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||A brief history of Thrace
A stork family in their nest in the centre of Soufli, Thrace.
Following the Greek government's reforms of the country's administrative areas in 1987 and 2010, the small, remote region of Thrace, in the northeast of the country, was absorbed into the region of East Macedonia and Thrace, part of the large semi-autonomous region of Macedonia
In a peculiar way this modern administrative legislation as regards Thrace is a latter-day continuation of policies, albeit in a more peaceful and orderly way, which began in antiquity when Greek and Macedonian expansion and colonization pushed back the areas occupied by tribal peoples collectively known as Thracians (see, for example The History of ancient Stageira
The modern Greek part of Thrace, also referred to as Western Thrace, is a tiny remnant of ancient Thracian territory which stretched from north of Thessaly as far as the borders of modern Albania, eastwards along the coasts of the Northern Aegean and Marmara seas to the Bosphorus at Byzantium (later Constantinople, today Istanbul), and through the mountains and along the Black Sea coast northwards to the River Danube in what is now Bulgaria.
The Thracians had their own distinct language, culture and religion and produced fascinating art, crafts and coinage. The cult of the Cabeiri, ancient "Great Gods", appears to have its roots in prehistoric Thrace and was an important influence on Greek religion, particularly in cities such as Thebes, until worship of the Olympian gods became predominant.
The ancient Thracian cult mysteries retained their allure into Roman times; the cult centre at Samothraki
drew pilgrims of all classes from slaves to kings, queens and emperors.
Other important myths now associated with Greek culture, such as the story of the bard Orpheus and aspects of the cult of Dionysus
, may also have originated in Thrace.
Macedonia and Thrace lie on important trade routes between Europe, the Black Sea and Asia and have been fought over since prehistory. It is thought that the Bronze Age wars, known as the Trojan Wars after the epic poems of Homer
, were part of the long struggle for control of the Northern Aegean between the Greeks and indigenous peoples. From the second wave of colonization by the Greeks between the 8th and 6th centuries BC ever more of their cities appeared along the coast and on islands such as Samothraki and Thasos
In some places Greek colonists drove the Thracians off their lands, while in others it appears that Greeks and Thracians achieved some sort of peaceful coexistence, perhaps from as early as the Bronze Age.
The symbol of
Prehistoric marble female idol from Babaköy, northwestern Turkey.
Circa 4200-3000 BC, Chalcolithic Period. Height 9.9 cm, width 3.8 cm.
Probably from an ancient grave. The figure belongs to the Kiliya type, named
after the location of the first discovery of the type in the Thracian Chersonese
(Gallipoli Peninsula). Most figures are female, thought to be fertility goddesses,
and are known as "stargazers" due to the raised position of the head.
Antikensammlung, State Museums Berlin (SMB).
Inv. No. 31457. Acquired in 1933 by Theodor Wiegand.
The Thracian bard Orpheus playing his lyre to wild animals,
a popular theme in ancient Greek and Roman art.
"With his songs, Orpheus, the bard of Thrace, allured the trees,
the savage animals, and even the insensate rocks, to follow him."
Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD), Metamorphoses, Book XI.
A relief on the side of a marble sarcophagus in the Neo Attic style
of the Roman Imperial period, second quarter of the 3rd century AD,
in imitation of Classical and Hellenistic sculpture.
Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. 1246.
Orpheus serenading animals on the reverse side of a bronze coin from
Philippopolis, Thrace, issued by co-emperor Geta (reigned 209-211 AD).
Bode Museum, Berlin.
Displayed in the temporary exhibition of Thracian coins
"Thrakien 3.0. Münzprägung im Land des Orpheus", 16 October 2015 - 30 March 2016.
Greek expansion was temporarily checked by the Persian invasions between 514 and 497 BC, during which time Thrace was occupied by the forces of Darius I and his successor Xerxes I. After the Persians had been driven out Athens became the main power in the area as the head of an empire today known as the Delian League. Many subject cities rebelled and were aided by Sparta which waged war on the Athenians (the Peloponnesian War
431-404 BC) and eventually defeated them.
In the 4th century BC the Macedonian king Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, took advantage of the disunity of the Greek states to expand into Thrace and then take control of Greece.
During the Hellenistic period, successors of Alexander the Great, such as Lysimachus (see Pergamon photo gallery 2, page 3
), claimed to be kings of Thrace. Usually they only ruled over Hellenized coastal areas while their dominions were constantly challenged by Thracian kingdoms such as that of Seuthes III.
Inevitably Thracian culture was influenced by that of the Greeks and later the all-conquering Romans who made Thrace a province of their empire in 46 AD. Very little written testimony by the Thracians themselves has survived, and most of what we know about them was written by Greek and Roman authors.
Despite the Greek, Macedonian and Roman conquests, much of what was Thracian territory along the strip of land from Halkidiki to Byzantium continued to be referred to by ancient authors and in inscriptions as Thrace.
With the arrival of Christianity and then Islam, and the continual invasions by people from other cultures, particularly Slavs and Ottoman Turks, the ancient pagan Thracian culture disappeared along with the languages of the people who lived here.
