The monastery is situated at 1147 m above sea level amidst beautiful scenery in a hard-to-reach part of Rila Mountain, 117 km south-west of Sofia. Two swift- antechamber flowing rivers- Drushliavitsa and Rilska, flow on either side.
It was founded by the hermit- monk Ioan Rilski and his disciples around 930 AD. Interest in the monastery is rekindled during the Middle Ages, when many Bulgarian tsars and noblemen make generous donations. It has survived many fires and raids. Together with the maintenance buildings, the monastery forms a large architectural complex. It comprises several other chapels, churches and sacred grounds- the Orlitsa nunnery (15th- 19th centuries) - 22 km away, the Pchelino nunnery (late 18th century) - 4 km to the south-west, St Ioan Rilski hermitage is in the north-east, St Lucas hermitage - in the east, and 200 m away- the graveyard church- “Vavedenie Bogorodichno” (1795).
The monastery is supposed to have been established near the cave of the hermit. In the early 14th century it was built at its present location, where there already existed fortified buildings- living premises, a defensive tower and a fortress church. They are associated with the local nobleman- sebastocrator Hrelyu. Hrelyu’s 23-meter-tall tower is the oldest building in the monastery. It has thick stone wall and a chapel on the top floor with preserved 14th century murals.
The monastery was built in several separate stages over the course of 30 years and despite its many creators, boasts architectural and artistic integrity. Two gates- the Dupnishka and the Samokovska- connect it with the outer world. The murals on their facades, walls and vaults stand out against the cold stone outer walls, which are more than four floors high. The outer buildings are painted and their balconies open onto the inner yard.
These buildings comprise various premises, the most impressive of which is the Magernitsa- the monastery kitchen. Its massive tower goes up through all four floors and finishes with a dome on the roof. The guest-rooms are furnished with donations from wealthy Bulgarian settlements, and are decorated with paintings, woodcarving and textile from the respective region (the Koprivshtenska, Kyustendilska and other guest-rooms). The richly decorated “Mother of God” church was built in the yard in 1837. It has three auditoria, five domes, no narthex, two side chapels and an open gallery. The murals on its walls present 1200 scenes and images, the altar iconostasis has tracery woodcarving and is entirely covered with gold leaf. The relics of St Ioan Rilski are kept in the church.
Bulgarian spiritual and material culture is preserved in the monastery in the form of various works of Bulgarian art with high artistic value. The icon collection spans the 14th- 19th centuries and shows the development of the craft over time. The oldest icon- St Ioan Rilski, is dated 14th century. Some of the oldest woodcarvings in the land are also preserved there. Exhibits of great value and interest are the gates of the old church from the time of Hrelyu, and the 18th century Rafail Cross. The latter was carved over the course of 12 years and its 43x81 cm show 104 scenes and 650 miniature figures. The monastery’s important cultural role is also due to its rich library of various literary works.
The Rila Monastery is the second largest on the Balkan Peninsula. Some of the best Bulgarian craftsmen of the time took part in building it.
The Rila Monasterywas included in the World Cultural and Natural Heritage List at the World Cultural and Natural Heritage Committee session of 1983 in Florence, Italy