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#Deities, #gods venerated at what is today #StaraZagora’s #Museum of #Religions for millennia

#Deities, #gods venerated at what is today #StaraZagora’s #Museum of #Religions for millennia

In Bulgaria, there are many locations that have started as a pagan shrine only to be later repurposed by Christians and/or Muslims. It seems that a spectre of sanctity lingers over certain spots, inspiring generations of people to  pray there.

One of these places is Bulgaria’s perhaps most illuminating museum. The Museum of Religions in Stara Zagora is in an old, former mosque built on site of earlier pagan shrines and a medieval church.

Understandably, the history of this curious site is strongly connected to the history of Stara Zagora itself.

In the 10th-9th centuries BC the Thracians chose this location for a pit shrine. This type of cult compound was quite common in southeastern Europe in those times. These shrines consisted of large pits, where believers would pour wine, throw in cult figurines or reliefs, food and ritually slaughtered animals and even sacrificed men, women and children. Pit shrines are believed to have been dedicated to a chthonic deity, in this case probably the nameless Great Goddess of the Thracians.

In the 2nd-3rd centuries AD a new one, a temple to the Thracian Rider, was built right over it. At that time the Roman Augusta Traiana was one of the empire’s major cities in the region. The horseman was one of the most popular deities of the Thracians.

People stopped visiting the shrine when Christianity arrived and the ancient city was replaced by a fortified mediaeval town, Beroe – they converted the location into a burial ground with its own church, which was in use until the 13th century.

In 1407-1408, the most imposing mosque of the city was built there. Covered with a single dome with a diameter of 17 metres, it is still one of the largest mosques in modern Bulgaria. It remained a centre of religious activity for centuries, absorbing older religious remains into its structure (at a certain point ancient Roman tombstones were used for the construction of a porch) and surviving a devastating fire in 1856.

After a short period as a church, the mosque was a Muslim place of prayer until the early 1970s, when the city centre was entirely redesigned. In 1976, the building was declared a “national architectural and construction monument of the Antiquity and the Middle Ages.”

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