the oldest and
largest active religious center in Bulgaria
Rila Monastery is situated in the southwestern
Rila Mountains, 73 miles south of Sofia, in
the deep valley of the Rilska River, at an
elevation of 3,763 feet above sea level.
The monastery was founded by the hermit St.
John of Rila during the rule of Tsar Peter I
(927-968). The hermit actually lived in a cave
without any material possessions not far from the
monastery's location, while the complex was built
by his students, who came to the mountains to
receive their education. The original complex was
completely destroyed in the 13th century.
A new building was constructed a few miles
from the site of the first foundation, and it was
completed in the 14th 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
became a bulwark of national identity in the face
of foreign occupation. It also 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. It
was destroyed by fire in 1833, and then
reconstructed between 1834 and 1862 with the help
of wealthy Bulgarians from across the country,
under architect Alexi Rilets. The erection of the
residential buildings began in 1816, while a
belfry was added to the Tower of Hrelyu in 1844.
Neofit Rilski founded a school in the monastery
during the same period.
In 1961, Rila Monastery was declared Rila
Monastery National Museum. In 1976, it was
declared a National Historical Reserve, and in
1983 it was included on UNESCO's List of World
Cultural Heritage Sites.
The existing structures, with the exception of
the Hrelyu Tower, date to the 19th-century
building project. They occupy a vast area
(approximately 2.1 acres) 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-story constructions, embellished by orders
of arches set upon stone columns.
The Hrelyu Tower is a compact building 75-1/2
feet high, square in plan. The highest of its
five stories 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 buildings 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. Its
architect was Peter Ivanovich, who worked on it
in 1834-1837. The temple has five domes, three
altars and two chapels. One of the most precious
items inside is a gold-plated iconostasis, famous
for its wood-carving, the creation of which took
four craftsmen five years to complete. The
wall-paintings were completed in 1846 by many
masters from Bulgaria, but only Zahary Zagraph
signed his paintings.
The museum of the Rila Monastery is
particularly famous for housing Rafail's Cross, a
wooden cross made from a whole piece of wood
(32×17 inches). It was whittled down by a monk
named Rafail using fine burins and magnifying
lenses to recreate 104 religious scenes and 650
miniature figures. Work on this piece of art
lasted not less than 12 years before it was
completed in 1802, when the monk lost his sight.
Bulgaria Travel http://bulgariatravel.org/en/object/272/Rilski_manastir
Rila Monastery Website http://www.rilamonastery.pmg-blg.com/Home_page_en.htm
UNESCO World Heritage Centre http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/216
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