In the 8th century, climbing something meant scrambling up it with your hands and feet. There were no climbing harnesses, and the first climbing carabiner was a thousand years away. It is important to keep these facts in mind when thinking about the Madara Rider, a stone relief in Bulgaria from around 710 CE.
The Madara Rider is a stone carving, not unlike many found around the world on the sides of cliffs or inside of caves. The Rider depicts a horse-backed warrior victorious over a lion, celebrating his kill with an eagle, and a dog at the horse’s hooves. In itself, the Rider is not a spectacular artistic effort.
However, the Rider was created 1,300 years ago, seventy five feet off of the ground on a nearly vertical rock cliff, which reaches more than two hundred and fifty feet above the relief. Inscriptions on the rock around the work mark events between 700-800 CE, and show a period of Bulgarian history before their conversion to Christianity. In a sense, this adds to the mystery of the relief, as it was a sacred pagan site prior to conversion.
You can still make out the grayhound-like dog behind the horse and the lion pierced by a spear in front, but a large vertical crack and centuries of moisture and wind have effaced much of the detail the carving must have originally offered. The inscriptions too have significant portions that are unintelligible. Both sculpture and inscriptions, carved in triumphant recognition of a Bulgarian state ascendant, were forgotten during the five centuries of Ottoman rule.
Aside from its date and the inscriptions in the area, little else is known of the Madara Rider, making the means of its creation all the more mysterious.
The Rider has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status based on the wonder of its creation. Along with global recognition, it gives a great deal of pleasure to Bulgarians. The Rider was minted on a number of Bulgarian coins around the year 2,000 and it has become a symbol of national pride.
The Madara archeological preserve contains far more than the Madara Horseman itself. It has beautiful walkways, large and small caves, and evidence of settlement from ancient times.