Liberal Arts Blog — Monasteries VIII Alcobaca, Rila, Erdene Zuu

Liberal Arts Blog — Friday is the Joy of Art, Architecture, Design, Film, and All Things Visual Day

Today’s Topic: Monasteries VIII Alcobaca (Portugal), Rila (Bulgaria), Erdene Zuu (Mongolia)

Our whirlwind tour of the world’s greatest monasteries continues this week. Each one is a window into the history and culture of a different country. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

RILA MONASTERY (10th century) — symbol of Bulgaria

1. Founded in the 10th century, in honor of Bulgaria’s first hermit, Ivan of Rila (876–946) whose cave had been nearby.

2. The oldest sections of the current structure date back to the 14th century, but what you see above is in the Bulgarian National Revival style of the 19th century.

3. The monastery has been a hideout for Bulgarian revolutionaries and a repository of Bulgarian language and culture through centuries of invasions and occupation by neighboring empires. The church is famous for its frescoes and a collection of icons.

NB: The currency of Bulgaria is the lev. On the back of the 1 lev note is the Rila monastery.

ALCOBACA MONASTERY (1153) — Portugal, Cistercian, Dissolution (1834)

1. A gift from the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (1112–1185) to the great Cistercian Bernard de Clairvaux after the defeat of the Moors at Santarem in 1147.

2. The monastery and its renowned library were pillaged by the invading Napoleonic forces in 1810.

3. All male religious orders were dissolved and all 500 monasteries nationalized in 1834 at the end fo the Portuguese Civil War (1828–1834).

NB: The portal and the rose window were part of the original Gothic church (13th century), the baroque towers were added in the 18th century.

ERDENE ZUU — central Mongolia, near ancient Mongol capital of Karakorum, Tibetan Buddhist (Gelug sect)

1. In 1585 Abtai Sai Khan (1554–1588), a Mongol prince, after meeting with the Dalai Lama, declared Tibetan Buddhism to be the state religion of Mongolia and ordered construction of the Erdene Zuu monastery to be built with the stones from the ruins of the ancient Mongol capital of Karakorum.

2. In 1939, Khorloogiin Choibalsan, the Communist dictator of Mongolia from 1938 to 1952, destroyed all the monasteries of Mongolia and slaughtered 10,000 monks as part of a wider purge that took the lives of 30–50,000 Mongolians.

3. “Three small temples and the external wall with the stupas survived the initial onslaught and by 1944 Joseph Stalin pressured Choibalsan to maintain the monastery…as a showpiece for international visitors, such as U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, to prove that the communist regime allowed freedom of religion.”

NB: “After the fall of Communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over to the lamas and Erdene Zuu again became a place of worship. Today Erdene Zuu remains an active Buddhist monastery as well as a museum that is open to tourists…On a hill outside the monastery sits a stone phallus called Kharkhorin Rock. The phallus is said to restrain the sexual impulses of the monks and ensure their good behavior.”

Rila Monastery

John of Rila

Alcobaça Monastery

Bernard of Clairvaux


Erdene Zuu Monastery

Abtai Sain Khan

Kharkhorin Rock



PDF with headlines — Google Drive


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John Muresianu

Passionate about education, thinking citizenship, art, and passing bits on of wisdom of a long lifetime.