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Rila Monastery safeguards the relics of Bulgaria’s heavenly protector St. Ivan of Rila

The frescoes inside the monastery’s main church are being restored

Photo: BGNES

“He who wants to be first amongst you, let him be the servant of all.” According to legend, that was the advice St. Ivan of Rila gave Tsar Peter while politely declining the royal gifts he had brought. The hermit monk set a personal example – tearing himself away from all things worldly, he became a symbol of the spirit, of faith and humility for Bulgarians, and the place he chose for his retreat in Mount Rila was to become a landmark in the literary development of the country.

Рилски манастир

St. Ivan Rilski – the heavenly protector of Bulgaria

Rila Monastery was founded in the first half of the 10th century on the spot where Ivan of Rila Miracle Worker spent his years of retreat. As time went by, it grew to be one of the most important centres of Christianity in the country, with Tsars like Ivan Alexander and Ivan Shishman funding its extension until it reached its medieval flourishment from the 12th to the 14th century. In the times of Ottoman domination, the monastery was raided and destroyed multiple times, and in the mid-15th century – it was abandoned in the course of decades. 

1976: Rila Monastery, more than ten centuries of Bulgarian spirit, declared national monument of history

At the time of Bulgaria’s National Revival, Rila Monastery was a hub of religion and education, offering shelter to many Bulgarian revolutionaries.

The main monastery church Nativity of the Virgin Mary was built in the 19th century. Its frescoes are the work of many master craftsmen, but Zahari Zograf is the only one whose name has come down to us. One of the most precious items inside the church is the gold-plated iconostasis with intricate wood-carvings. Last year, a team from the Art Academy in Sofia restored the frescoes on the church’s left-hand side stand for liturgical books. The frescoes are dated to the 19th century, and their restoration took close to two years. Now, the team of experts is beginning restoration work on the stand on the right-hand side, but they say their work is not going to interfere with worship or the access of the public to the sarcophagus with the relics of St. Ivan of Rila.

Bulgaria’s Rila Monastery gives hope and consolation to many in current days of trial

Rila Monastery was designated a historical monument of national significance in 1976, and in 1983 was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Discover the seven UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites in Bulgaria

Photos: BGNES, library, rilskimanastir.org

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