Located among centuries-old coniferous trees and many prayers, where the snow-white peaks of the Rila Mountains and the blue sky meet, stands one of the holiest places in Bulgaria – the Rila Monastery.
Each of us has been to this amazing place at least once in their lifetime! I can’t count how many times I’ve been there, but my earliest memory dates back to the time when I was 5 years old when I was baptized in the convent. I can hardly tell about each of my visits there, as well as to describe this holy temple for all Bulgarians. However, I will try to recreate the history of the Rila Monastery through my eyes.
In the distant X century, a monk settled in this area to escape from secular life and to devote himself to fasting and prayer as a hermit. This was St. Ivan Rilski. Near the monastery he discovered a cave where he spent last years of his life. At that time the Second Bulgarian State was ruled by Tsar Peter and it is assumed that it was because of him that the relics of the saint were transferred to the old capital Tarnovo. Ivan Rilski was also canonized a saint.
Over the years, the relics of Ivan Rilski have been moved to many different places, and today they are located in the church of the monastery and can be honored when you visit. A small stone church was built next to the cave, which is preserved to this day and can be visited as well.
To pay homage to the saint, his followers built a monastery near the cave where St. Ivan had spent the last years of his earthly journey. The place was chosen not by chance – it is protected, and there was a fasting place there.
It is believed that the monastery was built somewhere between 927 and 941 AD. But do not imagine that it looked the same as now. A small and modest façade welcomed the faithful when, sometime in the 14th century, the appearance changed drastically. Thanks to the local feudal lord Stefan Hrelio Dragovol, the Rila monastery was renovated.
The purpose of all these renovations was to fortify the monastery well, because in this period of our history there were many raids happening. Several buildings were built to serve as homes for the monks, a temple and the notorious defense tower, which to this day welcomes visitors to the Rila Monastery or in other words the Hrelova Tower.
Ever since I was a child, this tower has always attracted me a lot and I must admit, to this day I have not set foot in it. But I will definitely do so one day.
The tower is 23 meters high, and it has a reservoir and living quarters, which provided protection for the monks from the monastery during the troubled times, even during the times when these lands were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. It was during this period that much of the monastery was looted and destroyed. From a historical point of view, the most interesting is the fifth floor of the tower, which houses the chapel of the Transfiguration. It depicts quite interesting paintings showing scenes from the life of St. Ivan Rilski. One of them depicts a scene where he meets King Peter.
The architecture of the monastery itself is quite unique too. Personally, the whole complex reminds me of a fortress rather than a monastery! Looking at the high walls from the outside, at times I have the feeling that there is a large fortress in front of me that no one can invade. And the courtyard is amazing. Behind the rooms with monastic cells, the majestic peaks of the Rila Mountains rise and sometimes your breath stops. The Hrelov Tower and the adjacent Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God fit even more incredibly into this view.
In the church “Nativity of the Mother of God” are laid the relics of St. Ivan Rilski, as well as many miraculous icons. Some of the most famous are the “Holy Mother of God Osenovitsa” and the miraculous icon of St. Ivan Rilski.
When visiting the monastery, I highly recommend you to see a few places that deserve your attention!
One of them is the Museum of the monastery, founded in the late nineteenth century, where there are many interesting works of art preserved during the centuries of existence of the Rila Monastery.
Be sure to visit the monastery granary, also known as the kitchen. Here you will see many large cauldrons used by monks to prepare a sacrifice for visitors when there were major church holidays. The walls are smoky and there are several large tables in the room. It’s quite interesting.
The cave in which the saint lived is also not to be missed, as you can walk to it on one of the paths, but arm yourself with time! The trail is about 4 km long.
And last but not least, I recommend you take some of the warm bread they sell in front of the monastery! Incredible bliss for the senses and the soul!
There is also a place to stay in the area to spend the night. There are plenty of hotels and places to eat, so you can afford to stay longer. There is also a parking lot in front of the monastery, where you can leave your vehicle. Oh, and of course, there are a lot of souvenir shops.
It is extremely easy to get there, especially if you are by car. It does not take much time, and the views on the way to the monastery are quite picturesque. If you do not have your own transport, you can take advantage of group visits and tours that are being organized.
For centuries, nestled among the majestic peaks of Rila Mountains, the Rila Monastery preserves the Bulgarian spirituality and culture. Every time I go there, I rediscover myself and feel closer to God! This is a magical place that has survived over the centuries and has preserved the history and spirit of Bulgaria. A place that is a favourite for a dozens of Bulgarians and that everyone carries in their hearts.
This post is also available in: Български (Bulgarian)