Bulgaria’s largest and most renowned monastery emerges abruptly out of a forested valley in the Rila Mountains. It’s a major attraction for both Bulgarian pilgrims and foreign tourists and 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 lies between the Rilska river and the Drushlyavitsa river, at 1147 m above mean sea level. It is located about 120 km away from Sofia, making it a very nice daytrip.
The monastery was founded in AD 927 by hermit monk Ivan Rilski. Originally built 3km to the northeast, it came to its current location in 1335. By the 14th century’s end, it had become a powerful feudal fiefdom. Though it was plundered early in the 15th century, the monastery was restored in 1469, when Rilski’s relics were returned from Veliko Târnovo. Rila Monastery was vital to the preservation of Bulgarian culture and religion under Ottoman rule, even though the Ottomans sacked it several times.
Rila’s greatest modern catastrophe was an 1833 fire that nearly engulfed all monastic buildings. An inundation of funds from Bulgarian and foreign donors allowed reconstruction to commence within a year. In 1961 the Communist regime proclaimed Rila a national museum, and 22 years later it became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
A museum which exhibits items providing information about the history of the monastery throughout the centuries was established in Rila holy cloister at the end of the 19th century is located inside the monastery. The museum exhibition comprises valuable examples of Bulgarian and foreign art from the 14th – 19th centuries. The most valuable exhibit is the wooden cross decorated with exquisite miniature wood-carvings by Father Rafail. The master wood-carver used the finest chisels and tools and worked for many years until he finally finished his masterpiece in 1802, when he lost his sight as a result of the hard toil. It depicts 36 biblical scenes – 18 on each side, and over 600 miniature figures.
The Rila Mountains
On the way back to Sofia we took a detour to the start of the hiking trail that leads up to the Seven Rila Lakes. After a steep climb with the car, you’re not there yet; a lift will take you the last two kilometers to the summit.
Every year on August 19, the day we visited, there is a large gathering of the White Brotherhood or Danovites, who congregate to celebrate their New Year. The celebration takes place near Kidney Lake and consists of ritual rhythmic unison dancing in a large circle. For the Danovites, the Rila Mountains are a holy place where thousands of devotees gather every year to greet the dawn.
Even though we didn’t see the Seven Lakes (which I’m sure I will do someday), the view was simply stunning and well worth the effort.