Rila Monastery – Rila Mountain

Rila Monastery of the Monastery of Saint Ivan /John/ of Rila is the largest and the most famous Orthodox Monastery in Bulgaria and since 1983 UNESCO World Heritage Site. Saint Jovan was Serbian ascetic hermit who spent all his life in prayer in hermitages in the Rila area and died on 18 August 946 in the age of seventy. Holy relics of Saint John of Rila were transferred to Sofia, and then to Hungary and further to Tarnovo, and finally to the Rila Monastery, where they are kept until the present day. The Monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 – 946 AD) and ever since its creation, the Rila Monastery has been supported and respected by the Bulgarian rulers. Large donations were made by almost every tzar of the Second Bulgarian Empire up until the Ottoman Conquest in 1396, making the Rila Monastery a cultural and spiritual center of Bulgarian national consciousness. The Rila Monastic complex acted as a depository of Bulgarian language and culture in the ages of foreign rule.

Rila Monastery is situated at an elevation of 1147 meters, 117 km south of Sofia, in the heart of the Rila Mountain massif, whose peaks rise up to 3000 meters. Founded in the 10th century, Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria’s most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and a key tourist attraction of Bulgaria and the Balkans. The entire complex of Rila Monastery occupies 8800 s q m. From the outside Rila Monastery looks like a fortress, but impresses anyone who enters inside the complex. It has 24-meters long stone walls which form irregular pentagon making visitors entering the Monastery yard through some of the two iron gates, astonished by its architecture : arches and colonnades, covered-up by wooden stair and verandas and 300 – 400 monastic cells.

Rila Monastery got its name after the anchorite Ivan /John/ of Rila, Bulgarian hermit and saint canonized by the Orthodox Church who was spreading religious activity throughout the whole East Christianity. His ascetic dwelling and tomb close to the cave in which he lived as an anchorite became the holy site and were transformed into a monastic complex which played an important role in the spiritual and social life of the Medieval Bulgaria. Between 1834 and 1862 after disastrous fire at the early 19th century Rila Monastery complex was rebuilt. Rila Monastery is characteristic example of the Bulgarian Renaissance /18th – 19th centuries/ and monument that symbolizes the awareness of Slavic cultural identity following centuries of occupation. Rila Monastery has been for centuries the seat of the development, preservation, and diffusion of Slavic religious culture in all its various manifestations, including literary and artistic, and it became the symbol of Bulgarian cultural identity continually threatened by Turkish domination.

Stefan Dragovol Hrelya Omucevic was 14th century Serbian semi-independent feudal prince and the powerful ruler of the large region of the northeastern Macedonia who acknowledged Serbian suzerainty and served the Medieval Serbian kings. In 1355, he ordered the construction of the tower that still bears his name. The Hrelya tower of the Rila Monastery is a compact 23 meters high structure, square in plan. The highest of its five stories contains the chapel dedicated to Transfiguration, decorated with a series of frescoes completed in the second half of the 14th century: in the nave, there are stories from life of Saint John of Rila depicted. It is to assume that Hrelja’s Tower used as a protection for the monks, as well as a cache for valuables, a jail or a place to isolate mentally ill people. Hrelya died in 1342 in the Rila Monastery as the monk Hariton and found his final rest in the church he had reconstructed. Byzantine Tsar John VI Kantakouzenos awarded Hrelya the city of Melnik and the title of protosebastos. Inscription on the tower says :

During the rule of the most supreme lord King Stefan Dušan, lord Protosebastos Hrelja, with great work and at a great expense built this tower to the holy father saint John of Rila and to the Mother of God called Osenovitsa, in the year 6843 in-diction fifth /1334–1335/”.

The existing present Rila Monastery structures, with the exception of the Medieval Hrelya Tower, date back to the 19th century and occupy a vast area forming an irregular square, provided with two entrances, both decorated with frescoes. The building that surrounds it contains four chapels, a refectory and some 300 cells, a library and rooms for the guests visiting the monastery. The complex has an interior courtyard overlooked by three- and four-level constructions, embellished by orders of arches set upon stone columns that unify their facades and form airy loggias. The chromatic interplay between the plaster whiteness and the red and black bricks hues decorates the whole Rila Monastery complex.

