Visiting the Kokino Observatory: Ancient Archaeoastronomy in Macedonia

Last Updated on: 23rd August 2022, 09:01 am

The Kokino Observatory, one of North Macedonia’s most impressive and enigmatic sites, is also one of its most overlooked. Recognized by NASA as one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the world, the Bronze Age site played a dual scientific and religious role. In use from as early as 2000 BC, modern visitors now have the opportunity to see things from the same perspective as the ancients.

While the Kokino Observatory can be reached as a day trip from Skopje, getting there via public transport is anything but straightforward. Be sure to check the end of the article for details.

What is the Kokino Observatory?

The mysterious Kokino Observatory is situated 1,013 meters above sea level on a volcanic peak called Tatichev Kamen. From as early as 2,000 BC, local inhabitants carved various markers in the andesite rock, accurately marking solstices, equinoxes and even the Metonic cycle, or the 19-year cycle of the moon.

And on the appropriate days, prominent members of the community would view the celestial phenomena while seated on special thrones carved on flat, manmade platforms.

What’s more, is that things like vessels, axes and jewelry were discovered around the observatory as well. The findings date from the 21st century BC (Early Bronze Age) up to the 9th century BC (Early Iron Age). The Kokino Observatory, therefore, was likely in use for well over a thousand years.

Be that as it may, we know next to nothing about this ancient yet advanced civilization, as the surrounding area has yet to yield any further clues about who they were or exactly where they lived.

The Kokino Observatory was only discovered in 2001. And 20 years later, it remains an off-the-beaten-path destination. But whether you’re into astronomy, archaeology, or simply admiring beautiful scenery, the site is well worth the visit. 

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Visiting the Kokino Observatory

Approaching the Kokino Observatory from the parking area, you’ll encounter a trail which splits into two directions. One sign points to a ‘Moderate Trail’ while another points to an ‘Easy Trail.’ Whichever you choose, you’ll still be able to easily make it to all of the highlights.

I went with the moderate trail, taking me along a somewhat steep climb up to the center of the rocky hill.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

As you’ll soon notice, the scenery surrounding the Kokino Observatory is stunning. Even if all the astronomy stuff goes over your head, the views from the hill are something everyone can appreciate. In fact, it was one of the most scenic spots I visited in all of North Macedonia.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

The top of the hill is home to four artificially carved and flattened surfaces, or platforms. And the first one I encountered is by far the largest of the bunch, simply referred to as Platform B.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Platform B

Platform B appears as a large and open grassy field. But in contrast to the other platforms, little information is provided about its function, or what particular phenomena could be observed from here.

It’s possible that rather than being an observation point, the large open space was instead used for religious rituals. 

Based on archaeological findings, we can surmise that elaborate religious rites took place at Kokino to mark major events like solstices or equinoxes – a common practice throughout world cultures.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

While just conjecture, some archaeologists believe that large fires would’ve been lit atop the hill to mark important seasonal changes – an easy way to inform the villagers down below.

And as we can see, Platform B contains plenty of space for building large bonfires.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Walking up the rocks to the west of Platform B, one can get a stunning view of Platforms A and C in the distance. And that’s where I headed next.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Platforms A & C

Platform A is arguably the most significant portion of the Kokino Observatory, as it’s home to the iconic ‘Four Thrones’ which have come symbolize the entire site.

The megalithic stones were painstakingly carved out of the volcanic rock, while the floor space in front of them had to be completely smoothed down. Pretty impressive considering the tools Early Bronze Age people had to work with!

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia
Platform A

The thrones are oriented east to face the rising sun. And while seated here, the observer could clearly view the summer solstice sunrise through the manmade marker near the highest point of the rocks. On this day, the light would shine directly on the second throne from the left.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia
The Four Thrones of Platform A

As the sun has long been associated with royalty and kingship throughout numerous world cultures, this surely would’ve been a highly symbolic ritualistic event for Kokino’s ancient inhabitants.

Turning around, take a look at the top of the hill to see the markers. Given the craggy nature of the volcanic hill, many of the manmade markers look perfectly natural. Thankfully, images of the equinox and solstice sunrise points are displayed on the nearby informational signage for context.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Just a short walk away is Platform C, located about 30 m southwest of Platform A.

From here, the rising of the sun on the summer and winter solstice as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes could be viewed at various markers surrounding the platform.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia
Platform C

Additionally, markers were also created for the rising of the full moon during its minimal and maximal declination in both winter and summer.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Some of these markers are located at the highest point in the center of the rock, while others were added to a nearby lower outcrop not far from the platform.

With all the phenomena being observed here, the Kokino Observatory would’ve likely been host to rituals and events at least several times each year.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Furthermore, given all the markers related to moon cycles at the observatory, experts have concluded that Kokino’s inhabitants were able to devise a calendar based on the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon. 

It takes approximately 19 years, or 235 lunar months, for the phases of the moon to once again realign with the solar calendar. A similar ‘lunisolar’ calendar system would later be utilized by civilizations such as the Babylonians and Greeks.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia
Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Before moving on to the next highlight, there are plenty of great vantage points around Platforms A and C from which to appreciate the views of eastern Macedonia.

