Ultimate Bulgarian tourist site inspires legends, modern writers
Bulgarians are proud of the period of their national revival, in the late 18th and 19th centuries. It established the country as a young and energetic nation eager to restore its statehood after five centuries of Ottoman domination. Personalities such as the revolutionaries, Vasil Levski and Hristo Botev, are the poster boys of the era, but the whole revival period, which spans a century, was more complex. Violent revolution against the Sultan was only a part of it and would have been impossible if Bulgarians had not already emancipated themselves culturally, economically and politically. They had to transform from an amorphous part of the Eastern Orthodox community within the Ottoman Empire into a separate national entity ready for independence.
Curiously, the place that embodies the Bulgarians' efforts to define themselves as a modern nation is a medieval monastery. Founded by Bulgaria's most prominent saint, during the centuries of Ottoman domination Rila Monastery was among the few centres in the Bulgarian lands that kept the flame of Bulgarian identity alive. There, monks copied medieval manuscripts, preserved documents issued by Bulgarians kings centuries before and taught new priests.
Celebrating Easter at Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most memorable experiences
In the 18th century, when some Bulgarians began to accumulate wealth, they started to donate generously to Rila Monastery. In the following decades, it became the largest compound that Bulgarians created under the Ottomans, a striking piece of evidence of the nation's ability to unite behind a shared cause: the compound covers a total area of about 1 ha, has over 300 rooms and its fortress-like outer walls rise up to 24 m.
Rila Monastery's medieval beginnings were more humble. Its founder, St Ivan, lived on the cusp of the 10th and 11th centuries, a fateful time. Bulgaria was known and feared far and wide, as a result of the imperial and cultural policies of King Simeon the Great, but his constant wars had exhausted the country and, when he was succeeded by his heir, King Petar, Bulgaria and its people entered a decline. The poor became poorer, the rich got richer and the elite increasingly copied the lavish lifestyle of the archenemy, Byzantium.
Once hundreds of monks used to live and work at Rila Monastery, in the 20th century the community dwindled to less than a dozen
The disappointment and dissatisfaction of ordinary Bulgarians were channelled into two spiritual movements, both of which cherished frugality and piety and despised the vanity of earthly possessions, but were radically different from each other. The Bogomils were a dualistic sect that believed all earthly power, civil and religious, came from the Devil. The only way for them to avoid damnation was to abandon traditional society and live in simple, poor communities. The ascetic movement did not object to the social order. Its adherents just chose to live alone, with their prayers, in some deserted place. That explains why the hermits were not only left alone but were venerated as spiritual leaders while the state and the Church persecuted the Bogomils as heretics.
Ivan of Rila was such a man. Born in an ordinary village, he led an ordinary life until his parents died, when he was 25 years old. Ivan then gave up all his property and became a monk, eventually ending up alone in the high and deserted Rila mountains. The fame of his piety grew and spread, and even King Petar took the trouble to travel all the way from Preslav, the then capital, in the north-east, to visit the hermit. Ivan of Rila would not agree to meet the king and only showed himself from a distance. Of all the lavish presents that Petar had brought, he accepted only the fruit and refused the gold.
Rila Monastery is picturesque year round
Even in the 11th century, however, living a simple, godly life was not easy. Before long the hermit found himself amid a growing community of followers, and was forced to seek solitude farther up the mountain. There he died, supposedly in 946, at the age of 70. Marking his abode today is a small chapel. The monastic community that sprang up in his initial place of habitation turned into Rila Monastery.
The hermit was canonised soon after his death, and in the following centuries his supposedly miraculous remains travelled around Bulgaria. In the 1180s they were notoriously stolen during a Hungarian raid and brought to what would later become Budapest. They were only returned to their rightful home, with much pomp and ceremony, as late as 1469. They are now in the monastery's main church, exhibited for veneration in an elaborate wooden casket.
Hell, a mural from Rila Monastery's main church
There are some details of the life of Ivan of Rila (or the legends about it) that are not that well-known. The hermit is said to have subsisted on a diet of herbs with the aim of embalming himself while still alive. Some stories depict him as notoriously bad-tempered. He would curse whole villages for refusing to give him food or shelter, and caused the death of his young nephew. The boy had decided to become a hermit and joined Ivan. When his angry father reclaimed his son, Ivan of Rila asked God to save the young boy from the woes of earthly life. The nephew never reached home, as he was bitten by a snake and died on the way back.
