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.
(…) 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 trench,
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 pitiless sword,
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.
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.
Collapse 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.
Prepared by: Samo Šturm, Borut Peric