Founded in the 10th century (it was St. Ivan Rilski who laid the beginnings), many times reconstructed, destroyed and rebuilt, the Rila Monastery became what it looks today towards the middle of the 19th century. It is the largest and most revered Bulgarian cloister.
The convent is situated some 120 km to the south of the capital city of Sofia, in the sweet-smelling coniferous forests of the Rila Mountains.
The religious compound includes houses of worship, residential, and farm buildings with an overall area of 8 800 square metres. From the outside, the monastery resembles a fortress with the 24-metre high stone walls of its main buildings forming a pentagon. That is why a worshipper or tourist who comes to visit the place and steps inside one of its iron gates, is surprised to see the soft shapes of its architectural design: arcs and colonnades, covered wooden stairs and carved balconies in the bottom of which are the rows of the monks' cells numbering 300. In the middle of the cobblestone-paved courtyard, the austere structure of Hrelyu's Tower (1334) and the baroque silver domes of the main church rise in a strange symbiosis.
The Rila Monastery - a general view,
photo from an illustrated history of Bulgaria (Dimitrov, Bozhidar. Bulgaria. Ilyustrirana istoriya. Borina, 1994.)
Throughout the long centuries of its existence the monastery has been an important centre of worship, cultural activities, and enlightenment, a place that had provided shelter for many religious and public figures, and men of letters. The religious community maintained active contacts with the entire Orthodox world, from the Balkan countries to the monasteries of Palestine and Russia.
Evidence of its large authority in the past are the records of the privileges and gifts it had been awarded by Bulgarian and foreign rulers, as for example the Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible or the Turkish Sultan Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople.
Over the centuries, the Rila monks have collected and preserved many valuable articles, including 16 000 manuscripts and incunabula, a historical collection of 35 000 exhibits, rich collections of icons, works of applied art, woodcarvings, cult objects and daily-usage items.
Although the cloister has much space, it cannot exhibit all its treasuries together; that is why along with the permanent exhibition, there are temporary expositions shown at the monastery as well as in other places in Bulgaria and abroad.
The Rila Monastery, Hrelyu's Tower
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