The Rila Monastery
in South Western Bulgaria - 117km from Sofia
Rising at 1147 m above sea-level, the Rila Monastery lies amidst some of the most scenic recesses of the Rila Mountains, to which the monastery owns its name. On either side it is flanked by the swift and clear flowering rivers of Rilska and Drushlyavitsa. The Maliovitsa 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, rearing to 2925 m.
According to some resources, the Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by the monk hermit John of Rila who dwelt in a stone cave not far from the monastery´s main complex. The originator of the Rla foundation, who lived during the Bulgarian Tsar Peter (927-968), was raised to sainthood by the grateful Christians in sign of homage to his lifework.
In the Middle Ages the Bulgarian rulers showed 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 transcripts 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 Asen II (1218-1241), Kaliman I (1241-1246), Ivan Alexander and Ivan Shishman (1371-1393) made lavish gifts to the monastery. All through the 12th-14th centuries there was an upsurge of the monastary's cultural and artistic activities. Talented writers, painters and master-builders have left fascinated manuscripts, church and residential buildings, frescoes of high artistic value, remarkable works of the applied arts, woodcuts, church plates and icon paintings.
The fall of Bulgaria under the Ottomans at the turn of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries made the maintenance of the monastary's normal ways of spiritual life difficult, due to which it lost much of its power and influence in public life. Towards the mid-15th century it was plundered, set on fire and destroyed. The monastic life declined.
During the Ottoman Rule (15 c. – 19 c.) the Rila monastery became a center for spiritual, cultural and literary self-preservation and renaissance of the Bulgarian spirit and nation. The literary school of Veliko Tarnovo moved to the monastery after arson. The Rila book repository was renewed and enriched with new manuscripts. By the end of 17 c. a book-binding workshop was created. Connections were established with monastries in Sveta Gora, and in 1466 a treaty was signed with the Russian monastery “Saint Pantaleimon” for mutual assistance and giving refuge in case of danger. The connections with Russia also begin in 16 c., where in the next few centuries Rila monks were sent for collections of donations (books, icons, church attire and financial means).
The National Revival period in the 18th and 19th centuries gave a new impetus to the resurgence of the Rila Monastery. Reconstructed, renovated and protected from the Ottoman conquerors, the monastery turned into a centre of spiritual, cultural and economic revival. Thousands of worshippers, donors, builders and painters made their way to it. Church-donors from Koprivshitsa, Stara Zagora, Gabrovo, Samokov, Sofia gave financial support for the construction or furnishing of complete premises, presented painted decoration, icons and church plates, a proof of which are the many names portrays that have come down to us.
And besides during the Bulgarian Renaissance (18 c. –19 c.) The Rila monastery became a place of school foundation. The monk Neophit of Rila, who was a notable man of letters and an abbot of the monastery, was considered a father of the Bulgarian pedagogy. He prepared teachers and clerics for the whole country. He also founded and became the first teacher in the renowned secondary school in Gabrovo.
After the liberation of Bulgaria from the Otoman rule the spiritual life in the monastery still flourishes, and the imperishable relics of Saint John of Rila, even today, are source of consolation, miracles and heavenly assistance for the ones who approach them with faith.
The present look of Rila Monastery dates back to 19th century. The beautiful main church in the middle was erected in 1834 – 1838. The frescoes inside were created by the most famous and talented Bulgarian artists at the time.
The residential buildings surrounding the church are not less impressive. They form together an irregular pentagon and each wing is 4 or 5 floors high. All of them are extremely beautiful but are accessible only to residents and pilgrims staying in the monastery.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE
You can spend the night in the monastery if you are willing to stay longer at this holy place. It offers modest rooms with basic facilities and the traditional hotel services are not available. After all, you are supposed to be there first for pilgrimage and not for pleasure. Staying for the night in the monastery is doubtlessly a spiritual experience that lets you stay with your thoughts and prayers and enjoy the silence and the nature around. Call in advance to book your accommodation.
Rila Monastery has a statute of a residential settlement with population of 58 inhabitants.
So simple, but so amazing – the opportunity to enjoy some traditional Bulgarian foods just next to the Rila monastery. The bakery just outside the monastery yard offers delicious mekitsi (fried dough pastries), bread, buffalo and sheep yoghurt and some other local specialities. You will recognize it by the long queue outside and the delicious smell of warm bread and pastries. Despite there are many hotels and restaurants in the area, we always prefer to have the mekitsi with yoghurt.