Sites in the Rila Mountains
The Rila Mountains are a high and relatively large mass of mountains, with the highest peak in the Balkans. Around the mountains there are several towns, monasteries, picturesque villages and tourist sites that include hiking trails and ski resorts. The name Rila means water in ancient Thracian, and indeed the water is the characteristic element of these mountains, which are sloped with lakes, springs and rivers.
From a tourist point of view, the Rila Mountains can be divided into several regions: in the west are the cities of Dupnica and Blagoevgrad, from which several routes depart. Near them are the megalithic site Marco Gate, the Rila Monastery and the Seven Lakes area. In the north of the centre of the Rila Mountains is the open and important museum of the Tsars of Mali Grad and the city of Samokov.
And next to it is the ski town of Borovets, from where you can reach the Musala peak – the highest peak in the Balkans. On one side of Borovets is the valley of Govedartsi, from where you can reach the beautiful routes of the Malyovitsa and Beli Iskar canyons; And on the other hand, the valley of Kostenets from where you reach the fortress of the Trian Gates, Lake Belmeken and the village of Raduil. South of the Rila Mountains are the Pirin Mountains and the sites around the town of Bansko.
The Seven lakes
The seven lakes make up one of the most beautiful and well-known sites in the Rila Mountains. These are seven alpine lakes, from an altitude of 2,100 meters to 2,500 meters, connected by streams and meadows. It is an area of wonderful nature, above the tree line, with many hike, but some go there only for a spiritual reason. According to Peter Danov, the founder of the White Brotherhood in Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th century, these are seven eyes of the planet, seven energy centres. This is a place to which they would make pilgrimages in ancient times when there was an advanced and unknown culture (similar to Atlantis), before the current historical cycle. In those days there was one language for everyone, and Danube discovered the names of the lakes in the ancient language, which hint at their essence.
In those days there was a connection between humans and natural energies, and through them to the entire universe. The area of the seven lakes was a kind of temple where they came to undergo initiation and communicate (and it would be like this in later periods as well). In the rocks surrounding the lakes, some of which are huge cliffs, and in the water inside them, high energies were embedded that are still activated today at special times of the year. One of these times is mid-August, when a shower of meteorites reaches Earth. At this time, the spiritual school of the “White Brotherhood” is taking place in the Seven Lakes area. The “Brotherhood” people stay in the camp near the second lake for three weeks, live in simple conditions against harsh elements of nature (rain, cold, steep paths), learn to cope, and also about the possibility of maintaining a supportive and healthy human society (Danov said that under favorable conditions people tend to quarrel with each other the second, whereas in difficult conditions they tend to coalesce and help each other). The whole area is full of unseen beings, angels and energies, and this is a time of cleaning, purification and connection.
Danov recommended visiting the various lakes in the order of their height, from bottom to top, and claimed that if this is done in holiness, then a person has the possibility of going through a process of enlightenment consisting of seven stages corresponding to the seven chakras of the human system.
The seven lakes are reached by cable car, which is a twenty-minute drive from the town of Sapareva Banya. It is worth stopping in this town, where the only geyser in the Balkans is located. Around the geyser there is a public park and hot water pools next to it.
This is the most well-known and visited site in Bulgaria, a beautiful Monastery located in a narrow and wooded valley with plenty of flowing water around, in the heart of the Mountains whose literal meaning (Rila) is water! The Monastery is named after the founder of Bulgarian monasticism in the 10th century – St. Ivan Rilski.
Rilski was a young man who was fed up with the material world and was persecuted for his belief by the people of his village. He fled to the wild Mountains, lived in a cave in difficult conditions and with the help of prayer and meditation dealt with the forces of nature, and also with the devil and loneliness, and especially with the lower parts of himself for seven years. The cave still exists today and is a pilgrimage site.
