Rila Monastery is situated in Bulgaria and it is considered the spiritual center of the country and one of the most important places for pilgrimages in the entire Balkan Europe, together with the Athos Mountain and Meteora (in Greece).
The founder of the monastery is St. Ivan of Rila (Ivan Rilski, in Bulgarian) who has constructed the edifice back in the 10th century at 1147 m altitude. Due to its impressive architecture, the monastery has become part of the UNESCO patrimony. The monastery is considered one of most beautiful and famous Orthodox monasteries located on the Bulgarian territory and as such it is an important tourist attraction well renowned in all of Eastern Europe.
The monastery has witnessed an increased number of historical events throughout time and some of them have left deep scars on the edifice. Rila Monastery had been demolished and burnt to the ground by the Turks but it had managed to rise from its own ashes. In fact, in 1999, the image of the monastery was imprinted on the 1 Lev bill, the Bulgarian national currency.
The monastery is situated in close proximity of the mountainous resort Bansko, at a 120 km distance from the Bulgarian capital city, Sofia. Usually, for the orthodox believers the monastery is the final stop of their religious pilgrimage, but for tourists, the monastery is yet another stop in their journey towards a calm and peaceful setting.
The landscapes and the alpine lakes which are accessible to people on their road to the house of worship are breathtaking. After experiencing nature first-handedly, the monastery comes as a serene retreat. Tourists can find accommodation at the monastery and the monks who are permanently dwelling here will do everything in their powers so as to make sure that your stay is perfect. You will also indulge yourself with exquisite dishes prepared in the kitchen of the monastery by the monks themselves.
At present, there are about 20 monks living inside the monastery. While everyone is received with open arms, you have to keep in mind that this is a religious dwelling nonetheless so your attire should be decent.
The monastery stretches over 8800 sq. meters. Upon a first gaze, you might be reluctant to step inside the monastery because the exterior of the edifice is not at all attractive. It resembles more of a citadel which has seen up close the destructive face of warfare. But if you get past this first impression and you venture inside the walls of the monastery, you will be pleasantly surprised. Some of the things that will strike you immediately are the beautiful arches, towers, staircases and balconies.
The artistically painted walls are truly priceless, conveying the monastery with an immense value. The vividly highlighted paintings tell a multitude of stories, some related to the lives of the saints, some retracing the history of Constantinople, while others reflect the all too well-known battle between Good and Evil.
The interior of the monastery is an actual museum as numerous church objects are found within. Probably the most relevant of them all is the Cross of Raphael. This is a crucifix made out of a single piece of wood by the monk Raphael. The maker of the cross had managed to recreate 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figurines using only smooth pieces of wood and lenses. The cross took 12 years to be completed, but the monk who artistically crafted this work of art could not enjoy it as he had gone blind in the meantime.
The central altar had been constructed in 3 years’ time by some of the most famous Bulgarian craftsmen of that time. Although it took quite some time to be finished, the result was worth the waiting as the altar is considered unmatched in beauty by any other of the altars found in the Balkan region.
Another valuable treasure located within the edifice is the impressive collection of ancient manuscripts, icons and documents, the ethnographic exposition of threads, jewelry, and carpets, the huge library which consists of more than 16.000 rare books, as well as the collection of objects made out of cast iron.
If you are interested in finding out more about the founder of the monastery, more precisely about the life that St. Ivan led, then you should definitely check out the cave in which the saint had lived for 10 years. It takes about one hour on foot to reach the cave and you can get directions from any of the monks at the monastery. However, you need to be cautious as you are about to undertake quite the adventure. In order to reach the cave, it is imperative to dispose of climbing equipment, as well as of courage and attentiveness.
The setting is truly impressive as mountainous peaks which reach as much as 2.900 m in height, quick streams and thick forests surround the monastery on all sides. Even if you are not a religious person by nature, it is still worth visiting Rila Monastery. Not only that you will be treated with the utmost courtesy by the monks, but you will find yourself in a secluded and peaceful place, filled with history and art, where you can distance yourself from all the problems of the modern world.