A Bulgarian adventure would be incomplete without a visit to the Rila Monastery, perhaps the country’s greatest treasure and a symbol of its spiritual heritage and national identity. Nestled in the southeastern range of the mighty Balkan peaks, this exquisite cloister has survived centuries of tumult throughout the patchwork history of the Bulgarian people and their quest for independence. Don’t leave Bulgaria without a visit here.
A brief history of the Rila Monastery
At the crossroads between eastern and western cultures, Bulgaria has played host to a series of invaders and interlopers throughout much of its history. These crosscurrents, and the need to establish and maintain a Bulgarian identity in their midst, contributed to the establishment of the Rila Monastery.
Originally inhabited by a confederation of Thracian nomadic tribes, Bulgaria came under Rome’s control and remained in the purview of the emperor until the empire split in 395 AD. At this point, the region became part of the separate Byzantine Empire, overseen by Constantinople.
Byzantine sovereignty in Bulgaria slowly declined over the next hundred years, however, as invading Slavs from the northeast gradually gained hold. Not long after, the nomadic Bulgars from Central Asia swept in under Khan Asparukh, assimilating Bulgaria’s multitude of peoples, consolidating power, and wresting the new kingdom from Constantinople’s control.
Though periodic struggles with Constantinople continued, the First Bulgarian Empire under Asparukh and his successors emerged as a key regional power. With the development of a written code of law, adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet, and embrace of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Bulgarian cultural identity came into focus.
It was during this time that the Rila Monastery was built. Founded in the 10th century on the tomb of hermit and Bulgarian Patron Saint, St. Ivan (aka John) of Rila, the monastery served as a spiritual and cultural hub for medieval Bulgarians. It was also a sacred preserve for literary and religious texts and relics and was venerated by Bulgarian emperors for its holiness. Given the monastery’s great import, defensive fortifications were added for protection.
Over subsequent centuries, Bulgaria once again fell into the hands of invaders, including a long period of Ottoman control from the 15th through the 19th centuries. Initially destroyed in the Ottoman raids, the monastery was rebuilt in 1469 and relics returned to their holy resting place from hideouts in the north. During the long period of Ottoman occupation, the monastery further solidified its role as guardian of Bulgarian national and spiritual values.
In the 19th century, around the time of Bulgarian independence, much of the original monastic site was destroyed in a fire, but soon rebuilt. The reconstruction was overseen by famous architects Alexi Rilets and Pavel Ioanov and included residential buildings and a school. Considered a masterpiece of Bulgarian National Revival architecture, the monastery was declared a national historical monument in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Today, Rila remains the largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria and home to about 60 monks. It is still revered as one of the holiest Orthodox sites in Bulgaria, if not the entire Balkans, and is regularly visited by worshippers.
What to see
Although its exterior looks more like a fortress than a monastery, don’t be fooled by Rila’s austere external façade. Once through the entrance tunnel, an elaborately decorated vaulted entryway opens up to a dazzling site of ecclesiastical beauty — ornate in color, texture, and detail and nearly divine in its effect.
In the center of the cobblestone courtyard sits the Nativity of the Virgin Church, the main structure and crown jewel of the monastery. Capped with five domes and fitted with three altars and two side chapels, its design and scope are mesmerizing.
The church’s black-and-white striped porticoes, reminiscent of eastern influences, wrap expansive façades of colorful tempera frescoes showing religious icons and scriptural scenes. Meanwhile, red-and-white-striped brick walls punctuated with filigree-covered openings lead to the burnished domes, each adorned with a Bulgarian Orthodox cross.
Caption: From the church portico (Source: Shutterstock / Dennis van de Water)
The colossal interior chamber is replete with frescoed walls, carved wood, a massive glass chandelier, and patterned black-and-white marble floors. At the end of the nave, an exquisite iconostasis of carved wood, religious icons, and ornamental gilding glimmers in the soft light. As the story goes, it took four Bulgarian masters over five years to complete the piece.
Adjacent to the church is the 80-foot brick Hrelyo Tower, built in the early 14th century to defend the monastery; it is the oldest structure on the site. Once inside (the entrance fee is a nominal fee $3), you can climb to the top for an awe-inspiring peek of the entire monastery and its beautiful surrounds. Bear in mind, the nearly 700-year old steps are narrow and steep, so wear comfortable shoes and proceed cautiously.
There is also an ecclesiastical museum and icon gallery which includes the extraordinarily ornate Rafail Cross, a singular wood piece (approximately three feet long) covered in over 750 ornately carved biblical figures and scenes. According to legend, in the late 18th century a monk named Rafail used fine burins (a primitive form of chisel) and a magnifying glass to create the piece. He worked on it for twelve years until he lost his sight.
Outside, three stories of arched cloisters reaching 70 feet towards the heavens comprise the interior walls surrounding the church and tower. Here, you will find the site’s monastic apartments, four chapels, and a library housing upwards of 250 manuscripts and 9,000 religious texts.
A few small souvenir stands selling icons, postcards, and other souvenirs are also on the site.
Know before you go
Rila Monastery is a two-hour bus ride from Bulgaria’s capital city Sofia and several tour operators provide service there and back. This one includes a three-hour guided tour and lunch for about $45. A more budget-conscious option includes transport (no guided tour) and a stop at Boyana Church, a beautiful medieval Orthodox church just outside Sofia, for about $28.
Entrance to the monastery is free (except for the small fee to climb the tower), though donations are always graciously accepted. And while food isn’t available within the monastery, it’s not far away. Down the road from the Monastery gates, Restaurant Drushlyavitsa serves simple but delectable Bulgarian trout, pork, sausage, or potato entrées.
Photos are permitted within the courtyard but not inside the church, tower, or residential sections of the monastery. Finally, Rila is a functioning monastery and modest dress should be observed at all times. No shorts, short skirts, or short dresses are permitted, and shoulder coverings are required to enter the church.
For more information, visit the Rila Monastery online.