among them were Turks, who settled in the region after Bulgaria fell to the Ottomans in the late 14th century, and today they still make up a significant proportion of the population of this region.
When Bulgarian statehood was restored, in 1878, historical interest in the old capitals of Pliska and Preslav intensified, as they were recognized as powerful symbols of the “eternal rebirth” of the nation, and a chance to restore the glory of the past. Once the early Bulgarians were identified as the true creators of the Madara Horseman, its symbolic importance grew. In the 1930s and the early 1940s, when nationalism ran high in Bulgaria, the horseman, misidentified as a portrait of Khan Krum, appeared on coins.
The Madara Horseman preserved its grip on the popular imagination under Communism, whose historians for some time downplayed the role of early Bulgarians in the foundation of the Bulgarian state, and focused their attention instead on the more politically correct Slavs (because of “brotherhood” with the USSR). In 1979, the Madara Horseman was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. Two years later, when Bulgaria celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its foundation, the rider featured on the reverse of a commemorative 2-leva coin.
After Communism collapsed and scientific and popular interest in the early Bulgarians grew, the relief remained in the spotlight. The hypothesis that it was made by the ancient Thracians reappeared, too, as it was believed to “prove” that the Bulgarian people were much older than previously thought. In 2008, Bulgarians who voted in a populist campaign to choose the symbol of their country elected the Madara Horseman over the oil-bearing rose, Tsarevets Fortress, the Cyrillic alphabet, and Rila Monastery.
Against the background of this complicated but captivating story visiting the actual Madara Horseman might be a bit of an anticlimax. The centuries have taken their toll, and most of the time the relief is barely visible. Cracks in the limestone surface threaten to obliterate this ancient depiction of Bulgaria’s might forever, and nobody seems to care.
The huge Madara cave is hidden at the end of a short path that is sometimes closed for “safety reasons.” Water still drips and overflows from the ancient stone pools, and creepers hang, glistening with damp, as they did millennia ago.
The place is heavy with symbolism. Decode it as you wish.