There is no way to do even a reasonable outline in a few words; I will try to just give a little background within which to frame the next stop for the “Fab Five” from California and Turkey: the Rila Monastery. Sometime after the Thracians, Romans, Greeks and Celts, the Bulgars (a Turkic tribe) and the Slavs came to the land now known as Bulgaria. The Bulgars gave the area its name and the Slavs its language. It is unclear to me how the two groups interacted, but interact they did and the result was, eventually, the first Bulgarian Empire, which existed from A.D. 681 to A.D. 1018. To give you an idea of how things were back in those days, the Byzantines in 1014 under Emperor Basil II, or Basil the Bulgar Slayer, went to war (again) to subdue and conquer the Bulgarian Empire, and they captured 15,000 Bulgarian troops. Basil decided to blind the soldiers, and half-blind the last 150, so they could lead the others back to their Emperor Samuel, who perished of shock on the spot, as would anyone I would think. Of course, the Bulgarians were pretty aggressive, too, as was just about every group with an army back then. At any rate, the Bulgarians held out four more years but eventually were “annexed” to the Byzantine Empire.
Before the annexation, the First Bulgarian Empire grew pretty large -- it included all of present-day Bulgaria plus the part connecting the Balkans from there to the Adriatic Sea, including present-day Serbia, chunks of Albania and Macedonia and all of Montenegro. They kept expanding, and inconsistently but persistently claimed land down into Greece and up into Ukraine and over to Hungary. A colorful warrior named Khan Krum, or Krum the Horrible (803-815), is credited with doubling the size of the empire and enforcing a consistent code of law, while kicking a lot of Byzantine derrière. One of his descendants, Simeon the Great (893-927), pushed the empire’s boundaries even further and initiated the Golden Age of the (first) Bulgarian Empire.
Tension between the Bulgarian Empire and the Ottomans
After the first Bulgarian Empire and its Byzantine “annexation,” there was of course a second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), with land wrenched back from the Byzantines, which finally fell to the Ottoman Turks who stayed for almost 500 years and were bitterly resented. The resentment went both ways, because the feisty Bulgarians just wouldn’t sit back and play nice. Mutual hatred and angry resistance turned to dedicated revolution; the Bulgarians ultimately approached Russia to help them defeat the Ottoman army, which happened in 1878. From then until 1908, when it became an independent country at last, Bulgaria was betrayed and divided up by the Treaty of Berlin and generally used by the Ottoman Empire, Russia and the European powers as a political chess-piece.
Now it is time to introduce St. Ivan Rilski (876-946), Bulgaria’s premiere Christian saint. Considering the background presented above, is it any wonder the man became a hermit? An adult during the beginning of the Golden Age of the Bulgarian Empire, St. Ivan Rilski was at odds over the direction he saw Christianity taking (Christianity had been in Bulgaria since the fifth centuries) and retired with a group of like-minded brothers to the mountains of Rila, south and west of Sofia. There, in a spectacular if remote locale, he founded an order of monastic hermits in 927; St. Ivan lived in a cave, and the rest lived in a community. The history of the monastery for the next thousand years mirrors the history of Bulgaria, with the monastery and its occupants serving as thorns in the hide of one invader after another. The place was knocked down, rebuilt, burned, vilified and exalted, but it endured and even thrived; Rila for centuries accumulated, created and protected one of Europe’s finest libraries, which had and still contains an important collection of Slavic and Greek manuscripts. As a center of learning it attracted scholars from distant places as well as copyists and teachers. More importantly, the monastery at Rila came to represent the Bulgarian national spirit as well as its religion, right up to the present. For over a thousand years it has also been a pilgrimage site for Bulgarian Orthodox people from all over the world.
The five of us took the regular morning bus from Sofia, and traveled for two hours through beautiful countryside up into the Rila Mountains. In May there was still snow on the mountains above us, and the views became more and more alpine and rural. The bus was pretty old and the bus driver taciturn, but as he got us up further into the mountains he reminded me more of a Turkish village dolmuş driver, waving at ladies hanging their laundry out, saluting fellow drivers and calling greetings to men in the street. When we got to Rila Village he got taciturn again and disappeared with his cronies with no explanation; we cleverly discerned that this must be a rest stop.
