The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, also known as Rila Monastery was founded in the 10th century and is the largest and most famous Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. It is located about 75 miles south of the capital city Sofia and was named after the famous Bulgarian saint Ivan of Rila. Rila Monastery is considered to be one of Bulgaria’s most important historical, cultural and architectural monuments and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in southeastern Europe. It has even been depicted in Bulgarian currency with the monastery on the back side of the 1 lev banknote issued in 1999. Considered one of the primary masterpieces of Bulgarian national Revival architecture, it was declared a national historic monument in 1976 and then became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Although many think the monastery was founded by the hermit St. Ivan of Rila, who lived in a nearby cave during the rule of Tsar Peter I, it was actually built by his students who came to the mountains to receive their education. The monastery has been supported and respected throughout the years by the Bulgarian rulers and it has received large donations by almost every tsar until the Ottoman Conquest, reaching its cultural and spiritual apogee from the 12th to the 14th century. Rila Monastery was rebuilt to present place by a local feudal lord, Hrelyu Dragovola during the 14th century. The oldest buildings in the Rila Monastery complex, the Tower of Hyelyu & a small church next to it, date back to this time. After the arrival of the Ottomans at the end of the 14th century there were numerous raids and the monastery was mostly destroyed by the middle of the 15th century. Thanks to donations by the Russian Orthodox Church, the Rila Monastery was rebuilt at the end of the 15th century and Ivan of Rila’s relics were moved into the complex. It was once more destroyed by fire in 1833 and reconstructed between 1834 and 1862 with the assistance of wealthy Bulgarians across the country.
Rila Monastery’s main church was built in the middle of the 19th and features five domes, three altars and two side chapels. It is adorned with frescoes created by various masters including Bansko and Razlog and is home to a great deal of valuable artifacts dating from the 14th to the 19th century. One of its most precious items is the gold-plated wall of religious icons whose carving took four craftsmen five years to complete. The complex is also home to a four story residence that consists of 300 rooms, four chapels, an abbot’s room, kitchen and library that houses 250 manuscripts and a plethora of old printed materials. The monastery museum is famous for housing Rafail’s Cross, a famous wooden crucifix created from a single piece of wood. Over twelve years, a monk named Rafail used an engraving tool and magnifying lenses to create 104 religious scenes and 650 miniature figures. The museum collection traces its history alongside the country’s and shows the role Rila Monastery has played in Bulgaria’s cultural history. The monastery museum features a rich collection of valuable exhibits both in the halls as well as the monastery vaults.
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