These facts about Rila Monastery or the Monastery of Saint Ivan in Rila, Bulgaria are less known by most people. Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. 

The Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century by the hermit St. Ivan of Rila, during the rule of Tsar Peter I (927-968) and is a must-visit tourist attraction in Bulgaria. The Monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most important historical, cultural, and architectural monuments.

Rila Monastery

This sanctuary of culture, education, and history over the centuries is located in one of the highest mountains on the Balkans, Rila mountains.

Today Rila Monastery is the biggest monastery in Bulgaria with about 250 monk rooms and everyday, in the morning and in the afternoon, are held services.

It is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, 117 km south of the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia.

The Rila Monastery is one of Bulgaria’s most famous UNESCO Word Heritage sites.

Facts About Rila Monastery You Didn’t Know

Let’s take a look at some facts about Rila Monastery that most people do not know. If know more facts please, don’t hesitate to share with us.

Also Read: Why You Should Visit Seven Rilla Lakes in Bulgaria

Rila monastery and the river valley

Facts About Rila Monastery
© Instagram | @rumen_zografov

1. The first Bulgarian architect designed the Monastery is Aleski Rilets

The first Bulgarian architect Aleski Rilets is responsible for the design of this monastery. He designed the architectural plan and led the creation of the eastern wing, the north wing included with its well-known monastery kitchen and the western wing.

This is portrayed by 3 plaques above the mill’s doors, the Dupnitsa and the Samokov entrances.

Unfortunately in 1833, a fire destroyed the monastery. In the followed reconstruction more than 3000 architects took part and finished the monastery in a stunning record of 10 days.

2. The Monastery was founded by St. Ivan of Rila, the first Hermit of Bulgaria

During the reign of Tsar Peter I the monastery was founded by the hermit St. Ivan of Rila, and it was named in his honor. He is also known as Saint John Of Rila Wondermaker.

Shortly after the saint’s death, with the help of the sultan’s widow, the remains of St. John of Rila were transferred back from Tarnovo to the Rila Monastery, during the reign of Peter I. It was believed that they have wonder-working powers.

3. Rila Monastery is founded in the 10th century 

Founded in the 10th century, Rila Monastery is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. It was founded by Ivan Rilski (St.John of Rila), whose name it bears Ivan of Rila and was canonized by the Orthodox church.

The hermit St. Ivan of Rila lived in a cave nearby the monastery’s location without any material possessions, while his students, who came to the mountains to receive their education built the complex.

4. In the 14th century the Monastery was raided and destroyed by the Ottomans

At the end of the 14th century, the arrival of the Ottomans was followed by numerous raids and the destruction of the monastery in the middle of the 15th century.

At the end of the 15th century, three brothers from the region of Dupnica rebuilt the Rila Monastery with donations from the Russian Orthodox Church, the Sultana Mara Branković, and the Rossikon monastery of Mount Athos.

5. Pavel Loanov constructed the main church at the Monastery

Bulgarian architect Pavel Loanov worked on the main church of the monastery in the middle of the 19th century and it was built from 1834 to 1837.

The gold-plated iconostasis is one of the most precious items inside the church and it is a wood-carving masterpiece worked on by four handicraftsmen over five years timespan.

The frescoes in the church were done by the famous brothers Zahari Zograf and Dimitar Zograf as well as Bansko, Samokov and Razlog. 

Rila Monastery
Photo by Chris Hristov on Unsplash

6. The Monastery has preserved the Bulgarian culture and art in the ages of Ottoman rule

The complex had an important cultural and spiritual education role and acted as a depository of Bulgarian language and culture in the ages of Ottoman rule. Bulgarian revolutionaries such as Vassil Levski, Gotse Delchev, Peyo Yavorov, etc use the monastery as one of their hideouts.

Schools were founded in the Rila monastery during the Bulgarian Renaissance including the school founded in the monastery during the period by Neofit Rilski.

