Rila Monastery – Bulgarian Christian Heritage

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery is the most famous spiritual center in Bulgaria, one of the biggest functioning monasteries in the world. It is situated in the northwest part of the Rila Mountains in the valley of the Rila River at an altitude of 1150 m above sea level. To the monastery leads quite a steep winding road, which ends with a flat area. Once on it, tourists as if enter another world: they see an impregnable fortress, where in the center, surrounded by a colonnade, stands a church. Rila Monastery was built on the place of the death and burial of John of Rila, one of the patrons of the country. The monastery has the status of stauropegial: the cross was erected on it by the patriarch himself.

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Basic Information

At first sight, the building is strikingly beautiful: openwork arches, colorful frescoes with the faces of saints and scenes from scripture, covering the entire interior, including transitions and domes, carved gates from the 14th century, a tower with a chapel.

Nowadays the shrine is visited by tourists to learn more about the deeds of the saint, enjoy the beautiful architecture of the monastery and the unique wall paintings of the icons. There are especially many pilgrims during patronal holidays: July 1 – the day of bringing the relics of St. John of Rila from Tarnovo to the monastery, August 18 – date of the death of the saint and October 19 – transfer of the relics from Sredets to Tarnovo.

Also, historians and philologists come to the monastery, because the local library contains valuable books, many of which exist in a single copy.

History of Rila Monastery

The Venerable John of Ryla, who during his lifetime was numbered among the saints, lived for a long time as a hermit in the mountains, preaching asceticism and spiritual self-improvement. The fame of his wisdom spread throughout the region, and near the cave where he dwelt, his followers founded a monastery in 927. Their work was supported by the authorities and soon the place became not only a religious but also a cultural center of the country.

During the Ottoman dominion Rila Monastery made a significant contribution to the preservation of the Bulgarian language and culture. A fire in 1833 destroyed most of the buildings, but thanks to the efforts and help of the believers the monastery was restored to its present appearance.

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At the end of the 20th century, the monastery was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Remarkably, it is still active today – it is permanently inhabited by 8 monks.

Monastic treasures

Rila Monastery is visited primarily to touch the shrines kept there. The relics of St. John of Rylski, which have miraculous properties, are in a shrine in front of the altar icon of Jesus Christ. They are hidden behind a velvet curtain, which is lifted at the end of services and on feast days. They may also be shown at the request of pilgrims. After a prayer, which is read near the imperishable remains of the saint, all those present are given a consecrated piece of cotton. The images of John of Rylsky, which are in the chapel of Nicholas the Wonderworker and above the shrine of the relics, are also attributed the ability to heal from many diseases.

One of the most famous icons of Rila Monastery is the image of the Mother of God “Hodegetria”, which means “Guide”. Many miracles are associated with this shrine, but most often people turn to it for healing. It is not just an icon, but a reliquary, which contains the incorruptible remains of 32 saints: Lazarus, the First Martyr Stephen, the Apostles Andrew and Matthew, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John the Merciful, the Martyr Andrew Stratilatus, St. Mary Magdalene, and others, with a small image of Our Lady in the very center. The relics are arranged in separate cells, and their names are engraved on silver partitions. The iconostasis also includes a magnificent fresco depicting the faces of these same saints.

Passing into the northern part of the Rila Monastery, visitors find themselves in a museum. The center of its rich display is the carved altar cross of monk Raphael. The shrine, the height of which is a little over 80 cm, is made of linden. The master spent 12 years on its production and lost his sight and health at work, but now people can admire a real work of art. It depicts more than 100 different biblical scenes, and carved 650 figures of saints – each of them no bigger than a grain of rice.

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In addition, the museum contains the first globe made in Bulgaria, a huge collection of coins, weapons, a rich collection of icons. The pride of the monastery is the library that includes unique manuscripts and old printed books. Some of them date back to the 11th century.

To get acquainted with the way of life of monks and learn more about how their day passes, will allow the exhibition “Monastery economy”. During the tour, tourists will also be shown the cells of the clergy.

When you come to the monastery, you should definitely visit the cave of the “abbot of all Bulgaria” John of Rylski, where he spent the last days of his life. The modest chapel of St. Luke and St. John of Rylski points to this place.

Visiting the Monastery

The Rila Monastery welcomes visitors daily from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. In summer you can also climb the tower: it offers a beautiful view of the courtyard and the surrounding mountains.

There are rooms for pilgrims in a separate building, so you can spend the night here if you want. However, it’s important to keep in mind the rules of conduct, as this is an active monastery, not a hotel.

You can reach it from any Bulgarian resort – there are regularly organized excursions to the shrine. If tourists want to go on an independent journey, it is better to leave from Sofia. From the bus station Ovcha Kupel every day at 10:20 a.m. there is a bus to Rila station, from where you can take a cab (the monastery is only 10 km away). Back bus leaves at 17:00. Approximate ticket price – 11 BGN. You can also go to Dupnitsa, and from there take a direct flight to Rila Monastery, but you need to check the schedule beforehand.

Another option is to rent a car. You will need an international driver’s license and a passport. In addition, the renter must have at least 3 years of driving experience. Customers under 21 years of age have special requirements: they often have to pay an inflated rate.

For large groups a handy option would be to rent a tourist bus. In this case, holidaymakers will be able to visit several other attractions on the way.

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Rila monastery

Rila Men's Monastery

Rila Monastery or Rila Monastery is the largest stavropigial monastery of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. It is located in the north-west of the Rila mountain range, 117 km south of Sofia, in the valley of the Rila River (left tributary of the Struma River) at an altitude of 1147 m above sea level.