The village of Rila is a lovely little place, with several small hotels and a big sign announcing that the EU has spent a lot of money fixing up the neighborhood. After a half hour or so, we were on our way again. We asked the driver about the hotel we had booked for that night, and with no comment he dropped us off right in front of it a few minutes later. The small but spacious hotel was newly refurbished and a wonderful surprise. We felt guilty checking in, since we were paying less for two beautiful rooms and breakfast than we had for the fleabag hostel we had spent the last two nights in, twice as much as we paid would have been more than reasonable.
After a lovely little lunch eaten outdoors next to the fountain, we headed out to see the legendary monastery. As we left to walk up the road -- a well-paved little lane, really -- we had to wait a minute because our Beverly decided to play chicken with a flock of goats just then coming off the road. The goats didn’t mind her a bit, trotting right around her like she was a rock. After the goat episode, we walked what was only two miles to the monastery although it felt longer; it was a steady uphill slope the whole way. We walked through magical highlands (the monastery is above 1,100 meters, and it’s in a valley), with forests and meadows on each side of the quiet road; the distant clonk-clonk and ting-ting of herd bells wafted up and down the verdant hills. Wildflowers bobbed their heads hello. Deciduous and evergreen trees covered the mountains with light, electric green as well as deep blue-green, with a little breeze tossing the lighter branches and the warm sun dappling our road. It became hard to focus on our journey and to think about the history and significance of the location; all we wanted to do was to examine the huge moths and little lizards that had been too slow for the few cars that traveled the road. We took pictures of everything, as if we had never been in a forest. Chantel helped a shepherdess with a recalcitrant lamb who didn’t want to join the flock until they were out of sight; she shooed it along faster, until it could see its mother past the curve in the road. I “discovered” some amazing bench lichen climbing up a tree, like toadstool steps in a spiral stairway to heaven. At some point, our taciturn bus driver came back down the road from the monastery, which was his terminal stop and gave us a friendly wave as he passed. We were amazed he recognized us.
Finally we knew we were close; there was a sign, a UNESCO notice, a small car park. Behind that was a high stone wall, with an arched tunnel entrance. There was still forest everywhere, and then we just walked into the complex and into a totally different world. I would really recommend anyone visiting Rila to walk at least part of the way, like we (unthinkingly) did; the lyrical scenery does a lot to clear one’s mind for the first impression of this magnificent cultural treasure. Even the un-religious Communists made it a protected museum, back in 1961, and UNESCO put it on the List of World Cultural Heritage in 1983. Finally, in 1991, after years in political and religious limbo, the monastery had its monastic status restored by the Bulgarian government, and the “museum” was no more.
It is very difficult to do justice to this place in words. It looks deceptively approachable, but is really quite huge, and so full of color and ornament that it is hard to know where to look first. Black and white stone block stripes vie with soft pink and red archways; filigree crosses atop every pinnacle; colorful and quite wonderfully gruesome frescoes adorn the exterior of the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. The church is in front of you as you enter and is surrounded by an uneven quadrilateral of three-tiered, colonnaded structures. The overall effect is a little disorienting and quite impressive. Priests with long hair neatly coiled beneath flat black caps and wearing long robes are much in evidence, and they are solemn but friendly when approached. The inside of the church needs at least three hours to do it justice -- it was carefully constructed after the fire to reflect the concepts and traditions of Orthodoxy as well as the precepts of the national revival style and spirit. It is ornate, colorful and darkly mysterious all at once.
Once again, we didn’t have enough time to enjoy all this beautiful place has to offer, but we will be back. We popped back into our forest wonderland, which now threw long, stripy shadows across the road. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we listened to the birds settling down and followed the herds home to a welcome meal and a good night’s sleep.
Next week: Braşov, Romania
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.