Monday, 21 August 2017

Bulgaria’s Most Contested Monastery, St Ivan of RIla

Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova   

The Monastery is located in a narrow hollow lodged between the Rila Mountain’s high forest rises along the course of the Rila River. A kilometre to the east, there is a view of the Malyovitsa peak, popular among mountain climbers, and further still are the paths to the Seven Rila Lakes. Trekking in the region is one of the favourite activities of Bulgarian mountaineers, who sometimes use the monastery as a base for their outings.

The closest trekking destination is the Ivan of Rila hill, which stands at about an hour and a half’s climb. At 150 metres over the monastery is the grave of James Bourchier (frequently misspelled as Boucher or Baucher) – the Balkans correspondent of The Times at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, and a strong supporter of Bulgaria’s political causes. Close by, there is also the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Church from the end of the eighteenth century.

The hand of Saint Ivan of Rila

The monastery’s most important relics are usually well hidden from visitors. They include an icon of the Virgin Mary, which is considered to work miracles, and the relics of the monastery’s founder, Saint Ivan of Rila. A century ago, the saint’s hand used to be on display, popped out of a decorated coffin and worshippers would come to kiss it. After an overzealous follower of the saint tried to bite off a piece of the relics, however, the monks were forced to put them under glass for protection.

One story about the remains is that the atheistically inclined communist leaders, troubled by the flow of worshippers they attracted, tried to take the saint’s body away. As a result of the monks’ prayers, the truck transporting them caught on fire and they were forced to bring them back.

Now, the hand of Ivan of Rila is not only kept under a glass cover, but it is only taken out and displayed during big celebrations. His bones are placed among silver and stay hidden in a drawer, which the monks unlock under a tight schedule, not yielding to any of the tourists’ begging.

A grave for the heart of Tsar Boris III

The most controversial part of the Rila Monastery’s modern history is the grave of Tsar Boris III who ruled Bulgaria between 1918 and 1943. The heart of the former Bulgarian monarch and the father of Bulgaria’s Prime Minister in the early 2000s, Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, is kept in a glass jar at the monastery.

Before his death, Boris III wished to be buried here modestly, under a simple wooden cross. His will was executed, but when the communists came to power, their leader Georgi Dimitrov had the monarch’s remains moved to the Vrana Palace on Sofia’s outskirts and out of people’s sight. From there, their traces were lost.

The glass jar with the tsar’s heart was only found in the 1990s and placed back into the grave. Before that, however, a team of doctors had a careful look at it. The reason for that interest was the mystery surrounding the monarch’s death – he passed away in the prime of his life, following a short illness after a visit to Germany. In 2003, on the 60th anniversary of the death of Boris III, his son and the then-Prime Minister, Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, announced he was reconciled with the version that claimed the reason for his father’s death was a heart attack. In spite of that, however, some historians continue to support the thesis that the Nazis poisoned Boris III because he intended to withdraw Bulgaria from the ill-fated coalition with them in 1943. His son later claimed that he had checked all possible archives, including the Russian ones, but wasn’t able to find information about his father’s death.

The Hrelyova stone tower is the oldest preserved part of today’s monastery. It was built in 1335 for defence purposes and as a living space. Its last floor houses a chapel.

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Bulgaria’s Most Contested Monastery, St Ivan of RIla
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