Olli Thomson
Photography

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery, named for the patron saint of Bulgaria Saint John of Rila also known as Saint Ivan Rilski, lies in the valley of the Rilska river in the Rila mountains around two hours south of Sofia. The current complex mostly dates from the nineteenth century but the oldest part, the defensive tower, dates from the fourteenth century. The origins of the monastery go back to John of Rila who lived the life of a hermit in a cave near the site in the early tenth century. The original monastery was established by John’s disciples who came to the mountains to learn from him.

Over the centuries the monastery has been rebuilt many times and the current structure is an expression of the Bulgarian national revival of the nineteenth century that brought liberation from Ottoman rule and a renaissance of Bulgarian and Slavic culture and identity.

Rila Monastery is the biggest in the country and the four floors of accommodation have over 300 rooms with around 100 cells for the monks, though there are far fewer than this in residence. Apart from worship, the main business of the monastery is tourism. It’s a hugely popular site with the locals and overseas visitors alike. For those who want more than a day trip there are some modest guest rooms for visitors where you can experience the monastery before the tourists arrive and after they depart.

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