Safeguarded by St Ivan of Rila

The Ruen Monastery is built near the birthplace village of Bulgaria's most famous saint

Photo: Adelina Lozanova Although the Ruen Monastery is new, it is built according to the best traditions of the Bulgarian Orthodox architecture.

Amidst a picturesque beech forest at the end of a meandering road high up in the Ruen Mountain, over the small village of Skrino and near the town of Kyustendil, stands the Ruen Monastery of St Ivan of Rila. The saint after whom the monastery is named was born in that village circa 876. An older monastery, dedicated to Great Martyr St Demetrius of Thessaloniki, existed at the same place before. Experts presume that St Ivan of Rila took the monastic vows there and then started his secluded life in a cave which is preserved until today, not far away from the present monastery.

The local legend says that little Ivan knew the vicinity in and out, including the then existing monastery at the foothills of Ruen. One evening there was a horrible storm and the boy sought refuge near a big rock. The monastery's father superior also hid from the storm beside him. They struck up a conversation and the old man realised that this child would be living for Christ. The storm abated and the father superior accompanied the boy to his home.

Before long, the future saint left his father's house and settled up in the mountains to start his life of a hermit. It is believed that initially he lived in a cave near the present Ruen Monastery before setting out for the Rila Mountain. Nowadays, the cave is a sacred site. A big cross hovering over the road has been raised near it on top of a high rock. The cross designates the place where a maiden hurled herself into the abyss below in order to escape from the Ottomans chasing her.

The present Ruen Monastery is among the newest in Bulgaria. Its construction over the ruins of the old monastery started in 1995. It was officially consecrated and opened in 2002. Another legend runs that a local man had recurring visions of the place where the God's temple had to be built. He shared it with an architect from the town of Blagoevgrad, who also had such dreams. Before long the church was already a fact, designed after the model which the architect saw in her dreams - a stone building with a saddle roof. The monastery's church is painted, it has beautiful round-shaped forms and a gilded altar.

During the excavation works, the builders ran across the foundations of two medieval square-shaped churches built one after another. One of them was made of mortared porous stones and was dated to the 8th century, the other was built with clay mortar around the 9th century. It is noteworthy that an earlier cultural layer was unearthed under the two Christian churches - the architectural structure of a pagan temple, a sanctuary. Many artefacts were also discovered - ceramics, fragments of frescoes, a spear, etc. Several monastic burials were also found near the churches. One of the latest acquisitions of the monastery is the newly built belfry. Currently, the construction of monks' lodgings is in full swing.

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