An oasis of serentity in the Bulgarian highlands
High in the Rila Mountains, hidden by the dense Bulgarian forest, there is a 1,000 year old monastery. Rila Monastery is the largest and oldest Eastern Orthodox religious community in the Balkans; it holds a special place in the hearts of many Bulgarians as this was one of the few isolated places where Bulgarian culture and traditions were kept hidden and alive during the 480 years of Ottoman rule.
We went to visit Rila today with our tour group and had a wonderful afternoon wandering through its halls and admiring the monastery’s unique striped buildings. The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded in the 10th century and is named after the hermit Ivan of Rila. St Ivan (he was beatified during his lifetime) actually lived in a cave not far from the monastery; the monastery itself was built by students who came to the mountains to learn from Ivan. So revered was he in this part of the world that St Ivan of Rila is the patron saint of Bulgaria.
The monastery itself is built as a large square, with 4 floors of residential rooms all facing inwards. The monastery was built to house up to 400 people but today there are only 9 monks living there permamantly. The rooms are rented out to tourists now and make a great retreat if you were looking for somewhere quiet to get away from it all for a few days.
In the centre of the courtyard sits the monastery’s crowing glory: the church. It is an aboslutely stunning cathedral, beautifully decorated in frescos. The interior and, unusually, the exterior of the main church are covered in detailed depictions of the trials a soul must go through after death. The frecos show the gruesome fates that await one’s soul should you be judged as evil, as well as the wonders that await those who live a good life.
Alongside the main church sits the Tower of Hrelyu, the oldest standing part of the monastery. The tower was originally built to provide views over the surrounding valley and provide early warning of any impending attacks (the monestery was attacked by the Ottomans multiple times and sacked numerous times; it was always rebuilt however).
In one corner of the complex there is a small museum. The museum’s main draw card is Rafail’s Cross, a wooden cross made from a whole piece of wood measuring about 80cmx40cm covered in tiny carvings. It was created by a monk named Rafail who worked for 12 years and used magnifying lenses to create an astonishing array of 100 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos in the museum so you’ll have to believe us when we say it was very cool.
We abolsutely loved Rila, it is such a beautiful place, set high in the Rila Mountains against a backdrop of dense forest and snow-capped peaks. There is an air of serenity about it that affected us both – places like the Rila Monastery are truly inspiring.