The eastern part of the Roman Empire became what is known today as the Byzantine Empire, with its capital at Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul) in eastern Thrace. The empire was threatened by many wars and invasions, notably by Bulgarians and crusaders.
The Ottoman Turks conquered parts of Thrace in 1354 and established their first capital in Europe at Didymoteicho in 1361 (see photo below
). In 1366 they moved their capital to the Roman-founded city of Adrianople (today Edirne) before taking Constantinople in 1453. During the Ottoman period the area was settled by Albanians, Turks, Bulgarians, Roma and Sephardic Jews.
During the 19th century Thrace became an important producer of tobacco
and silk, with the town of Soufli as a local centre of silk manufacture. Today Soufli has two silk museums.
The rise of Balkan nationalism in the 19th century led to the Greek War of Independence, the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the First World War. The various ethnic groups which had fought together for independence from Turkey - including Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbians - proceeded to fight amongst themselves for control of the liberated territories. This caused enormous suffering for the people of the region, particularly for ethnic groups who were minorities in the territority of another group.
After the First World War international conferences and treaties fixed borders of the Balkan states resulting in the division of the historical area of Thrace into three parts: Northern Thrace, by far the largest part, became part of Bulgaria; Western Thrace, between Xanthi and the Evros River, went to Greece; Eastern Thrace, east of the Evros to the Bosphorus, remained Turkish (today part of the Marmara Region).
The forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s meant that many Greeks arrived in Thrace as refugees from Turkey. Many people who found themselves on the wrong side of the new borders chose or were pressured to emigrate, a process which continued into the late 20th century. Despite these migrations, Greek Thrace remains one of the most ethnically mixed areas in the Balkans.
Since the late 19th century there has been a gradual increase in interest in and reappraisal of the Thracian heritage, and its vestiges are being unearthed in many places around the southern Balkans, particularly in Bulgaria.
In West Thrace there are no large archaeological museums or spectacular sites, although there are some modest places of historical interest, including the ruins of the ancient walls around Didymoteicho (see a photo of the town's 15th century mosque below
), the Byzantine castle at Pythio, a few small sites (see Archaeological sites near Alexandroupoli
) and several Thracian tombs. Apart from the Archaeological Museum of Komotini
and the silk museums in Soufli there are also small ethnological (folklore) museums in Alexandroupoli and Didymoteicho. There are also many old churches, mosques and traditionally-built houses in the region.
See also: A brief history of Alexandroupoli, Thrace
Coin of King Sparadokos,
the first Thracian dynast to
mint silver coins. 450-400 BC.
Bode Museum, Berlin.
Tetradrachm coin of the
Eastern Celts. From Thrace,
2nd - 1st century BC.
Detail of a relief showing
the mythical hero horseman
of Thrace. First century AD.
Modern statue of Constantine
XI Palaiologos (1405-1453),
the last Byzantine emperor,
in Didymoteicho, Thrace
The 15th century Çelebi Sultan Mehmed Mosque (Turkish, Çelebi Sultan Mehmed Camii;
Greek, Τέμενος Μεχμέτ Α', Temenos Mechmet I), also known as the Beyazid Mosque
(Τέμενος Βαγιαζήτ, Temenos Bayazit) in the centre of Didymoteicho, Thrace.
Designed by architect Ivaz ibn Bayezid, the mosque's construction
was begun during the reign of Sultan Bayezid I (reigned 1389–1402),
and completed in 1420 under Sultan Mehmed I (reigned 1413–1421).
First conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1359, Didymoteicho became
their first capital in Europe in 1361, before they took Adrianople (today
Edirne) in 1366 and then Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453.
The Evros River, which forms a natural boundary between
Greece (West Thrace) and Turkey (East Thrace).
Interactive map of Macedonia, Thrace, Central Greece and the Aegean.
Colour key for Greek island groups (west-east)
See also our interactive map of Greece.
"Orpheus among the Thracians"
Vase painting of Orpheus sitting on a rock, playing his lyre and singing for four attentive Thracian
warriors who wear fox-skin caps and long, colourful, embroidered cloaks. Above Orpheus is the
Greek inscription "ΚΑΛΟΣ ΚΑΛΟΣ" (beautiful, beautiful). See drawing below. The figure to the
right of Orpheus has been identified by some scholars as the Thracian king Oiagros.
Attic red-figure column krater; name vase of the Orpheus Painter, circa 450 BC.
Discovered in Gela, southern Sicily.
Antikensammlung, State Museums Berlin (SMB). Inv. No. V. I. 3172.
Purchased for the royal collection, Berlin from M. Aldisio in 1890. Height 50.7 cm, diameter 40 cm.
Exhibited at the Bode Museum, Berlin during the temporary exhibtion of Thracian coins,
"THRAKIEN 3.0. Münzprägung im Land des Orpheus", 16 October 2015 – 30 March 2016.
Drawing of the "Orpheus among the Thracians" vase painting.
Drawing by "Herr van Geldern". An illustration of an article on the vase:
Adolf Furtwängler, Orpheus: attische Vase aus Gela (1890), reprinted in Johannes Sieveking
and Ludwig Curtius (editors), Kleine Schriften von Adolf Furtwängler, Zweite Band,
pages 522-532, Tafel 50. C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung Oskar Beck, München, 1913.
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