National Treasure ... Nothing Special

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by TianjinPaul on November 24, 2012

It didn't take long for me to realise that people in the eastern areas of Bulgaria see the Madara horseman as something of a big deal. My girlfriend explained to me that after Bulgaria was voted into the EU, the country took a vote on which image would be put onto 1 Euro coins that would be minted in Bulgaria. The horseman won in a landslide. It is also on the cover of most tourist brochures and is advertised around the region. However, I have to admit, I found it somewhat disappointing.

The first – and most crucial aspect – of my disappointment was the size. On many of the roadside billboards and in the tourist brochures, the horseman looks magnificent, resplendent and above all, large. I had visions of him being akin to a Bulgarian version of Mount Rushmore. I was proved wrong. The actual figure cut into the side of the mountain is barely two or three meters in width. There is also a large section of blue scaffolding below it to allow access (although visitors are not allowed on it without permission) which obscures the view somewhat and distracts from the horseman's impact.

The history of the horseman is a little mysterious. There are two or three different schools of thought as to its significance. It is generally accepted that the carving dates to around 710 and depicts a horseman spearing a lion at its feet. This is understood to be symbolic of Bulgaria exerting its superiority over the Byzantine empire. This is thought to stem from victory over the Byzantine's in the 680s and the Byzantine emperor subsequently asking the Bulgarian khan for assistance in conflict with Arabs. It was thought to be have been commissioned by Khan Tervel who also received the title of 'Khesar' from the Byzantines.

Much of the history surrounding the horseman cannot be refuted. Bulgaria did gain independence from the Byzantines in 680 and did go to the aid of the emperor in the early 700s. It was Tervel who was the Khan at the time and it is logical to assume he commissioned the carving. However, there are several schools of thought. Some suggest it was created later in Tervel's honour. UNESCO, who categorised it as a world heritage site, can only confirm the date of creation was at some point in the eight century. This lack of clarity surrounding the facts has spawned something of a cottage industry in books and theories with two or three professors espousing their own theories. One of these professors has retired from his day-job and now actually sits at the horseman to offer his views to tourists. We found that he would give his views whether we were interested or not as he interjected whilst my girlfriend explained the history as she had been taught it at school to me. This made for a rather dull ten minutes as he went into laborious detail and my girlfriend translated before telling me as we left that she thought his ideas were a load of hocum.

All-in-all, the horseman was interesting, but disappointing. It was small and we could not get particularly close. I found that the mystery over its creation was far more interesting than the carving itself.
Madara Rider/Madara Horseman
Madara Plateau East of Shumen
Village of Madara, Northeastern Bulgaria
088 5288299

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