On the Trail of the Next Esoteric Quest: Plovdiv – City of Mystery and Antiquity
by Ralph White
As many readers of this column know, the Open Center has produced a series of conferences on the Western Esoteric Tradition for the last twenty five years. During that time we have met in the Southern Bohemian mecca of alchemists, the castles of the Cathars in Languedoc, the library of Alexandria in Egypt and many other locations of spiritual significance.
Just a few weeks ago I found myself in Plovdiv, Bulgaria on the trail of the next Esoteric Quest. Plovdiv is not a name that is widely known in the West but it is, in fact, the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe and it will also be the European Capital of Culture in 2019. People have lived there for over 6,000 years and it is one of the most archeologically rich and historically diverse places I have ever been. Its obscurity harkens back to the very first Quest which we produced in the post-communist world of the Czech Republic in the tiny town of Cesky Krumlov, then known to very few in the United States but now recognized as a place of genuine magic and mysticism.
Those who feel connected to the stories of Orpheus, the legendary musician, and poet of Ancient Thrace and Greece, will find in the Rodopi Mountains of Bulgaria, south of Plovdiv, a deep source of inspiration. I was fortunate enough to descend into the great cavern in the Trigrad Gorge on the border of Greece and Bulgaria, where Orpheus is said to have descended into the Underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Euryidice. In this huge, dimly lit cave, I heard the powerful sound of a great underground river plunging into the depths of the earth, its roar echoing around a huge chamber illuminated only by a few lamps. One could easily imagine Orpheus’ great courage in seeking to enter the forbidden place in the cause of love,
And indeed we expect that the culture and mythology of Thrace will be a central focus of our next Quest. The archeological museums in Bulgaria are filled with the most ancient artefacts – Great Mother figurines from 35,000 years ago, the first indications of writing in the form of scratches on bone or stone, and the earliest traces of civilization among the Thracian tribes who are said to have entered this area millennia ago from somewhere to the East.
More recently, Plovdiv was known as Philipopolous after the father of Alexander the Great, who conquered Thrace in his expansion of Macedonia. Recent excavations have discovered a Roman coliseum, almost the size of the one in Rome, under the city, and classical architecture appears in multiple unlikely corners of this city.
But the spiritual fascination of this city goes way beyond antiquity. In the early Middle Ages, 200,000 Paulicians, predecessors of the gnostic Christian Cathars in Languedoc in the South of France, were brought here by the Byzantine Empire. The Hidden Tradition in Europe, as it has been called, flourished in this corner of the Balkans before spreading West to the Bogomils of Bosnia and Sarajevo and adds to the mystery of this relatively unknown corner of Europe.
For five hundred years, Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottoman Turks and only became independent in the late 19th Century. So one can find in corners of the old city Mevlevi Sufi places of worship with images of whirling dervishes. Some coffee shops feel as if they could be straight from the back streets of Istanbul. Yet if you walk around a corner and enter a small, dark, wooden doorway, you are suddenly transported into the transcendent icons of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the atmosphere of devotion that has permeated such ancient places for a thousand years throughout the Ottoman period and, of course, the struggles of the communist era from World War Two to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I have had the good fortune to travel much of the world, often on an Esoteric Quest of some kind. But I have rarely encountered a place so otherworldly as Plovdiv. This deeply intriguing corner of South East Europe is packed with spiritual treasures that were buried for centuries under imperial rule of one sort or another. Now they await rediscovery by intrepid questers, eager to excavate the lost esoteric history of the Balkans.
Such adventurers are, in fact, rewarded, on the material plane through the Thracian wisdom of wine-making. Thousands of years ago the devotees of Orpheus and Dionysus embraced the gifts of the vine and worked with nature to perfect outstanding wine for use in their ceremonies. Today, a visitor to Bulgaria can easily enjoy the fruits of their labors, and the resultant exhilaration offers a traditional doorway to the mysteries of this fascinating, multi-layered, warm-hearted and often overlooked realm.