Rila Monastery "St. Ivan of Rila"

Rila Monastery

Orthodox name: Saint Ivan of Rila

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Rila Monastery is situated in northwestern part of Rila Mountain, at at an altitude of 1150 m above the sea level, in the immediate vicinity of the village Pastra (13km). Rila Monastery is only 111km away from Sofia capital city, 84km from Kyuistendil and 47km from Dupnitsa.


Rila Monastery is easy accessible by car. You can get there following the International Road Sofia-Kulata (E79). Then you should turn from the small town of Kocherinovo, as the distance from there to the sacred place is about 30km and you will find yourself exactly in front of the monastery’s doors.
If you happen to be without a car, calm down, there are regular buses from the cities Sofia, Blagoevgrad and Dupnitsa to Rila Monastery.

History of the monastery:

Rila Monastery is one of the most famous Bulgarian symbols. Not only is it the biggest monastery in Bulgaria, but also it is the most influential spiritual centre in the country and the second biggest monastery on the Balkan Peninsula.It was founded in the 10th century by the monk hermit John, who was later named Bulgaria’s patron saint and his disciples. John of Rila, popular in Bulgarian language as Ivan Rilski, was raised to sainthood by grateful Christian Bulgarian people in a sign of tribute to his life work. He lived in the Reign of prominent Bulgarian kings such as Boris I, Simeon and Peter I. At the present, his relics are being kept in the monastery’s main church "Nativity of the Virgin".

Rila Monastery is a cultural and spiritual centre. It keeps Bulgarian faith through tough years. Rila Monastery has always been as a source of revival, faith and hope for Bulgarian souls and minds. Rila Monastery turned into the stronghold of Bulgarian nationality and culture during Byzantine Period. Rising stately in the middle of the courtyard is a high stone fortress tower, having been built by the local feudal Hrelyu Dragovola in 1334-1335. He built the five-storey defence tower, topped by the Transfiguration Chapel, fragments of whose murals can still be seen today. By the end of 14th century, the Rila Monastery had turned into a powerful feudal entity with many villages, lands and properties.

Many prominent Bulgarian rulers showed great interest in the personality of the hermit John and Rila cloister in the Middle Ages. Bulgarian Kings of Second Bulgarian Kingdom made lavish gifts to the monastery. The Donation Deed of Tsar Ivan Shishman (1378), which has been preserved until this day in the monastery museum, attests the privileges of the monastery and the extension of its estates. Talented writers, painters and masters of woodcarving art have left fascinating manuscripts, church frescoes of high artistic value, remarkable art works, stunning icons and many other pieces of art for both spirit and soul.

The fall of Bulgaria under the Ottoman rule made the spiritual life of the monastery rather difficult in the beginning of the 15th century. Therefore, it lost much of its power and influence in Bulgarian public life. Finally, Rila Monastery was set to fire and reduced to ashes. Fortunately, later on, three brothers Joasaphus, David and Teophanous, assisted by the Russian monastery on Mount Athos, set to the task to reconstruct the holy site and breathe new life into it. The three brothers managed to procure a special deed from the Sultan of Constantinople in 1466 and a compact for mutual assistance between the Rila Monastery and St Pantheleimon Monastery in Mount Athos was signed. The original copy of this document is now treasured in the monastery museum. Three years later three Rila clergymen were allowed to transfer the relics of John of Rila from Veliko Turnovo town back to the monastery. There is an annual celebration every year on the 1st of July, as the hermit’s relics were moved from Sredets to Rila Monastery on that date.

Russian monarchs and Moldovan chieftains also gave their contribution to the preservation of the monastery as a stronghold of Orthodox literary legacy. Although the monastery had experienced days of both glory and decay, its significant activities continue to have been done and it proved its importance for Bulgarian country.

The National Revival Period in the 18th and 19th centuries gave a new impetus to the resurgence of Rila cloister. It was the period when the present appearance of the monastery was formed more precisely and it could be also described the most fruitful period. There was fatal conflagration in the monastery in 1778. It was renovated in 1784 by the master Alexi, who built the eastern, western and northern wings of the monastery. Reconstructed, renovated and protected from the Turkish conquerors, the monastery turned into a center of spiritual, cultural and economic revival. The main church in Rila monastery "The Nativity of the Virgin" was built by Master Pavel Ivanovich in 1834-1837.