At the end of the process, after he overcame his weaknesses and gained enlightenment, hunters passed by and discovered him by “accident” and he became a saint. His fame spread far and wide and people came from all over Bulgaria to learn the secrets of spirituality from him. He would descend from the cliffs to the place where the Monastery is today and teach the developing community of monks there. His most famous student was the Bulgarian Tsar Peter, who sent him three gifts: a cup, coins and an apple. Rilski ate the apple and returned the coins and the cup. He agreed to accept him as a student only by correspondence from afar: the Tsar must be on the top of a nearby Mountain and signal with signs of fire and smoke, and the saint from his place of solitude will signal back to him. The story is symbolic, of course. The meaning of fire and smoke is that up close they are physical, but from afar they are spiritual – light.
At the time of the Ottomans, the Monastery gained autonomy granted by Sultan Mehmed II – the conqueror. Mehmed’s wife was a Christian from Bulgaria, and some among the monks claim that he himself was secretly a Christian and received initiation from a monk from Mount Athos, which is not improbable at that time. In any case, Mehmed II granted the place autonomy, returned to it the bones of Ivan Rilski (which were for a while in Veliko Tarnovo), and thus the Monastery became a center of Bulgarian culture, religion and nationalism.
While in the rest of Bulgaria there were times when the use of the Bulgarian language in prayers was prohibited (the Bulgarian Church was subordinated to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul), in the Rila Monastery the tradition and the language were preserved. The importance of the Monastery grew with the beginning of the Bulgarian national awakening movement and the cultural renaissance in the 19th century. The Rila Monastery was a beacon of Bulgarian culture and religion, a place where people from all parts of Bulgaria came to learn the Bulgarian language and history, learn about the stories of Bulgarian saints and observe the traditions of the national Church. The Monastery served as a meeting place for people from different places in Bulgaria, among them intellectuals who fostered the idea of independence.
During history, the Monastery burned several times due to forest fires and parts of it were destroyed. Today it is a huge square building in the center of which is a large courtyard with an ancient tower and a beautiful Church. The last extensive renovations were done in the 19th century. The oldest part of the Monastery is the tower built in the 14th century. In one of the corners is a Museum with the treasures of the Church from generations.
The large Church inside the Monastery courtyard is from the 18th century and the paintings in it are from the 19th century. Most of them were painted by Dimitar Zograf and his son Zafir Zograf from the Samokov School of Painting, who also painted the Frescoes in the Troyan Monastery. On the side of the central space is the tomb of King Boris, the last king of Bulgaria. It is important to note that he ruled during World War II and played a decisive role in saving the Jews. The Iconostasis screen is a wooden work of art by artists from the Bansko School. Below it in a magnificent coffin are the bones of Saint Ivan Rilski.
The five-story building delimiting the courtyard is from the 19th century. The place has 400 guest rooms, a Museum of daily life, a huge kitchen, a library, a Museum of the Monastery’s treasures, hospitality halls, and more. Nearby the Monastery there are other buildings used as accommodation, a restaurant, a bakery, as well as forests and towering Mountains. From the Monastery area you can go on one of the trekking routes to the surrounding Mountains.
The Monastery sits on springs that feed the Rila River, inside the valley at an altitude of 1,100 meters, surrounded by mighty peaks that reach 2,500 meters and are covered with snow for many months of the year; the most prominent among them is the Tsar Peak. A few kilometers up the stream from the Monastery, the road ends in a large and beautiful meadow called – “Kiril’s meadow”.
After Rilski’s death, his disciples scattered all over the First Bulgarian Empire and established their own monasteries. The closest is Osogovski Monastery in Macedonia. Starting from the 15th century, Rila Monastery was supported by the Russian Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos. Today the Monastery has about forty monks who maintain it.
The paintings in Rila Monastery
The exterior and interior walls of the Church in Rila Monastery are covered with impressive colorful paintings painted at the end of the 19th century, as part of the Bulgarian revival trend. The paintings have a meaning and are kind of open book for those who understand. The painters from the Samokov School – Dimeter Zagrof and Zafir Zagrof combined moral, allegorical and didactic motifs in their paintings, based on the tradition of Christian mysticism from the traditions of Mount Athos on the one hand, and on influences from the West and Russia, on the other.
