The disciples of St. John of Rila founded Rila monastery in the first half of the 10th century CE. St. John is considered to be Bulgaria's first hermit to be revered in his own time. It is said that while living a pious life in the Rila mountains, three shepherds came across him and questioned him. Saint John told them of his faith and let the shepherds feed on the chickpeas that grew near him. As they departed one shepherd took some chickpeas without St. John’s blessing, only to find them mysteriously empty upon opening. They returned to apologize and were met with St. john’s forgiveness. It is said that this is the miracle story that caught the attention of the Bulgarian people, during his lifetime many people searched out St. John and he grew a following of dedicated disciples.
The monastery was founded near the cave where the saint had lived, although the majority of structures one can see today were built in 1834.Founded in 10th century, 4km from St John’s original hermitage, Rila Monastery was plundered during the eighteenth century, and repairs had hardly begun when the whole structure burned down in 1833. Its rebuilding was presented as a religious and patriotic duty: urged on by Neofit Rilski, public donations were plentiful and master craftsmen such as Aleksii Rilets and Pavel Milenkov gave their services for free. Work continued in stages throughout the nineteenth century, and the east wing was built as recently as 1961 to display the monastery’s treasures, recognized by UNESCO as part of the World Cultural Heritage. Like the old monastery, it’s ringed by mighty walls, giving it the outward appearance of a fortress.Once you get through the west gate, however, this impression is dispelled by the harmonious beauty of the interior, which even the milling crowds don’t seriously mar. Graceful arches surrounding the flagstone courtyard support tiers of monastic cells, and stairways ascend to top-floor balconies which –viewed from below – resemble the outstretched petals of flowers. Bold red stripes and black-and-white check patterns enliven the facade,contrasting with the sombre mountains behind, and creating a visual harmony between the cloisters and the church within.
The monastery church has undulating lines, combining red and black design with arches and a diversity of cupolas. Richly coloured frescos shelter beneath the porch and within the interior – a mixture of scenes from rural life and Orthodox iconography, executed by muralists from Razlog, Bansko and Samokov, including early nineteenth-century Bulgaria’s greatest artist Zahari Zograf. The mural on the church’s exterior include archetypal images of cataclysm: the fall of Constantinople, apocalypses and visions of hell, plagued by the bat-winged demons that seemingly loomed large in the Bulgarian imagination. The wrong-doings of sinners are portrayed with a love of grotesque detail; one picture shows rich men quaffing wine around a table, ignoring the pleas of a begging leper whose legs are being gnawed by dogs.
Inside the church, the iconostasis is particularly splendid: almost 10m wide and covered by a mass of intricate carvings and gold leaf, it’s one of the finest achievements of the Samokov woodcarvers. A chapel on the right of the nave contains the heart of Tsar Boris III, buried beneath a simple wooden cross. Boris died of a mystery illness after a visit to Berlin in 1944, prompting many to speculate that he’d been poisoned by his Nazi hosts. After 1945, the Bulgarian Communists scattered his remains in the Iskar gorge in order to prevent his his grave from becoming the focus of anti-Communist sentiment, but the former monarch’s principal organ survived, to be ceremonially interred here in 1993.
Beside the church rises Hrelyo’s Tower, the sole remaining building from the fourteenth century, which you can ascend in order to visit the top-floor chapel. Its founder – a local noble – apocryphally took refuge as a monk here and was supposedly strangled in the tower; hence the inscription upon it: “Thy sobs and grieves, weeping bitterly, consumed by sorrow”. Huge cauldrons that were once used to feed pilgrims occupy the old kitchen on the ground floor of the north wing, where the soot-encrusted ceiling has the shape and texture of a gigantic termites’ nest. Various rooms await inspection on the floors above, where the spartan refectory contrasts with the more salubrious, panelled guest rooms, named after the towns which endowed them.The ethnographic collection on the second floor of the north wing is most notable for its carpets and silverware, while beneath the modern east wing there’s a wealth of objects in the treasury. These include icons and medieval gospels; Rila’s charter from Tsar Ivan Shishman, written on leather and sealed with gold in 1378; the door of the original monastery church; and a miniature cross made by the monk Raphael during the 1790s. Composed of 140 biblical tableaux containing more than 1500 human figures (each the size of a grain of rice), this took twelve years for Raphael to carve with a needle, and cost him his eyesight.
Rila National Park
This is the largest national park in Bulgaria, situated in the highest central regions of the Rila Mountains. According to the website of Rila National Park: “The Park contains rare and endangered wildlife species and communities, self-regulating ecosystems of biological diversity, as well as historic sites of global cultural and scientific significance. Some of the largest rivers in the Balkan Peninsula originate here. The name Rila is derived from the Thracian word roula, meaning ‘lots of water.’”