The full name, the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, is the largest, and the most well-known, Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. It is located 117km (73mi) south of Sofia in the stunning Rhodope Mountains. Sitting at an altitude of 1147m (3763 ft), the monastery is also located inside a beautiful national park, Rila Monastery Nature Reserve.
Founded in the 10th century and today still the home of more than 60 monks, it is considered one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural achievements and attracts almost 1 million visitors each year.
Today Rila Monastery is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Construction of the monastery begun in the 10th century on a site near to the cave where St. Ivan (St. John in English) lived most of his life as hermit. Saint Ivan of Rila was one of the first Bulgarian hermits who received much fame during his life due to a multitude of miracles which were attributed to him. The complex was begun by Ivan’s students who had originally come to the mountain to receive their education.
The Ottoman Turks began attacking Bulgaria and as a result the monastery fell into ruin but was rebuilt in its present form in the 14th century. As a result, the oldest buildings in the complex such as the Tower of Hrelja and the richly engraved monastery gates date from this time.
The Ottoman occupation lasted almost 500 years and with each new wave of attack brought damage and destruction to various parts of the monastery, yet each time it was rebuilt, normally with the help of wealthy Bulgarian patrons. Because of all this turmoil the Monastery became a symbol for Bulgarian culture and nationalism as well as a depository of the Bulgarian language.
The Main Church
The whole complex occupies an area of 8,800m² (94,700ft²) in a rectangular form with the main church ad tower located in the centre of the inner courtyard.
The main church, was constructed between 1834-37 and built on the shape of a Greek cross, like many orthodox churches. The most noticeable feature of the construction, along with the courtyard around it, are the striped design. This is referred to as Mamluk and is a style that became popular in the Ottoman empire after their conquest of Egypt.
Another noticeable feature are the incredible frescos. Dating back to 1846, they are the work of several artists including the brothers Zahira and Dimitar Zograf.
The residential buildings that surround the courtyard, consist of more than 300 rooms including the Abbots Room, four chapels, kitchen and a library housing more than 250 manuscripts as well as 9000 printed texts.
The monastery also contains a museum. Their prized possession is Rafail’s cross, a wooden cross measuring 81 x 43cm (31.8 x 16.9 in) and made entirely of one piece of wood. It was whittled down by a monk named Rafail being finished in 1802 and taking a little more than 12 years. It has been decorated with 104 religious scenes which are composed of 650 miniature figures. Legend has it that Rafail’s constant use of a magnifying glass to create such tiny figures was so damaging that it eventually resulted in him losing his sight.