A dilapidated blue van bounces into the cobblestoned courtyard of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria. The van wheezes to a halt, its rear doors are flung open, a sheep – shorn of its fleece, and looking forlorn – is thrown unkindly to the ground. The sheep, staggering to its feet, hoofs clattering awkwardly on the cobble-stones, is promptly wrapped up in a rugby tackle grip by the stout old gent who follows it out of the van. A second old man, rusty knife in hand, clambers out of the driver’s seat.
The men are joined by a priest with a long black beard, long black robes, and a black headdress with black cape attachment. The priest holds one hand out over the sheep and mumbles a few indecipherable words while the van-driver plunges his rusty knife into the sheep’s neck. The sheep kicks and bucks and bleats but the stout old man has it subdued in his rugby tackle grip, and with a few more insertions of the knife, the sheep ceases to struggle, goes quiet, and lies still.
The stout old gent drags the carcass across the cobble-stones, deposits the animal next to a drain, below a tap, into which its blood flows. The priest wanders off, disinterested.
Such was my welcome to Rila Monastery, Bulgaria.
Rila Monastery, officially the Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila, is the largest and most famous monastery in Bulgaria. It was founded in 927 CE by a hermit, now known as Saint Ivan of Rila, the patron saint of Bulgaria.
Rila Monastery received financial and political support from successive Bulgarian tsars, starting with Tsar Peter I, and went on to become the spiritual centre of the 2nd Bulgarian Empire.
The oldest surviving building in the monastery is the 24-metre tall Tower of Hrelyu (built in 1335).
The main church is a relatively new structure, being completed in the mid 19th Century, following a disastrous fire in 1833.
The walls of the main church are covered in colourful, cartoonish frescos (completed in 1846 by a variety of artists), which go to great length demonstrating the suffering of sinners in hell – if you need a hint, it features being tortured and eaten by demons.
Rila Monastery is set in the Rila Mountains, 117 kilometres from Sofia. It’s an ordeal to visit the monastery as a day trip on public transport (there is the option to stay overnight in the nearby town of Rila); I opted to use a private shuttle bus which included a stop at Boyana Church on the outskirts of Sofia.
Read more on Rila Monastery in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.