Rila Monastery (Bulgarian Manastir “St. Ivan Rilski” – “monastery of St. John of Rila”) was founded at the end of X century. In 1983 it was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Rila Monastery is especially actively visited by tourists staying in Sofia or the balneological and ski resort Borovets.


History [ edit ]

According to legend, it was founded in the 30s of the 10th century by the Venerable John of Rila (876-946), whose name it bears from the reign of the Bulgarian King Peter I (927-968). Saint John lived in a cave not far from the present monastery, while the monastery itself was built by his disciples who came to the mountains to continue their studies.

Almost from its inception, the monastery has been supported and venerated by the rulers of Bulgaria. Almost every head of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, until the conquest of Bulgaria by the Ottoman Turks, gave large sums of money to the monastery, making it the cultural and spiritual center of Bulgaria. The heyday of the monastery was the period from the 12th to the 14th century.

In XIV century, after the earthquake, the monastery was thoroughly rebuilt local feudal lord Hrelyo Dragol, transforming it into a solidly fortified architectural ensemble. Nevertheless, in the mid-15th century, the Turks looted and destroyed the holy place. The tower (1334-1335), named after Dragovol, and the throne of the bishop and the carved gate of the medieval church that burned down in 1833 have been preserved to this day.

In the second half of the fifteenth century began the spiritual and cultural revival of the monastery. In 1466, three brothers from Kyustendil David, Theophanes and Joasaph obtained a special protection from the sultan in Constantinople and concluded an agreement of mutual assistance between the Rila Monastery and the Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos (the original document is kept in the monastery museum). In 1469 they transferred the relics of St. John of Rila from the capital Tarnovo, which had been destroyed by the Turks. The monastery was also revived and equipped thanks to the donations of the Russian Orthodox Church, in 1558 a whole delegation of Rila monks was sent to Moscow in search of money, church utensils and books. In the XVI-XVII centuries the contacts with the other neighbors – Serbian, Romanian, Greek monasteries and especially with the Slavic monasteries on the Holy Mountain extended.

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During the Ottoman dominion the monastery was the keeper of the Bulgarian language and culture. During the Bulgarian National Revival (XVIII-XIX century), the monastery was burned by fire (1778, 1833), but was restored. The whole country collected money. It was then that the territory of the monastery acquired its present appearance. In 1844 Neophytes of Rila established a school at the monastery.

The monastery keeps the relics of John of Rylski and the miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary “Odigitriya” (“Guide”) with thirty-two quadrangular partitions with the relics of the saints, one of the three most revered icons in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church [1].

In 1976 the monastery was recognized as a National Historical Monument and in 1983 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since 1991 the monastery is subordinated to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church.

On May 25, 2002, Pope John Paul II visited the monastery during his pilgrimage to Bulgaria.

Monastery buildings [ edit ]

The modern monastery complex is in the shape of an irregular quadrangle and covers an area of 8,800 square meters, the center of which is the courtyard, where the tower and the main church are located.

The main church [ edit ]

Rila Men's Monastery

The catholicon of the monastery was built in the middle of the nineteenth century (architect Pavel Joanov) on the site of a small church of 1343. The church is topped with 5 domes, has three altars and two aisles. In this church there are famous frescoes (including those of Zacharias and Dimitra Zographov) and icons.

The inhabited part [ edit ]

An ancient library is located here. The library is exceptionally rich of book material collected over the centuries and contains valuable monuments of the Bulgarian written language – about 250 handwritten books of the 11th – 19th centuries, 9 thousand old printed books, musical notes, engravings from the Bulgarian Revival period.

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Monastery Museum [ edit ]

The museum, located on the territory of the monastery has 35 thousand exhibits. This is a rich collection of icons, and works of applied art, religious and ethnographic objects. Monastery Museum is famous for Raphael’s Cross – a unique example of woodcarving depicting 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. It cost the monk Raphael 12 years of his life and eyesight to create this masterpiece (completed in 1802).

Skete and Metocha [ edit ]

  • The Old Skete
  • Skete in the name of the Saint Apostle and Evangelist Luke
  • Skete in the name of the Shroud of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Theodosius Skete
  • Monastery crypt
  • The “Pchelino” hermitage
  • Metoh of “Eagle”

Feast days [ edit ]

Contacts [ edit ]

Address: Rila Monastery, obl. Kyustendil, postal code: 2643

Bus schedules to and from Rila Monastery:

  • Sofia – Rila Monastery: 10:20 h depart from bus station Ovcha kupel;
  • Blagoevgrad – Rila Monastery: 07:00 hrs; 12:00 hrs; 15:00 hrs depart from bus station Blagoevgrad;
  • Rila Monastery – Blagoevgrad: 08:10; 17:00.
  • Rila Monastery – Dupnitsa: 09:00; 17:00.
  • Rila Monastery – Sofia: 15:00; 15:00.

The listed bus routes are daily. You can buy tickets for the departing buses from the Rila Monastery from the bus driver. Both arriving and departing buses park at the monastery’s main entrance.

Those travelling to the monastery on the newly opened Struma freeway should follow the information and signposting signs and follow the town of Kocherinovo, as the same exit to the freeway is used in the direction of the Rila holy cloister.

    (lodging reservations, call during office hours from Monday to Friday: 15:00 – 19:00) (museum) (abbot, call during office hours from Monday to Friday: 10:00 – 17:00) (bookkeeping, call during office hours from Monday to Friday: 08:30 – 17:00) (office, call during office hours from Monday to Friday: 08:30 – 17:00)

Pilgrim [ edit ]

Schedule of services:


  • Evening at 5:00 p.m.
  • In the morning at 06:30 h.

On Sundays and also during major Christian feasts:

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