Rila Monastery has been turned into National museum since 1961 and the region around it into Nature Park. Rila’s sacred place is one of the 100 Bulgaria’s National tourist objects. The monastery is opened for visits every day from 8 o’clock to 6 o’clock p.m.

The names of some of the monks who devoted their lives to Rila Monastery are: Joseph Bradati, Joseph the Builder, Neophyte Rilski, Arsenius and Galaktion.

Rila Monastery is one of the nine objects in Bulgaria (the second monastery after the rock cloister nearby the village Ivanovo) which are under the auspices of UNESCO.

Present condition :

The present-day appearance of Rila Monastery dated back to the beginning of 19th century. Rila Cloister includes complex of religious and residential buildings spread on an area of 8800 square meters in the shape of an irregular quadrangle and they form an enclosed ensemble. The inner courtyard is encircled with 24m stone walls which form irregular pentagon.
A high stone fortress tower built by the local feudal Sebastocrator Hrelyu in 1334-1335 and a small church dated back to 1343 are rising in the middle of the courtyard. The four-storied residential buildings, in which there are about 300 monastic cells, four chapels, an abbot's room, a refectory, a kitchen, a library and guest rooms for donors give the irregular quadrangle shape of the enclosed monastery courtyard. Actually, Rila Monastery was built as a fortress so it was connected with the outside world by two gateways with sturdy oak ironbound wings, which suggest an access to an intimate and enchanting world filled with unique specimens of architecture and art.

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. It was built by Master Pavel Ivanovich in 1834-1837, planned as a five-dome church with three altar niches, two side chapels and an open gallery. 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.
Several more churches, chapels and holy grounds, situated in the proximity of the central buildings, also belong to the Rila Monastery complex. The Orlitsa Convent (15th-19th centuries) is on the route from the town of Rila to the Rila cloister. At a distance of four kilometers west of the Rila Monastery is the Pchelino Convent. The old Hermitage of the Assumption of St John of Rila is to the east of Rila Monastery. In 1811 Toma Vishanov, a painter from Bansko, decorated it with wall paintings depicting scenes from the saint's life. Some 200 meters south of the monastery is the Presentation of the Virgin Ossuary of 1795, situated in the churchyard. Three kilometers east of the Rila Monastery is the St Luke's Hermitage. Round a big courtyard is the school of Neophit of Rila (1843) and the Church of St Luke (1798-1799). The second church - the Shroud of the Virgin (1805), was built by master-builder Mihail from the town of Rila. The walls and the vault were adorned with murals also by Toma Vishanov.

Rila Monastery In the middle of the monastery yard stands high the Hrelyo Tower - a powerful stone fortification, the oldest preserved building in Rila Monastery, dated back to 1334-1335. According to the title on its entrance, it’ was a piece of art of local feudal Hrelyo and it was dedicated to St. Joan of Rila and Virgin Ossuary. On the top floor stands a small chapel, named after God’s Transfiguration. The five-storey stone tower is high 23m, but the most interesting is a small chapel, named after God’s Transfiguration, which stands on the top floor. The chapel is richly decorated with murals and authentic icon paintings of great artistic value. The earliest of them dated back to the 14th century and represent three scenes of the life of St. John of Rila. The oldest preserved icon of the saint also dated back to that time. Murals in the chapel are highly valuable monument of Bulgarian Medieval art.

The four-winged residential area houses more than 300 monk cells, decorated with rich wood-carving ornaments, colourful paintings and wood furnishing and four smaller chapels. Guest rooms are more than 30, as most of them are lavishly decorated with wood carved ceilings and some of them even with murals The Monastery’s murals and wood carved ceilings are the work of Bulgaria’s foremost icon painters and woodcarvers, amongst whom are the names of Zacharias, the Icon Painter, Stanislav Dospevski, and Dimitar and Simeon Molerov stand out.

The attention of the visitor is always drawn to the first monastery kitchen (called "magernitsa") with its structure of octagons raising at the height of 22 metres crowned with a dome. This big monastery kitchen is situated in the northern wing of the monastery and it is undoubtedly remarkable, unique work of the art of architecture and building. Nowadays the monastery kitchen is opened for visitors and everyone can take a glimpse at it.

