The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, better known as the Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km (73 mi) south of the capital Sofia in the deep valley of the Rilska River at an elevation of 1,147 m (3,763 ft) above sea level. The monastery is named after its founder, the hermit Ivan of Rila (876 - 946 AD).
Founded in the 10th century, the Rila Monastery is regarded as one of Bulgaria's most important cultural, historical and architectural monuments and is a key tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southern Europe. In 2008 alone, it attracted 900,000 visitors.The monastery is depicted on the reverse of the 1 lev banknote, issued in 1999.
Rila Monastery, the oldest in the Slav world and still the largest active religious centre in Bulgaria, is first and foremost an exceptionally fine artistic complex, in which architecture and painting merge harmoniously. Apart from this, it has been for centuries the seat of the development, preservation, and diffusion of Slav religious culture in all its various manifestations, including literary and artistic, and it became the symbol of Bulgarian cultural identity that was continually threatened by Turkish domination.
The monastery stands about 120 km from Sofia, in the heart of the Rila Massif, located at the north-western extremity of the Rodopi Mountains, a mountainous system with peaks that rise to almost 3,000 m. In this area, which was still covered by forest in AD 876-946, lived the hermit Ivan Rilski (Saint John of Mila), the evangelizer of the Slavic peoples. He was responsible for the construction of the original nucleus of the coenobitic community, a short distance from the cave in which he lived as an anchorite; this nucleus was completely destroyed in the 13th century by fire.
A new building was constructed a few kilometres from the site of the first foundation, and it was completed in the 15th century thanks to the donations of Stefan Hrelyu, a powerful local prince who ordered in 1355 the construction of the tower that still bears his name and a church dedicated to John of Rila, who had in the meantime been canonized.
During the Ottoman Turkish domination of Bulgaria, the monastery took on the role of bulwark of national identity in the face of foreign occupation. It became a destination for pilgrimages from all over the Balkan region, especially after 1469, when the relics of the saint were brought there.
The complex continued to serve this function in the centuries that followed, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it became one of the powerhouses of the Bulgarian Renaissance. This period is documented by the splendid cross that is still preserved in the museum of the monastery, executed and decorated with more than 100 biblical scenes by the monk Raphael, one of the leading figures of the movement.
The existing structures, with the exception of the Hrelyu Tower, date back to the 19th-century building project. They occupy a vast area which forms 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 of the monastery. The complex has an interior courtyard overlooked by three- and four-storey constructions, embellished by orders of arches set upon stone columns which unify their facades and form airy loggias. This is enlivened by the chromatic interplay between the white of the plaster and the red and black hues of the bricks.
The Hrelyu tower is a compact building 23 m high, square in plan. The highest of its five storeys contains a chapel dedicated to the Transfiguration and decorated by a series of frescoes that were done in the second half of the 14th century: in the nave are depicted stories of Saint John of Rila.
Of the building constructed in the 19th century, the most important is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, built in 1833 on the structure of the preceding building. This church houses a magnificent carved wooden iconostasis, executed in 1842 by Athanasios Taladuro of Thessalonica, and many frescoes.
The cultural heritage contained in the monastery is not limited to its buildings, but extends to the works of art and documents that constitute a priceless testimonial to Bulgarian civilization; they are chiefly to be found in the museum and in the library.