Rila Monastery was founded in the first half of the tenth century – just three centuries after the establishment of Bulgaria as a country. This was the time when our country was already playing a key role in the political and cultural life of South-eastern Europe. The monastery has existed for more than a thousand years, during which time it has preserved and enriched the national valuables and traditions. In difficult times, when Bulgaria was not a free country, the monastery served as an unofficial meeting place for education and culture. It then also supported the intensive liaisons with close and far-away countries. For many ages it was a keeper of Bulgarian literature, art and crafts. The monastery was called after the Saint Ivan who lived there ay the end of the ninth and in the beginning of the tenth centuries. He ran away to the Great Rila dessert after his family and relatives did not accept his choice to become a monk and kept trying to convince him to go back to worldly life. Because of his family interference, another story was about to happen. His nephew Luka wanted to live with him. But his father came to take him away, doomed the Saint and threw rocks at him. The father took his child and started going down when a snake bit the little boy. The boy died but his soul went back to the hermit. Soon after, the church “St. Luka” was built in the memory of the boy and it was situated near the monastery. The walls of “St. Luka” are rich in drawings and for the first time in Bulgarian iconography astrological zodiac signs were written on the floor. The Rila saint was a righteous man and one who healed. Verbal and written stories are a proof of that. However, it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between legend and reality, fiction and truth. A serious written proof is the Testament, which Ivan Rilski left himself and which came to us later. About 40 minutes away, walking distance, over the North slope of Rila stands the old place “Postnitzata” (“Fasting Place”). Here, according to Ivan Rilski’s biography book, lived and was buried St. Ivan. Through a narrow cage hole you could clime up to a beautiful viewing plaza but every enthusiast who has made it this far, should keep in mind that only those who are righteous can pass through it. It is interesting to note that when he sensed the breath of death, Ivan Rilski prepared his own grave and filled it with weeds that were special and only known to him. Thanks to those weeds, his body did not turn into ashes, it turned into relics. He was then pronounced a Saint. Initially the relics were moved to Sredetz (today’s Sofia) and later – in 1197, Tzar Assen moved them to the new capital Turnovo. During the Ottoman Empire the relics were returned to Rila Monastery and thousands of people followed the Saint to his “home”. The religious procession became a sort of protest against the oppressors. Since the very creation of Rila Monastery, a rule was established which said that anyone who lives in the monastery should be literate. Two schools helped for that – one of the schools was an elementary school, the other taught refinement. Probably due to this fact, the monastery’s library was one of the largest in Bulgaria at that time. It had a collection of 32 000 books, the most valuable of which were about 25 hand-written works – created in the monastery itself. Today the monastery museum is not only exceptionally rich but also well arranged. It is worth it to see all of that. Without a doubt, one of the most interesting things is the carved cross, made by the monk Rafail out of a special kind of wood. Some researchers of South Christian art define the making of crosses as “monastery hand-made work”. On its two sides there are 36 scenes and about 200 figures carved. The skilled hand of Rafail has incorporated many Biblical stories in each small area, modelled with live plastic figurines. Every motif, every curved miniature speaks of art’s eternity. Rafail worked on the unique cross for 12 years, from 1790 to 1802 when he finally went blind over it. The work of Rafail could be compared to a type of a Christian heroic deed. We would also recommend that you visit the “magernitza” – the monastery’s kitchen. It is the best-preserved building there. It was built after the last big fire in 1833, which almost turned the place into ruins. The fireplaces with the big caldrons have been preserved, whereas each one of them can hold an entire ox. It once had the capacity of feeding 4, 000 people at one time. There is no other such monastery kitchen on the Balkans, not just because of its impressive size. The low ceiling, which also serves the purpose of a chimney, looks like a fish turned with its scales inside out. Thanks to pyramid-like arches and ornaments of different sizes, self-learned craftsman reached the stable height of 22 meters. The same static principle of stability was used 56 years later by engineer Eifel for his iron tower in Paris. Rila Monastery, the biggest on the Balkan Peninsula, is the most monumental architectural landmark of the Bulgarian Renaissance. The only older monument is the Hrelyova tower, build 1333-1335, which makes the monastery look like an ancient feudal fortress. Difficult to access from the outside, the building of the monastery is spacious and bright, delicate and majestic. It spreads on 32, 000 sq. m. and there are more than 300 rooms in it. Guest rooms are the most beautiful – created and kept by donor-cities such as Koprivshtitza, Teteven and Chirpan. There are separate wings colored in white, yellow, red, black, and brown. They all remind of the multicolored Bulgarian embroidery. This absolute piece of art of the Renaissance overwhelms with majesty and intimacy, with the beauty of it multicolored facades. Covered galleries-porches with joyful shades, drowned in shadow or “bathing” in sunlight; clean lines of white columns, framed by red and black contours; happy little spots with arch-like facades; interlaced artwork of open stairways, similar to those of a giant ship with a number of decks – all of this is Rila Monastery! Enjoy it!
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