The sanctity of St Ivan of Rila lingered through the centuries, attracting a never ending stream of donations to Rila, until it grew to be the largest monastic complex in Bulgaria. The earliest surviving building in the closely guarded monastic courtyard is the Hrelyu Tower, a defensive structure with its own small church, built in 1335 by a local aristocrat. The rest of the monastery must have been mighty and stunning, but it was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1778. Restoration took about two decades, during which time, in 1833, a section of the new building was lost to another fire.
This was how and when the strong walls that protect the monastery and the living quarters appeared, soon to be complemented by the striped galleries and the exquisite main church covered inside and out with frescoes shining blue, green, red and yellow, like jewels scattered under the sun. The smell of old wood lingers in the courtyard, blending with the aroma of burning wax and incense from the church, and the fresh air from the mountain. Sadly, the abbot does not allow access to the galleries, from where the beauty and architectural harmony of the complex can best be appreciated.
Harlots suffering in the afterlife, according to 19th century Bulgarian painters
Spirituality and beauty aside, Rila Monastery also provides an informative experience of Bulgaria's distant and more recent past. The monastic library preserves books from the 11th-19th centuries, and among its most precious documents is the Rila Charter, issued by King Ivan Shishman in 1378, which still bears his gold seal. The document specifies the properties of the monastery and how it should be run, making it a precious historical source of life in the 14th century. The monastery museum is predictably rich in icons and other ecclesiastical objects. One exhibit stands out: the Cross of Monk Rafail. Made from a single piece of wood, it is 81 cm high and is covered with 104 religious scenes containing 650 figurines. The cross was finished in 1802, costing its creator 12 years of his life, and his eyesight.
The walls of the main church are covered in murals dedicated to the dangers of sin, like meeting seers
A more poignant story is found in the church itself: in the misty light of one of the naves, a simple cross marks the resting place of King Boris III. Bulgaria's last crowned monarch (his heir was too young and regents ruled instead) died in 1943, soon after he returned from a meeting with Hitler in Germany. Boris III was buried in Rila Monastery, but his remains did not stay there for long. Fearing that his grave would become a place of pilgrimage, the Communists exhumed the corpse in 1946, and reburied it in the former royal palace of Vranya, on the outskirts of Sofia. Then they exhumed it again, and what happened next is not exactly clear. After the collapse of Communism, in 1989, only the embalmed heart of the dead king could be found. It was reburied in Rila Monastery in 1993.
Another man of prominence in Bulgarian history was buried close to the monastery. James Bourchier (1850-1920), the Irish journalist who covered Bulgaria's tumultuous history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, chose to remain in Bulgaria even in death.
The cultural and historical significance of Rila Monastery ensured that even under Communism it continued to be viewed with respect. It was maintained and treated as a place to take visitors on bus tours, as described by John Updike, who visited in 1964 and shared his (unflattering) impressions in a short story, "The Bulgarian Poetess."
The tomb of Irish journalist James Bourchier
In 1961, Rila Monastery was declared a state museum; religious activity declined, and the monastic community shrank to just a few dozen. Almost overnight one of Bulgaria's strongest spiritual centres, that had survived for centuries and effectively preserved the national culture and identity in the darkest times of history, turned into little more than an actively promoted tourist site.
In 1976, the whole area was declared a national historical reserve, and the Monastery was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 for its importance to Bulgaria's history, culture and art.
Today, the monastic community still suffers the consequences of these years. A dozen monks live there and, although Rila Monastery preserves its prestige as Eastern Orthodox Bulgaria's most sacred place, for most Bulgarians it is merely a place to take some nice photos and to light a candle in the main church for "health and good luck," before heading outside to eat trout in one of the overpriced restaurants.
If you want to immerse yourself in the monastery's atmosphere of serenity and calm under the Rila peaks, it is best to book a room and spend the night there.
There are several churches and other religious sites to visit around as well. The Presentation of the Virgin Mary Church in the monastic cemetery has 19th century murals and an ossuary. Three miles beyond the monastery stands the Old Fasting House, supposedly the original burial site of St Ivan of Rila. In 1820, a church, The Dormition of St Ivan of Rila, was erected on the site. A new fasting house marks the burial place of the saint's nephew. Two churches stand there: the 18th century St Luke's possessed such a fine iconostasis that it was taken away and can now be seen in the National History Museum, while the church of the Intercession of the Mother of God dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. On the way to the Old Fasting House there is a newer church, St Theodosius of Tarnovo. Building started in 1956, but ground to a halt under the Communist government and it remains uncompleted.