The Rila monastery originated in the 30s of the 10th c and soon after that became an important spiritual centre. It was founded by the monk Ivan Rilski in a secluded place in the magnificent Rila Mountain. At first he settled “alone with the beasts, with no roof over his head and no food”. Soon he was followed by his disciples and this set the beginning of the monastery. Its glory spread so widely that the Bulgarian King Peter (927-968) wanted to meet the hermit but he refused the invitation and sent back the royal presents.
Ivan Rilski died in 946 and was soon canonized. This fact and the fame of a righteous man made him still more popular and he is today considered to be “most typically Bulgarian saint”, patron of Bulgaria. The spiritual perfection of St. Ivan Rilski and his moral advice are contained in his “Legacy” that has come to us in later copies. In it he advises his followers to keep untainted the holy faith, to guard against the avaricious snake, to avoid the favours of earthly kings and princes, to live together in unity, to avoid leadership and strife for supremacy. Facts about the life of the saint can be found in his passional. The earliest version has disappeared but it is in the roots of the so called Anonymous (Popular) passional, the oldest life-story of St. Ivan Rilski.
Bulgarian rulers had a special attitude towards the monastery and demonstrated their respect by donating land, woods, fish lakes and villages. One example is the Rila Charter of King Ivan Shishman of 1378.
There are no data about the Rila monastery for the period 12th-13th c.
In the first half of the 14th c the local feudal lord Hrelyo renovated the monastery. In 1335 he built a five-storey defensive tower. On the upper floor was built a family chapel “Transfiguration of God”, decorated with fine mural paintings demonstrating the refined taste of Bulgarian aristocracy.
In 1343 sebastocrator Hrelyo built a new church richly decorated with mural paintings, which survived till 1834. What has remained are only the altar doors and the throne of the ruler. From the 14th c also date the oldest icons in the monastery – “St. Ivan Rilski” and “St. Arseniy”, made after the best traditions of pictorial art of the time.
During the first decades of their rule the Ottomans didn’t dare touch the Rila monastery. A special firman of Bayazid I (1389-1402) guaranteed the property of the monastery. In spite of that, much of the landed and other property was pilfered and unrest in the middle of the 15th c, accompanied by pillaging and outrage, brought the holy monastery to distress.
During the rule of Sultan Mohammed II (1451-1481) there was relative stabilization and this created the opportunity for the three brothers, the monks Joseph, David and Teophan, to begin the restoration of the monastery. A very important source of information about these days is the story of Vladislav Gramatik about the transportation of the relics of St. Ivan Rilski from Turnovo. According to him, after the reconstruction the monastery buildings and churches regained their beauty and attracted people from all places like a magnet.
In 1469 the relics of the saint were transported from Turnovo to the Rila monastery with a solemn procession. This event had its great effect among the Bulgarian population and played an important role in the appearance of new spiritual centres.
In the following ages (16th-18th c) periods of upsurge and degradation for the monastery followed one after the other. But during all that time, and especially during the National Revival that followed, it remained a spiritual, educational and cultural centre of Bulgaria. People talked and wrote only in Bulgarian, literary activity was fervent and contributed to the preservation of Christian faith and national writing and language. Many children and young people were educated in schools kept up by the monastery. Prominent educators – translators, writers, and teachers – work in them. Church chanting, pictorial painting, arts and crafts found their development.
The present-day monastery complex dates back to the 19th c when construction on a large scale began. During a period of thirty years the impressive four-storey buildings were erected under the supervision of several builders -Alexi of Rila, Master Milenko and others. In the place of the old church Master Pavel erected the big monastery temple duplicating the big churches of Mount Athos during 1834-1837. The temple was painted in the period 1840-1848 by the most talented representatives of the Balkan and the Samokov schools of icon-painters like Dimiter and Simeon Molerovs, Zachary and Dimiter Zograph and others.
The iconostasis in the church was made in the course of five years by Atanas Teladur and Peter Garka and is a masterpiece of wood-carving. In addition there are many other priceless pieces of wood-carving – iconostases, ceilings, various miniatures among which stands out the lime-tree cross carved by the monk Rafail for twelve years (1790-1802). It contains 36 scenes and several hundred figures.
To the monastery also belong many nunneries, chapels and farm buildings spread in the vicinity. One is the “Orlitsa” nunnery of the 15th c, the church presentation of the Blessed Virgin” by the graveyard (end of 18th c), the Fasting building with the churches “St. Luka” (1798-1799) and “The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God” (1811), the chapel “Pchelino” (18th c) and the church by the grave of the saint of 1820.
The famous masons and best icon-painters and wood-carvers took part in the construction and created remarkable products.
This lavishness of colour and form in the Rila monastery ensemble speaks of the enormous funds donated by the prospering Bulgarian tradesmen and craftsmen, of their aesthetic tastes and the strong patriotic upheaval in society.
No less interesting is the economic sector of the monastery where one can see a mill, an oven, a sector for processing milk. The kitchen of the monastery is filled with secrecy and memories of noise and hard labour. It represents a 27 m high chimney, thinning as it goes upwards. The enormous cauldron in which for the holiday of the monastery was prepared the famous kurban soup for thousands of worshippers is a remarkable product of coppersmiths.
The Rila monastery kept up busy contacts with monasteries in Mount Athos, monasteries from Russia, Moldavia, Serbia and other countries – they exchanged visits, books and presents.
There is a rich historical museum in the monastery. It keeps relics, precious works of art and crafts, which follow chronologically the many centuries of existence of the monastery.