Rila Monastery: Bulgaria’s Cultural and Religious Treasure

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Europe, no question, is among the more popular continents among tourists. Of course, unlike North America, Europe has a wide array of countries—and each offer unique attractions. London, Rome, and France are just some of the more popular European cities, thanks to their iconic sites—the Big Ben, the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower, for instance. Some opt to go rural, visiting countries like Czech Republic, Macedonia, and Malta. Of course, it doesn’t really matter where one goes—Europe is a very colorful continent, full of character and of life, so a tourist will find something he or she would find fascinating regardless of the destination.

Bulgaria is perhaps one of the least popular European countries. In the past years, it has only attracted around five million tourists—an impressive number, but not exactly a feat considering the numbers brought about by more aggressive European countries. However, this does not mean that this European country has nothing to boast about. Bulgaria is renowned for its natural attractions; its beaches, for one, can match the shorelines of more popular beach countries in the Caribbean. And then there’s the country’s cultural heritage and historical richness, something that attracts tourists too, of course. This isn’t really surprising, considering that Bulgaria is among the European countries with a rich but not well known history. For instance, very few people know that Bulgarian kingdoms existed way back during the 7th century, in the Middle Ages—one of the reasons why there are a number of structures in the country with Medieval-themed motif and designs.

One particular structure in Bulgaria made during the Middle Ages is the Rila Monastery, one of the country’s more renowned and famed attractions.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

An offering to a saint

Many think that the Rila Monastery was made by the Orthodox saint of the same name, John of Rila. John of Rila—also known as St. Ivan Rilski, his given name—was revered during his time, with stories saying that the animals were fond of him when he was still alive—to the point that animals of all kinds would come to him. He was once a herder, although he became reclusive after he became a priest at the age of 25. As a monk, he went to the Rila Mountains (the highest mountain range in the country) and devoted his entire life to prayer and devotion. John of Rila settled in a cave in the Rila Mountains. Although a recluse, he was still able to perform miracles, which in turn gave him his reputation. He attracted a number of students who settled near the cave where he stayed. Through this, John of Rila became the country’s first acknowledged hermit, and his miracles even reached the very center of the Bulgarian Empire, prompting then Tzar Peter I to seek spiritual counsel from the famed hermit. According to the stories, the emperor and the hermit met only briefly from afar. He died in 946, leaving him with a testament for the people of Bulgaria. He was later on proclaimed the country’s patron saint.

Obviously, the Rila Monastery was built not by the saint himself—it was built by his students in his honor. The current location of the Rila Monastery (1174 meters in altitude) is merely near the cave where St. Ivan stayed. Again, John of Rila was a recluse, and while he had “students,” he generally avoided any human interaction. His hermit ways—and, consequently, the general idea of the location of the monastery—can be considered as a form of protest against the ways of actual Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church. Bulgaria, after all, is mainly an Eastern Orthodox country, which has the same fundamentals as the Catholic Church but with slightly different beliefs.

Other materials claim that the Rila Monastery was actually founded by St. John of Rila. However, the main belief in the country is that he had nothing to do with its construction. Also, judging from how the saint interacted with people and lived during those times, it was unlikely he had a direct hand in the construction of this iconic Bulgarian monastery. Nonetheless, even if he didn’t have anything to do with it, the Rila Monastery will forever be known as the lasting legacy of a beloved saint—a saint who defied the beliefs of the Catholic Church to continue what he thought work best for his faith.

Collective effort

The Rila Monastery—or at least the very core of what is known today as the Rila Monastery—was built in the 10th century. Today, the Rila Monastery has many sections and buildings, but the compound was originally a simple monastery, considering that it did not have the support of the Bulgarian empire initially. At first, its intention was to function merely as a monastery, but the following centuries saw the evolution of the Rila Monastery, thanks to the active hand of the rulers of the country. Because of this, the Rila Monastery was generally acknowledged as the country’s spiritual center, especially from the 12th up until the 14th century.

In fact, it was during the 14th century when the oldest surviving structure in the Rila Monastery was made. One of the two oldest structures still around is the Tower of Hrelyu, built during the mid 1330s (the other oldest structure was built near the tower, completed in 1343). The Tower of Hrelyu was built by Hrelyu Dragovola, a local feudal lord. Dragovola—as known as Hrelja by the locals—is renowned in Bulgaria and Macedonia during the time. The tower was actually meant to be a defense tower, as the structure itself would reveal. The Tower of Hrelyu is simple—although, as time would reveal, also the sturdiest of all the structures in the compound. Although known as feudal lord (and was presumably killed by the Serbs; his country of origin is Serbia, from where he severed ties with), he became a monk prior to his death. As folklore would suggest, he is a renowned personality, with stories over glorifying him as a protector of the people from the Ottoman Turks.

