The Rila monastery is one of the symbols of Bulgaria and a popular tourist destination. The monastery is located in the recesses of the Rila Mountain, between the Rilska and Drushlyavitsa rivers, at an altitude of 1,147 metres. The monastery is situated at about 120 km from Sofia and 41 km from Blagoevgrad.
The Rila Monastery was founded in the first half of the 10th century. Its history is directly related to the first Bulgarian hermit, St. John of Rila, who settled in the area and devoted himself to fasting and prayers. The original location of the monastery was near the cave chosen by the saint for his abode. After his death in 946 A.D., St. John of Rila was buried near the cave in which he found solitude. Tsar Petar (who reigned from 927 to 969 A.D.) brought the relics of the wonderworker of Rila to Sredets (Sofia) and it was probably at that time when he was canonized as a saint. In 1469, the relics were returned to the Rila Monastery.
Over the centuries, the Rila Monastery was the spiritual, educational, and cultural centre of Bulgaria. During the Renaissance (18th – 19th centuries), the monastery opened about 50 convents in the biggest Bulgarian settlements where some of the most educated Rila monks officiated, opened schools, and brought pilgrims along to the monastery. In 1961, the Rila Monastery was named Rila Monastery National Museum, in 1976 it was declared a National Historic Reserve, and in 1983 UNESCO included the monastery in its list of World Heritage Sites. In 1991, the state restored the monastic status of the monastery and closed the Institution of the Rila Monastery National Museum. In 1992, in State Gazette No. 73, the Rila monastery, Hrelja’s Tower, the church, and the monastery buildings were declared a group architectural, artistic, and historical complex of national importance.
The Rila monastery has been in its present form since the 19th century and only the new part of the eastern monastery wing dates back to the 20th century. The oldest building in the monastery is Hrelja’s Tower which was built in the 14th century (1335). It was the fortress of the monastery and residence for the monks in troubled times. The Transfiguration of Christ chapel is on the last fifth floor of the 24-m-high tower. Currently, Hrelja’s Tower is open for visitors during the summer and part of the frescoes from the 14th century can be seen through the window niches of the chapel.