The main church in Rila monastery "The Nativity of the Virgin" was built by Master Pavel Ivanovich in 1834-1837, planned as a five-dome church with three altar niches, two side chapels and an open gallery. The richly decorated walls strengthen the impression of the interior, the great diversity of compositions depicting religious scenes, and last, but not least, a unique woodcut iconostasis with azure fretwork. Actually, the church's interior is extremely impressive, because the murals were painted between 1840 and 1848 by some of the finest artists of the time: Ivan Nikolov The Iconpainter, Kosta Valyov,Zahari Zograph, Dimiter Zograph and his sons - all from Samokov, Dimiter Mollerov from Bansko and his son Simeon. The icons of the main altar were painted by Ivan Obrazopisov from Samokov. The twenty donors' potraits in the church mark the beginning of Bulgarian secular painting. The iconostasis at the main altar is one of the masterpieces of Samokov School of Master Wood Carvers. It is the biggest one in Bulgaria and the only one pure tracery gilt woodwork, having been covered in gold-late.

The Rila Monastery treasures some of the most impressive icon paintings created in the 14th-19th centuries The portrait of the monastery's patron - St John of Rila, was the oldest icon in the monastery. Among the diversity of depicted subjects distinguished for their artistry are the icons of St Arsenius (14th-15th century), the Assumption (15th-16th century), St George Enthroned (15th-16th century), John the Precursor, Archangel Michael, Christ Enthroned (17th century) and many others.

Rila Monastery The library of Rila Monastery is shelter to about 250 manuscripts from the period 11-19 century, 9000 religious incunabula and many documents. The most valuable among those are the Glagolithic Papers from the 10th-11th c., the famous Gospel from 1577 with a gild-plate by a famous Sofia goldsmith, and of course, the Written Legacy of the Patron Saint to his followers.
The donations received from all parts of the country represent a very rich ethnographic collection - a national collection of works of arts and crafts.

Another important part of artistic richness of Rila Monastery is the collection of unique pieces of the art of woodcarving which have been preserved at the monastery museum. The earliest example of this kind of art in Bulgaria is situated there, it is a fretwork door of the old church (14th century).
The lime wooden cross on which the monk Rafail has worked for 12 years (from 1790 to 1802) is exceptional. It includes 36 stages from the Holy Bible and a dozen of figures. By the time of completion the cross, the monk had gone blind from this amazing work which he left for us behind unique work of art.

The first printing house for woodcuts (engravings on metal or wood) was opened in Rila Monastery during the 18th century. The biggest collection of clichés from that time could be also seen. The subject of the woodcuts most frequently represents the image of John of Rila.

Many masterpieces of applied art: vestments with golden ornaments, belts and many others were created and remained preserved in Rila Monastery. Some of them dated back from 15th until 19th century. Many are works goldsmith’s and metal plastic arts.
The grave of the Bulgarian king Boris III is also in Rila Monastery.

Accommodation in the monastery:

If you have decided to spend the night in Rila region, you have a choice: it is the most usual to do this in the Monastery itself and the cheapest way to do this in the tourist hostel. Furthermore, a whole tourist town originated around the Monastery with accommodation for the numerous guests and admirers of Rila Monastery.
Telephone number of the monastery:+359/code for dialling Bulgaria/ 07054 22 08

Places of interest in the region:

Orlitsa cloister (15km) and Pchelina cloister (4km) are situated outside the main complex of Rila Monastery. The old Hermitage of the Assumption of St John of Rila is located to the east of the monastery. The church "Assumption of St. John of Rila" was built in 1746 around the old hermitage.
National tourist objects in proximity to Rila Monastery are: Rilski Lakes (8km), Musala Peak(21km) and the peak Malyovitsa.The Rila Monastery is a point from which you can set off for several marked hiking routes around the Rila Mountain: to Ribni Ezera (Fish Lakes) Chalet, to Macedonia Chalet (a 5-hour walk), to Ivan Vazov Chalet (a 5-hour walk), to 7 Rila Lakes Chalet (6 to 7-hour walk) and to the peak and the chalet of Malyovitsa (6 to 7-hour walk).


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