In any case, besides Hrelyu, other emperors and Bulgerian rulers until the conquest of the Ottoman, helped in the renovation and the reconstruction of the Rila Monastery. During the rule of the Ottoman Turks, the Rila Monastery was neglected, although this was to be expected—generally, the country as a whole was in decline during that period (which lasted until the late 1800s).

Constant rise

Nonetheless, the Rila Monastery persisted—thanks to the help of a number of people who did not the rule of the Ottoman Turks completely destroy what was already then a renowned spiritual and cultural center. In the end, the Rila Monastery survived despite a number of events that could have completed destroyed it. For instance, part of the monastery was destroyed in 1833 due to a fire. This incident was even considered as a national calamity; after all, the Rila Monastery is very important to Bulgaria. However, from then until 1862, Bulgarians collectively renovated the complex through their own efforts and their own funds, under the supervision of an Alexi Rilets, a famous Bulgarian architect at that time. Residential buildings were built, a belfry was added to the monastery’s oldest structure, and a school was founded in the monastery. All of these merely illustrate how important the Rila Monastery is to the people of Bulgaria.

Beyond the religious and spiritual significance of the Rila Monastery, the complex actually had two more relevant functions for the country: its role in the preservation of Bulgarian heritage and the design used in the construction of the monastery.

At one point, the Rila Monastery served as an important repository of written materials. These materials contain relevant information and knowledge pertaining to the country’s religion (after all, St. John of Rila is an important Eastern Orthodox figure, besides being the country’s patron saint; and the Eastern Orthodox has several million members, making it one of the biggest Christian communion in the world). The collection of books in the monastery back to as far back as the 16th century. And since the Ottoman Turks contributed to the decline of the Bulgarian heritage, this collection played a part in the reformation of the country’s heritage (a period called the Bulgarian National Revival).

And because most of the structures in the Rila Monastery were built during different time periods, it is only natural that they illustrate different designs and themes. One notable part of the Rila Monastery is the Church of Nativity; in fact, besides the Tower of Hrelyu, this is one of the most visited sites in the complex. The church was built during the mid 1830s, another action that involved the whole nation. This is actually part of the national revival period of Bulgaria, so the designs here are very significant. Mainly baroque and medieval in influence, these characteristics differentiate the church from all the other churches in the country—and in the area—despite its relatively young age (although a history that spans almost 200 years is impressive, the oldest structure in compound is more than 500-years-old, so the Nativity Church can be considered an infant in those standards).

The church also boasts of paintings made by some of the more famous artists in the country then. The paintings can be considered very Catholic in influence (the designs of the paintings are actually reminiscent of ancient tapestries or art found in other Catholic churches). The themes of the paintings are also very Catholic—from the image of St. John of Rila to the paintings of archangel slaying a demon, from images of Jesus Christ to Adam and Eve; all of which (perhaps with the exception of St. John of Rila) are Catholic figures.

Other notable sites in the Rila Monastery include the medieval church of Hrelio and the apartments within the compound. These apartments served as the living quarters of the people inside the monastery, presumably for the students of the monastery when the school was reinstituted during its renovation. The apartments actually look like a fortress more than anything else, although the design’s simplicity makes it beautiful. Decked with wood carvings, paintings, and medieval-inspired furniture, the 300-room apartments can seen as a sign of the religious devotion of the Bulgarians, especially during the lowest time of their history.

Impact today

Today, the Rila Monastery remains to be one of Bulgaria’s major attractions for tourists—especially those who refer to enjoy the cultural heritage of countries rather than their modern amenities. Remember that the Rila Monastery was built in the Rila Mountains; and while it isn’t exactly as secluded as the cave of St. John of Rila, it isn’t also very accessible. That tourists would go to the Rila Monastery, then, is a feat and an indication of its beauty and its cultural importance not only to Bulgaria but also around the world. In fact, many people actually go to Bulgaria primarily to see the Rila Monastery. Perhaps this is done as a form of pilgrimage—since it can be considered as an important part of the Eastern Orthodox Church—although the complex itself is exquisite and interesting enough without the religious or spiritual motivations. In 1983, the UNESCO included the Rila Monastery as one of its World Heritage in recognition of its cultural importance to the world.

To be sure, Bulgaria has other attractions for tourists. The country, for one, has a very picturesque landscape, and its summer and ski resorts are tourist draws as well. And because the country is known for its cultural heritage, tourists visit Bulgaria to go on ethno-tours, or tours where tourists can experience Bulgarian culture firsthand by interacting and having an emersion with the locals and their communities. Tourists also brave the mountain ranges of the Bulgaria, for its lush forests and virginal surroundings. And yet, anyone who visits the country must not miss the opportunity to visit Bulgaria’s premier attraction, the center of the country’s culture and religion—and probably even the center of the country itself.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

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