Here is the meaning of some of the paintings on the outer wall, the entrance porch:
On the south-eastern side there are paintings of people with demons on their shoulders whispering in their ears and actually speaking through their mouths. The meaning of the paintings is that people think they are acting on their own, by virtue of their own decisions, but in fact we are all marionettes on strings acting by the power of one demon or another whispering in our ears. It can be said that Bulgarian Christianity in particular and Balkan Christianity in general is obsessed with everything related to the struggle between good and evil. According to it, the world is full of monstrous Demons such as jealousy, lust, anger, which take over people and work through them. The role of Christianity is to cast the demon out of man without killing him, as Jesus cast the demons out of the madman in Kursi.
To the west of the image of the people with the demons on their shoulders, there are squares reminiscent of comics, in each of which a demon or two is waving a name written on a parchment. In front of them stands the child Jesus accompanied by an angel and waving another name on a parchment. It seems as if the demons are trying to throw the child Jesus down the drain and each time they are surprised by his clever answers, which do not allow them to carry out their plan. The demons write negative traits and sins on the Parchment, while the child Jesus gives the Medicine – the good trait that eliminates those sins and negative traits. The demons write hate and Jesus writes love, the demons write anger and Jesus writes tolerance. Jesus is the medicine for the human race, the medicine for the sins of mankind, Jesus brings the different elements of good against the different qualities of evil and cancels their influence.
In the southwest corner of the outer balcony of the Church rises a dome decorated with paintings of episodes from the life of Moses. Moses is the example for Bulgarian Christianity of the life of a monk and a holy man, a man who underwent a change in his life, following which he was filled with divine light. The second example is Elijah seen on the nearby wall ascending in a chariot of fire to heaven. Elijah learned the secret of silence – Hesychasm at Mount Sinai and was privileged, like Moses, to see God. Moses and Elijah are the only two people who were privileged to see God on Mount Sinai and they also appear in the event of Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor, hence their important role in Christianity. However, in terms of the mystical perception, Moses and Elijah are people who have undergone a change and turned from an ordinary person into a divine person – enlightened.
To the left of the entrance door of the Church is a square wall with three people sitting and Jesus next to them. Outside the wall many saints are standing on the gates, the picture depicts what is called in Christianity “the City of God”. The three men are the three fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom Jesus serves. The walled City is the heavenly Jerusalem – the seat of the righteous in the Garden of Eden.
Above the painting of the City of God you see a City being burned by the Turks. This is Constantinople, the capital of Orthodox Christianity for more than a thousand years, called by the people of the Balkans “Tsarigard”, the magnificent City that no one could imagine its fall. Her fall came to show that there is no place in our world that is safe and we must trust only in our Father in heaven. The true Jerusalem is only the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God, and not an earthly City. As Augustine taught.
In the next dome we see the Turkish Sultan ruling over Istanbul, a City where the Muslims oppress the Christians. God from his seat in heaven warns the Sultan about what is to come. Indeed, from above we see an army of angels fighting against the Turks and defeating them. The pictures reveal the hatred of the Bulgarians towards the Ottoman occupation for the five hundred years of oppressive rule.
In the northwest corner we see the Archangel Michael stepping on Satanel. According to the Bulgarian mystical conception, God had two sons: Satanel and Michael, Satanel rebelled against God and became Satan. Michael, the younger son, who is seen as the angel of light, fought with Satanel and defeated him. In the world there is a constant war between good and evil, between light and darkness, but in the end good wins. Satanel is somewhat reminiscent of the Turkish Sultan.
 Jesus was called to the Kursi near the Sea of Galilee in order to cast out demons from a man who was controlled by them, he took the demons out of the man and put them in a herd of pigs that ran to the Sea of Galilee and drowned in it. The pigs symbolize the qualities of the swine within us, Jesus was able to remove the swine qualities from that man, and so do the saints, they bring out of us the wild animals within us.