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The exceptional volume
of the underground canyon is what distinguishes the
Škocjan Caves from other caves and places them among
the most famous underground features in the world.
The river flowing through the underground canyon turns
north-west before the Cerkvenik Bridge and continues
its course along the Hankejev kanal (Hanke's Channel).
This underground channel, first explored at the end
of the 19th century, is approximately 3.5 kilometres
long, 10 to 60 metres wide and over 140 metres high.
At some points, it expands into huge underground chambers.
The largest of these is the Martelova dvorana (Martel's
Chamber); with a volume of 2.2 million cubic metres,
it is considered the largest discovered underground
chamber in Slovenia and one of the largest in the world.
It is interesting to note that an underground canyon
of such dimensions ends with a relatively small siphon:
one that cannot deal with the enormous volume of water
that pours into the cave after heavy rainfall, causing
major flooding, during which water levels can rise
by more than one hundred metres.
Martel's Chamber, one of the largest
underground chambers in Europe and the world.
about it poured a drink-offering to all the dead,
first with mead and thereafter with sweet wine,
and for the third time with water, and I sprinkled
white meal thereon (…),
I took the sheep and cut their throats over the
and the dark blood flowed forth, and lo,
the spirits of the dead that be departed gathered
them from out of Erebus (…),
then did I speak to my company and command them
to flay the sheep which even now lie slain by the
and to consume them with fire, and to make prayer
to the gods,
to mighty Hades and to dread Persephone.
(The Odyssey, Book XI)
Homer’s epic poem depicts the perceptions
of the ancient Greeks of the underworld, according
to which the doors to the Kingdom of Shadows were
volcanoes and caves. Before entering the Underworld,
Odysseus makes libations and burning offerings to
the Underworld gods, Hades and Persephone. Homer's
epic poem, one of the oldest preserved written pieces,
corresponds to the first half of the 8th century
B.C. but it draws upon earlier traditions. The finds
from Mušja jama near Škocjan belong to the same period.
In this 50-metre deep abyss, archaeologists discovered
over 600 metal artefacts from the period between
the 12th and 8th centuries B.C. The settlements at
Škocjan and Gradišče, and especially numerous burial
sites and other wealthy archaeological finds testify
to the extraordinary significance of this
location in the 1st century B.C. This is particularly evident
in Mušja jama. Burnt and broken objects from the
abyss, mostly weapons and animal bones, provide evidence
that sacrificial rites to gods were performed above
the cave in the late Bronze Age, probably similar
to those described by Homer in the above-mentioned
fragment. Judging by the finds, people made pilgrimages
to this cult centre from places several hundred kilometres
distant, from the territory of Italy, the Alps, Pannonia,
the Balkans and even Greece. Contacts with distant
regions are reflected in the Škocjan community, which
was distinct from the surrounding society because
of its outstanding wealth and distinct social hierarchy.
Three millennia ago, the magnificent entrances to
the underworld and the dramatic scenes of the entrance
of waters into the dark underworld gave Škocjan a
great symbolic religious power and transformed it
into a cult centre without rival in the territory
of Slovenia and far beyond it.
Religious and sacrificial rites
were performed in the area of Škocjan in prehistoric
Due to particular microclimatic
conditions, an extraordinary ecosystem has developed
in Velika and Mala dolina. For instance, Alpine (e.g.
Prumula auricula) and Mediterranean species (e.g.
maidenhair fern, Adianthum capillus-veneris) grow
side-by-side: exceptionally rare in nature. This
is possible due to the nature of habitats of Alpine
representatives that grow on rocks in the shady part
of the sinkholes where the sun rarely shines even
in the summer and where it is cold throughout the
year. It is only in these conditions that these plants
are sufficiently competitive to survive. Contrary
to Alpine plants, the representatives of Mediterranean
plants survive only where the temperatures do not
fall below freezing. This is possible on the ceiling
of the Schmidl Cavern where, due to cave air, temperatures
do not fall below freezing even in the winter.
Peony (Paeonia officinalis)
dolines and sinks in the Škocjan Caves were mentioned
in antiquity and marked on the maps dating to the
16th century; they were described by Valvasor (1689)
and visited by travellers in the 18th century. Records
show that the French painter Cassas visited the caves
in the summer of 1782 and painted the Reka River
and sinkholes. The visitors’ book was introduced
as early as in 1819 and the number of visits increased
after the path leading to the bottom of Velika dolina
was introduced in 1823. The year 1884 can be considered
as the beginning of real tourism when the Primorska
Section of the German and Austrian Mountaineering
Society of Trieste acquired the lease to the Škocjan
Caves and organised guided tours. Schmidl’s notes
from 1853 show that there were only around 150 visitors
per year. Records exist of the number of visitors
according to sold tickets from the beginning of the
20th century; there were 2,230 visitors in 1903 and
3,013 just two years later.