submerged thracian city.jpg

The Thracian city of Seuthopolis was submerged under the waters of Koprinka Dam

At first glance, it is a strange question. The Thracians, who have left such an ample heritage of monumental tombs, rock shrines and rich treasures, must have built cities, too. Yet there are few settlement sites of the Thracians you can visit today – many of them were lost due to their unambitious architecture, were destroyed by earthquakes and invaders, or drowned under dams. 

By the middle of the 2nd Millennium BC, the people in Thrace were still living in the old tells, or mounds, created by centuries of constant habitation, like the one at Karanovo, near Nova Zagora. But the economy of Thrace changed between the 16th and the 12th centuries BC, during the Late Bronze Age: the old tools of arsenical bronze were replaced with the more effective implements and weapons of tin bronze. The change produced a new way of living – people abandoned the tells and moved to open settlements, in the plains and close to rivers. 

These new settlements were simple and spacious, and lacked any building designs and even basic fortifications - outer walls, moats or ramparts. They had no more than a handful of houses, each with its own small yard, and existed for short periods. Their inhabitants, mostly itinerant farmers, would eagerly leave and move to another place. 

The fashion of these settlements lingered in Thrace throughout the 1st Millennium BC and survived until the Romans arrived. 

In the second half of the 2nd Millennium BC, another type of settlement appeared in the Thracian lands. Fortified settlements began to appear on naturally protected heights in the mountains and hilly regions. The biggest number of these has been found in the Rhodope, the Sakar, the Strandzha and the Stara Planina mountains. 

Lion's Head Thracian settlement

The Thracians built a mighty fortress, Chengersko or Valchanovo Kale, at the top of the Lion's Head rock, in the Ropotamo nature reserve

Some of these forts were used by the people living in the nearby open settlements as refuges in times of danger. Others were guarding strategic mountain passes, and a third group was the home of miners – for example, the fortified settlement of the people who dug for gold in the ancient mine at Ada Tepe locality, near Krumovgrad, in the Rhodope. Local warlords and tribal chieftains are supposed to have lived in these primitive fortresses. 

Interestingly, archaeologists have discovered that there was another type of settlements in Thrace. They appeared around popular megalithic shrines, like the ones at Perperikon and Gluhite Kamani, in the Rhodope. 

No matter where the Thracians lived, their houses looked pretty much the same. They were either huts or half-dug-out shelters, small, with one or two rooms. Lightweight materials like beams, twigs and clay were mainly used for building, and few houses had stone foundations. As a result, the remains of Thracian settlements are now hard to find. Archaeologists feel lucky if they come across a burned-down settlement as the fire turned the twigs and the mud walls into more durable clay, providing a humble yet readable trace testifying that people used to live in this place.

The interior of the early Thracian houses was as humble as their exterior. There was a clay hearth, a set of millstones for grinding grain, some pottery. Sometimes, flat stones were used as tables. 

This frugal lifestyle began to change in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, when the first true Thracian states emerged, trade intensified, the standard of living of the elite improved, and Greek craftsmen and fashions permeated into Thrace. 

The first Thracian kings began to build fortified residences; the Greek historian Theopompus writes that the Thracian king Cotys I (383-359 BC) travelled across his realm and built temporary residences in places with plenty of wood and an abundance of water sources. 

These settlements were small, built atop high, naturally protected hills. The best examples of these are the fortresses in the Sredna Gora mountain: Kozi Gramadi, near Hisarya; Smilovene, near Koprivshtitsa; and Vasil Levski, near Karlovo. Their massive walls were made of huge boulders, and reached base widths of up to 3 m. Another settlement of the type has been found at the foot of the Sakar mountain, near the village of Knyazhevo. It was a significant strategic and economic centre. 

The rock city of Perperikon

The rock city of Perperikon

Research of these settlements is still in progress, but preliminary data shows that the Thracians aimed at more impressive architecture – some of the buildings in these fortresses had at least two storeys. 

To protect their statelets and their trade, the Thracians continued building fortifications along vital routes. Their remains have been found near Chertigrad, in the Etropole area; Leskovets, near Berkovitsa; and Golyam Ostrets, near Troyan, and others. 

The first genuine cities began to emerge in Thrace in this period. They were built according to architectural designs, with a number of administrative, religious and palatial buildings, and had streets and sewages. Most of these cities are now found in southern Thrace, along the courses of the then navigable Maritsa and Tundzha rivers: Cabyle, near Yambol; Philippopolis (today's Plovdiv); Pistiros, near Vetren. 

Some of these cities were created to serve as political centres. Others appeared around venerated shrines or important trade centres. Pistiros, for example, was actually an emporion, or a market place, founded by Greeks who had reached deep into Thrace. 

The fortified areas of these cities varied, covering between 12 acres (Seuthopolis) and 125 acres (Cabyle). They had towers, bastions, fortified gates and sometimes moats. Walls were of mud bricks and had stone foundations. Eaves of tiles provided protection from rainfall. Throughout the centuries, however, the elements got the upper hand, and today only the foundations survive from these once-strong fortifications. The best preserved examples of Thracian fortifications from this period are at Pernik and Pistiros. 

Between the final decades of the 4th and the middle of the 3rd centuries BC, the cities in Thrace thrived and new ones appeared. The most thoroughly researched of them was Seuthopolis, near Kazanlak, which is now under the waters of the Koprinka Dam. 

Seuthopolis was founded by King Seuthes III (330-300/295 BC) after the fashion popular among the Hellenistic rulers of the time. The city was built in accordance with the architecture on the Eastern Mediterranean, and was probably designed by Greek architects and urban planners. Seuthopolis had a square and a royal residence, the houses of the wealthy citizens were spacious, with colonnaded atriums. 

Thracian Plovdiv

A Thracian fortress has been built upon with later fortifications, on Nebettepe Hill, in Plovdiv. In 342 BC, King Philip II of Macedon took the city, but soon afterwards it regained independence and became one of the strongholds of the Thracian Odrysian kingdom

But one city was not designed after this fashion: the city at Sboryanovo, which was probably Helis, the capital of the Getae. Safety was of utmost importance there, and its inhabitants lived behind the protection of two defence walls. 

The layouts of the Thracian settlements, together with the finds, shed light on how society has stratified. The cities and the fortresses were the homes of the nobility and the kings and their retinues. The craftsmen used to live in the outer neighbourhoods, and the villagers inhabited the open settlements. 

The internal fights between the Thracian tribes and the chronic inability of the Thracians to unite under a common political representative strangled the further development of urban life in Thrace during the last centuries of the 1st Millennium BC. Both Seuthopolis and Helis were abandoned less than 75 years after they were founded, and were never revived. 

The economic and political crisis of this period played a significant role in the decline of Thracian city life and settlements. This continued until the 1st Century AD, when the Romans took over, and imposed on local people their own system of governance, with cities, military camps and market places.