Platform D

Next, head over to Platform D, situated to the northwest of Platform B. Even with the signs, it can be a bit tricky to find. Conveniently, the various platforms are all clearly marked on the app.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Walking slightly downhill, you’ll encounter the small and unassuming platform, which would likely go overlooked were it not for the informational sign. But Platform D is possibly the oldest platform of the Kokino Observatory, as it’s believed to have been established as early as 2083 BC.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

From this position, the sunrise on the fall and spring equinoxes could be observed from the 21st-16th centuries BC. Interestingly, it could also be simultaneously observed through the same cut marks from Platform A.

Therefore, on the days of the special ceremonies, we can imagine multiple high-ranked nobles or priests stationed at multiple platforms.

What’s more is that the heliacal rising (the day of the year when a star rises just before the sun) of Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, could be observed from here as well.

The Sanctuary Wall

Leaving Platform D, walk along a path at the edge of the hill to reach the so-called Sanctuary Wall, also referred to as Platform E. 

Rather confusingly, the informational sign near the Kokino Observatory entrance tells us that it was Platform E, rather than D, from which the special sunrises and heliacal risings could be viewed. But considering how one faces west when standing at Platform E, this was likely an error.

While information is lacking, it’s possible that particular lunar phenomena could be observed from this vantage point.

As for the ‘Sanctuary Wall’ moniker, it’s likely a reference to the low stone wall bordering parts of the trail around the perimeter. Just how old it is or who put it there remains a mystery, however.

Kokino Observatory North Macedonia

Continuing along, you’ll be walking along the path that was marked ‘Easy Trail’ near the entrance. Eventually, you’ll loop around and find yourself right back where you started.

Before returning to my driver, I made sure to turn around and take one more long look at this mysterious and fascinating place.

Additional Info

From Skopje, you’ll first need to take a bus to the city of Kumanovo (about 1 hour). Buses leave frequently around every half an hour.

Once at Kumanovo, there may be buses headed toward Kokino. Or there may not be.

Arriving at the station, I inquired about the next bus to Kokino, and the woman behind the counter informed me that the next bus would leave at 11:00. And so I hung out at the station for around an hour until departure time.

But once the bus pulled into the station, the driver informed everyone he wouldn’t be going to Kokino! Instead, he’d only be driving until a village shortly before it (Stepance, I believe). If I wanted to go to Kokino by bus, I’d need to wait until the late afternoon, he said. But there would be no return buses to Kumanovo.

Before explaining how I ended up making it, let’s say you get lucky and the morning bus actually does go to Kokino. It’s important to understand that the bus only goes to the village of Kokino, while the Kokino Observatory is about 40 minutes away on foot. But how are you supposed to get back to Kumanovo?

When I first got to the Kumanovo bus station, I asked the woman at the desk about this, and she said she would translate between the bus driver and I so that we could coordinate a pickup time for the return journey.

But, as mentioned, since the bus wasn’t going to Kokino that day, I had to find another option. (Looking back, I probably could’ve hitchhiked.) Fortunately, the helpful bus station staff told me she could help me arrange a taxi to go straight to the observatory.

I was expecting it to be very expensive, but I was surprised when the driver only quoted me 20 euro, including wait time. While obviously much more expensive than the bus, it was a great price considering that the observatory is about a 45-minute drive from Kumanovo.

The driver hardly spoke English but was very friendly. On the way back, he even insisted on stopping by a corner shop and buying me a beer.

A couple more passengers got in with us for the final leg of the journey, one of whom spoke fluent English. And he explained that it was his dream one day to open a guest house and restaurant at the base of the observatory, with special viewing parties for the solstice and equinox sunrises. Hopefully, that dream becomes a reality someday.

In addition to the magic of the Kokino Observatory itself, the day was made even more special by the friendly and helpful locals I met on the journey.

The woman at the bus station was especially helpful and patient with translating between me and various other people, trying her best to make sure I could get where I needed to go.

As North Macedonia’s capital and largest city, Skopje can be reached directly from all over the country by both train and bus.

At the time of writing during the coronavirus pandemic, however, not as many buses will be running as one might expect. Buses that previously departed hourly may now only be running a few times a day. Be sure to check at the local bus station wherever it is you’re departing from.

You should also be able to find direct buses from many other cities in the Balkans.

The closest capital to Skopje is Pristina, Kosovo, which is just about 90 minutes away by bus.

The city also has its own international airport, with direct connections to multiple other cities in Europe.

Skopje’s main attractions can all be seen on foot within a single day. However, spending several nights and using Skopje as a base for different day trips is ideal.

With that in mind, it’s more important to stay within reasonable walking distance of the bus terminal than it is to the city center.

While Skopje has a public bus system, it’s difficult to figure out and terribly slow due to bad traffic. Therefore, it’s best to walk whenever you can.

I stayed at a place called Universe Rooms and Apartments (formerly Universe Hostel). It’s located about 20 minutes on foot from the bus terminal and about 25 minutes from the Alexander the Great Statue.

I had a comfortable private room with a shared bathroom. The host Goran was incredibly kind and helpful in regards to information around the area, and it was easily one of my better accommodation experiences in the Balkans.

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