Rila Monastery - The Most Ancient Sanctuary

The Rila Monastery is situated in the Southern Bulgaria, 117 km away from Sofia and 40 km away from Blagoevgrad. Rising at 1147 m above sea level it lies amidst some of the most scenic recesses of Rila Mountains, to which the monastery owes its name. On either side the swift and clear flowing rivers of Rilska and Drushlyavitsa flank it. The Malyovitsa peak, reaching a height of 2729 m is within a four hours walking distance and within as many again is the Rila’s highest point – mount Moussala, 2925 m.

According to some sources the monk hermit John of Rila (Ivan Rilski) who dwelt in a stone cave not far from the monastery’s main complex founded the Rila Monastery in the 10th century. The originator of the Rila foundation who lived during the reign of the Bulgarian Tsar Peter (927-968) was raised to sainthood by the grateful Christians in sign of homage to his lifework. The disciples of John of Rila who lived at that same time should also be merited for the creation of the monastery.

In The Middle Ages the Bulgarian Rulersshoved great interest in the personality of the monk and the Rila cloister of which John of Rila’s life history gives valuable evidence. Byzantine and Bulgarian writers composed or made copies of sections of his life which gave an account of moments of historical significance in the political, social and cultural life of these ages. The Bulgarian Tsars Ivan Asses II (1218-1241), Kaliman (1241-1246), Ivan Alexander and Ivan Shishman (1371-1393) made lavish gifts to the monastery. The Donation Deed of Tsar Ivan Shishman of 1378, which has been preserved until this day at the monastery museum, attests to the privileges that the monastery enjoyed and the extension of its estates. All though the 12th-14th centuries there was an upsurge of the monastery’s cultural and artistic activities. Talented writers, painters and master-builders have left fascinating manuscripts, church and residential buildings, frescoes of high artistic value, remarkable works of the applied arts, woodcuts, church plates and icon paintings.

There is a long story to say about Rila Monastery but you should go there to hear it and to see the biggest monastery in Bulgaria in Rila Mountain.

The present-day appearance of the monastery is from the 19th century. The construction of the residential buildings started in 1816. Spread on an area of 8800 square meters in the shape of an irregular quadrangle, they form an enclosed ensemble. Rising in the middle of the courtyard is a high stone fortress tower built by the local feudal Sebastocrator Hrelyu in 1334-1335, and a small church dated to 1343. In 1844 added to the tower was a small belfry. Later on the monumental building of the monastery’s Principal Church of the Nativity of the Virgin was erected where the old Hrelyu Tower had once stood. The richly decorated walls strengthen the impressiveness of the interior, a great diversity of compositions depicting religious scenes, and a unique woodcut iconostasis with azure fretwork. Abundant light penetrating through the openings beneath the domes and the walls illuminates the mural paintings, gold-plated fretwork, lanterns and candlesticks thus lending optimism to the spiritual atmosphere as a whole. The three-curved balance-beam pediment is remarkable, crowning the church together with the three domes clearly emphasized above the roof. The open arcade gallery with stone columns and exquisitely curved arches with ornamental inscriptions, blind cupolas and a gallery of pictorial scenes representing subjects from the Gospel invite one to enter the temple. The execution of the monumental mural paintings carried on the traditions of the medieval art, yet the new age set its mark in the way of color, purity of line and realism in the characteristic trend of the Bulgarian Revival Period. The individual stroke marks of many painters can be discerned in the frescoes of the principal church but only Zahary Zograph has signed and dated his works in 1844.

The four-storied residential buildings in which there are about 300 monastic cells, four chapels, an abbot’s room, a refectory, a big kitchen, a library and guest rooms intended for the donors from Koprivshtitsa, Teteven, Chirpan, and a number of premises for household activities, give the irregular quadrangle shape of the enclosed monastery courtyard. Several more churches, chapels and holy grounds, situated in the proximity of the central buildings, also belong to the Rila Monastery complex.

The Rila Monastery treasures some of the most impressive icon paintings created in the 14th-19th centuries as a special favor for the cloister.

After the liberation from Turkish invaders, the Rila Monastery acquired new rights and made headway in its cultural and economic development. In 1976 it was declared a national historical reserve and in 1983 it was included into the UNESCO list of the world cultural and historical heritage.