I’ve trekked a kilometre or so inside the Magura Cave system in northwestern Bulgaria. It’s mid-winter, and the caves are closed for the season. The caretakers, kind and generous, made an exception for me, and opened the gates. But opening the gates and flicking on the lights is all they did.
I have no guide. It’s just me and the cave.
The track leading through Magura Cave is about 2 kilometres in length. I’m about halfway along when I hear some scratching in an unlit side tunnel.
Imagine, I think to myself, if it was a bear – one of the caves is called Bear Cave; I think this is why I have bears on the mind.
Of course I know there isn’t a bear in the cave. The noise was probably just made by wind, or shifting soil, or dripping water.
I flick on the torch on my smart phone and step into the unlit side tunnel. I hear the scratchings again.
That is not the wind, my brain informs me. That is the noise produced when someone or something is walking across loose gravel.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
A giant dog lopes into my torch light.
It’s a German Shepherd; a friendly one, it’s tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth. It pads over to my side and looks up at me inquisitively; the dog is skinny but otherwise in good health.
What is a dog doing this far inside the cave?
It’s a question that is to go unanswered.
The cave paintings of Magura Cave
Well, that was creepy, I think, as the dog returns to the inky blackness of the unlit tunnel.
And while I’m on the topic, these cave paintings, I find, are also quite creepy.
These cult-icon-like figures, with their arms curved over their heads, as if taking on a demonic form, are particularly disturbing.
Experts believe these arms-curved-over-head images represent some kind of fertility ritual, or perhaps a fertility dance.
They’ve arrived at this conclusion as, if you look closely, you will often see another stick figure alongside the arms-curved-over-head figure, with what looks to be an erect penis.
The understanding that these ancient cave paintings relate to harmless old fertility rituals doesn’t make them any less creepy.
As you wind your way through this seemingly endless cave system you are continually met with this arms-curved-over-head figure. Turn a bend and there it is, staring you in the face. Peek under a ledge and there it is. Peer down a narrow chute and there it is.
If I didn’t know better I’d say the paintings were a warning; that the creators of these images were telling you to turn back, and that continuing into the cave was likely to lead to an unfavourable outcome, quite possibly involving a horrifying creature of some description.
Eventually I reach the main gallery at Magura Caves. Here the walls are painted with all kinds of symbols and scenes (Magura Cave contains approximately 750 cave paintings, most are between 3,000 and 10,000 years old). There are paintings that some experts believe are solar calendars. Others that are thought to be religious ceremonies. Others that might be deities.
The most famous painting in Magura Cave is a two layer scene involving hunting, dancing, and fornication.
Why were the images painted this deep in the cave system?
It’s easy enough to get here with a path carved out and a modern lighting system in place, but think what a challenge it would have been with a burning torch in hand. And imagine the horror should the torch go out.
Did they venture this deep into the cave system for security?
Or was this cavern, deep in the bowels of the earth, imbued with spiritual significance?
No one can say for sure what these paintings mean, or why they are here, or who they were made by.
There has been surprisingly little research undertaken on the Magura Cave paintings till now. There is also the issue of safekeeping of the ancient artwork. As the photos make clear there has been a significant amount of graffiti and vandalism at the site.
Magura Cave is a fascinating place (I haven’t even mentioned the stalactites and stalagmites and other cave formations it contains); it’s full of mystery, and quite creepy if you are in here on your own.
It would be great if the relevant experts could come together to study the paintings in more detail and thus provide Magura Cave with the protection and recognition it deserves.
Practical information and how to reach Magura Cave:
Magura Cave is in northwest Bulgaria a few kilometres from the town of Rabisha. It’s 25 km from Belogradchik, 50 km from Vidin, and 200 km from Sofia.
There are no public transport options. Hiring a car, getting yourself a good offline map, and driving yourself is the best way to get there. More transport info here.
Magura Cave is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage listing.