The monastery is one of the foremost masterpieces of Bulgarian National Revival architecture, and in 1976 was declared a national historical monument.

7. Rila Monastery has one of the largest collections of ancient manuscripts

The monastery has a very rich library with over 250 manuscript books from the 11th – 19th century, 9000 old-printed books, manuscripts and more making it one of the largest libraries today. 

8. Rila Monastery is UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 1983 Rila Monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its more than 1000 years of history and impressive architectural and natural beauty.

There are 8 other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria

9. The reverse of the 1 lev banknote from 1999 was depicted to the monastery

The monastery is depicted on the reverse of the 1 lev banknote, issued in 1999 is another interesting fact from our list of top facts about Rila Monastery.

10. There is a museum located in the monastery

The museum of the Rila Monastery has many valuable icons, dating from the 14th to the 19th century, papyrus scrolls, books, chalices, crosses, certificates, and ethnographical items, over 35 000 exponents. It is also famous for housing Rafail’s Cross, a wooden cross made from a whole piece of wood that took 12 years to complete.

Monk named Rafail used magnifying lenses, fine chisels, little knives in order to carve 650 tiny figures and 104 religious scenes into the cross and by the time of completion, he has lost his sight.

11. There are about 300 residential apartments at the Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery is the largest monastery in Bulgaria with an area is 8800 m² and about 300 monk rooms, cells, a kitchen, four chapels, an abbot’s room, a library, and a donor’s room. Some of these rooms are used by visitors if they have to stay to sleep at the monastery. 

St ivan Rilski Rila Monastery fresco
Photo by Pudelek on WikiMedia

12. It is situated in 1147 meters altitude

St. Ivan Rilski is situated in Rila mountain – the highest mountain in Bulgaria. The place was specially chosen because the special mountain’s energy and connection with nature is extremely strong in this area.

The monastery is located inside of Rila Monastery Nature Park, situated at an elevation of 1,147 m above sea level.

13. It is one of the most popular tourist attraction for both Bulgaria and Southern Europe

As one of Bulgaria’s most important historical, cultural, and architectural monuments the monastery attracts many tourists from Bulgaria and Southern Europe, and in 2008 alone, it was visited by almost a million people.

14. The International Federation of Travel Writers and Journalists (FIJEST) awarded Golden Apple

The International Federation of Travel Writers and Journalists (FIJEST) recognized the highest award Golden Apple Rila Monastery for its cultural tourism in 1980.

15. The monastery has 24-meter stone walls

The shape of the monastery forms an irregular pentagon with 24-meter stone walls and two heavy iron gates. The whole complex is masterpieces of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.

How to get to Rila Monastery? 

Since its founding, the monastery has become a literary and educational center. Paisii Hilendarski and Neofit Rilski studied and worked in the holy monastery

The monastery is situated in the southwestern Rila Mountains, and about 117 km south of the capital Sofia. You can get to Rila monastery in any of the following ways:

By car: If you have a car you can follow the route Soifa-Kulata and take the exit for Kocherinovo village and from there are 30 more km until you reach the monastery.

By train: The train doesn’t go all the way to the monastery it goes to Dupnitsa. First, you take the train from Sofia Central Train Station to Dupnitsa then take the bus from Dupnitsa to Rila Monastery. The bus leaves from Dupnitsa at 6:40 am or 02:15 pm. 

By bus: There is a direct bus line from Sofia to Rila Monastery every morning at  10:20 am.

By shuttle: You can use the daily Rila Shuttle service from Sofia to Rila Monastery.

Do you know some other facts about Rila Monastery?

Let me know your experience if you have visited the Rila Monastery or if you know some other interesting facts about the Monastery of Saint Ivan in Rila. Tag @stunning_bulgaria on Instagram and hashtag it #stunning_bulgaria.

While I have you here, may I suggest a few other places you should visit on your next trip:

Featured Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

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