Aug 14, 2017
It’s hard for me to describe how much I love Rila Monastery. I sat down with Eric Halsey, the host of the “Bulgarian History Podcast” to talk about this amazing 10th century Byzantine Monastery, located in the Rila Mountains, near Sofia, Bulgaria. I have visited Rila Monastery on several occasions, so I welcomed the chance to hear more about the history of Bulgaria, how this place came to be, and how the monastery became a symbol of pride and resiliency for the Bulgarian People. I hope this conversation motivates you to visit the monastery for yourself. It’s an amazing place!
Rising out of the forested valleys of the Rila Mountains, I can think of no place more significant to the country of Bulgaria than Rila Monastery. Eric shared with me that what is now considered the holiest, most monastic place in Bulgaria was founded at a time when the country was working to establish its own independent church, but also struggling with leadership transitions and trying to recover from a long history of warfare with surrounding nations. I asked Eric to explain how the religious issues present at that time influenced the Bulgarian people to begin practicing a simpler form of worship, a key factor in the rise of monasteries around Bulgaria. His knowledge on the subject helped to frame a complete picture of the story behind Rila Monastery that you’ll find intriguing.
I asked Eric about the connection of Meteora, a series of famous Greek monasteries in the region, and their connection to Bulgaria’s transition to orthodoxy. These monasteries have been featured in several movies, including a James Bond film, as well as the network series “Game of Thrones.” He stated that at this time, Bulgaria may have been one of the first countries in the area to practice Orthodoxy or Christianity. I learned that until this point, Christianity in the region had primarily come from Byzantine influence, so it was not fully accepted when Tsar Boris made it the official state religion. In contrast to the Patriarchal, Imperial form of religion that centered around the emperor, the monasteries, like Rila Monastery reflected a humble, unassuming nature. Often, these monasteries were built in remote places, so many of them have the look and feel of a small fortress, capable of defending against raiders.
After spending a few months in Bulgaria, it was clear to me that the country is not overly religious, which I found to be slightly odd, as the churches and monasteries seem to be held in high regard, and many citizens practiced religious rituals a few times a year. I asked Eric if he could shed some light on this cultural anomaly. He explained that much of Bulgaria’s identity was formed as a result of this semi-autonomous orthodoxy, separate from the hierarchy that existed in Constantinople at the time. As a result, he pointed out that this once nomadic tribe was able to establish their own identity. They settled on a common language and had been granted positions of authority, such as a Tsar. The religious rituals and practice helped to unify the people. Today, it is understood that religious rituals are performed if for no other reason than “That’s what Bulgarians do.”
For anyone who is planning a trip to Bulgaria, I would 100% recommend adding Rila Monastery to your itinerary. The ground still function as an active monastery, so you will see monks who live there, as well as people who run the museum and several of the restaurants close by. I would recommend hiring a tour guide the first time you go, as there are several areas of interest, including a large collection of 19th century fresco paintings. The main complex reflects a 19th-century neo-byzantine style, which is very ornamental in nature, comparable to that of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, located in Sofia. You can actually stay at the monastery for a small cost. I highly recommend this, as it gives you more time to wander around on your own, and take in all that this amazing place has to offer. But until you are able to visit, join me for this conversation with Eric Halsey. It’s the next best thing.