To see god in a lake

The Asclepeion at the Glava Panega river spring exudes mystic power to this day

Votive plates of Asclepius and Hygieia.

One hundred kilometres to the northeast of Sofia, by the village of Zlatna Panega, is situated one of the few sanctuaries dedicated to god Asclepius which are found on Bulgarian lands. It is located right by the Glava Panega river spring and is one the most significant and well-studied Thracian sanctuaries. The water springs from a triangular cavity and forms a small lake. The river itself is named after goddess Panacea, daughter of Asclepius, healer of all illnesses.

The entire region is built of karst rocks, which explains the turquoise colour of the water that creates a special atmosphere of mystery and secrecy. From Thracian times to the present day people believe that the local water has healing power. In the immediate proximity to the spring, on the eastern bank of the lake, there are two caves called Lower Hole (Dolnata Dupka) and Upper Hole (Gornata Dupka). Traces of a Slavic sanctuary were found in the Lower Hole and in the Upper Hole there was another one which dates back to the 2nd-3rd century. Close to the spring, on the eastern bank of the lake, were found remains of a small settlement dated to the late Iron Age.

The sanctuary is not related to a settlement of the same period which existed at the same place, that is why it is assumed it played the role of a cult hub for a much larger region encompassing both the borderline northern parts of the province of Thrace and parts of Lower Moesia. Its architecture has a simplified planning characteristic of most of the extra-urban sanctuaries and a second rectangular building is added to it. Most probably it emerged around the middle of the 2nd century because the oldest artefacts found in the region are dated to that time.

During the archaeological excavations near the spring, a votive plate was found featuring god of medicine Asclepius along with his daughter Hygieia and his son, god Telesphorus. Usually asclepeions were built by springs considered to be healing. The very sanctuary consists of a temple (“god's abode”), a gallery engirdling it, which was a place for worship, and a spring or a pool for bathing or purging the ailing. The building interpreted as a temple is oriented to the east while the entrance is on the eastern side, opening to the lake.

A local legend tells about a shepherd who took his herd to the Rila Mountain close to one of the Rila Lakes. One day he threw his crook at a naughty sheep but it fell into the lake and disappeared. Unfortunately the shepherd had cached in the crook everything he had saved for a rainy day. Having lost his wealth he felt desperate and set out to wander about the world until he reached the spring at Glava Panega. Much to his surprise there he found his crook and realised that the water returned his lost happiness to him. Ever since, the river and the nearby village bear the name of Zlatna Panega (or Golden Panega).

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