The main Rila Monastery Church built in the middle of the 19th century according to the plans of architect Peterl Ivanov is dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin. The Nativity of the Virgin Church has five domes, three altar niches and two side chapels, while one of the most precious items inside is the gold-plated iconostasis, famous for its woodcarving that took five years to four handy artisans. The frescoes completed in 1846 are the work of many masters from Bulgaria’s centers of wall painting from Bansko, Samokov and Razlog, including the famous brothers Zachary and Dimitar Zograph. The church is also home to many valuable icons, dating from the 14th to the 19th century.

The most important among Rila Monastery structure is the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady, built in 1833 on the structure of the preceding building. This Assumption church of Rila Monastery houses the magnificently carved wooden iconostasis, executed in 1842 by Athanasios Taladuro of Thessaloniki, and many frescoes. The main Rila church “The Nativity of the Virgin” is located in the formed frame of the monastery’s shape making the unique symbioses with the medieval Hrelya’s tower. Plenty of frescoes cover the church depicting Biblical stories about the Day of Judgment, Adam and Eva, the Baptism of Jesus Christ. Inside there are also numerous frescoes. The church consists of two chapels with the iconostasis of St. Nicola and the iconostasis of St. Joan Rilsky. The first one is smaller than the iconostasis of St. Joan Rilsky and there are lots of traces of replacement and adaptation of the old one. The woodcarving of the iconostasis in the chapel “St. Joan Rilsky” is exceptionally detailed and rich. The architectural composition consists of a line of the down tables, a line of the up icons, divided to tree parts. The Rila Monastery Museum is particularly famous for the wooden Rafael’s Cross – a whole piece of wood /81×43 cm/ whittled down by a monk named Rafael using fine burins and magnifying lenses to recreate 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. Work on this piece of art lasted more than 12 years before completed in 1802, when the monk lost his sight.

Rila Mountain

The Rila Mountain rises in the southwestern part of Bulgaria and makes a safeguarded place for national and world treasures – undisturbed wilderness, wild animals, and rare plants. The Rila Nature Reserves are included in the United Nations list of national parks and reserves. In March, 1977, the reserve was added to the list of biospheres recognized by UNESCO under the auspices of its “People and Biospheres” program. The picturesque Predela saddle divides Rila Mountain from the Pirin Mountain to the south but to the north Rila Mountain is connected with Verila Mountain by the Klisura saddle. Rila Mountain reaches the valley of the Struma River to the east and the beautiful valley of the Maritsa River to the northeast. Rila Mountain also reaches the Rhodope Mountains to the southeast. With its length of 480 km, Maritsa or Evros River is the longest river that runs solely in the interior of the Balkans. Maritsa River has its origin in the Rila Mountains, flowing southeast between the Balkan and Rhodope Mountains, passing Plovdiv and Parmomay to Edirne, Turkey, where it forms a beautiful delta and flows into the Aegean Sea.

The most visited part of the Rila Mountain is its northwestern part, where the gorgeous and popular seven Rila Lakes are situated. The Rila National Park covers the area of 81046 hectares and is the biggest of all three National Parks in Bulgaria making also one of the biggest in Europe. The Rila National Park contains takes the southwestern part of Bulgaria on the territory of four regional centers. These are Blagoevgrad region, Sofia region, Pernik region and Kuystendil region. Some of the largest rivers in the Balkan Peninsula originate here (the name Rila derives from the Thracian “roula”, meaning “lots of water”.

Borovets is the oldest winter resort in Bulgaria with a history from 1896! Today Borovets is the biggest and most modern winter resort in Bulgaria. Borovets lies on the northern slopes of the Mousala ridge in the eastern part of Rila Mountain. Huddled in venerable pine woods, 1390 meters above the sea level (with highest ski runs at 2600 m), Borovets makes a perfect place for relax and recreation. There are forty-five km of slopes in Borovets from different difficulty levels and length ski, combined in 3 areas: Sitnqkovo – Martinovi Baraki slopes; Markudjik- four runs and Qstrebec – three pistes. Borovets is a traditional host of different winter sports competitions; the resort has twice hosted World Cup competitions in Alpine skiing and its biathlon track is one of the best across Europe. The Borovets climate is also very healthy.  Thanks to the fact that Borovets is only 73 km away from Sofia and 126 km from Plovdiv, it is very easily reachable and attractive tourist and winter ski resort. Samokov is only 10 km away, from where there is regular transportation to the Borovets resort. Borovets is a heaven not only for the skiers, but also for the hikers during the summer.