The Rila mountains have a rich history, serving as a refuge throughout many centuries of turmoil and occupation. Bulgaria's largest and most famous monastery, Rila Monastery, has been a significant seat of learning and also guardian of Bulgarian culture. During the 10th Century a hermit, Ivan, earned a widespread reputation for his miraculous powers and with increasing numbers of pilgrims visiting him he realised that his solitary way of life was not possible. Consequently, in 931, he agreed to have a number of followers establish themselves with him. He died in 946, but the monastic community that established around him grew and developed. During the Middle Ages, the original hermitage complex suffered from several fires and natural disasters. Therefore, in 1335, a new complex was established further down the Rilska river valley. This is the site of Rila Monastery today. During the Ottoman occupation Rila monastery' so well hidden in the depths of the Rila mountains, became the cultural guardian of the occupied nation and represented a powerful symbol for those desiring independence.
History is everywhere in the Rhodope with evidence of human settlement at every turn: caves used by prehistoric man, Thracian tumuli, Roman roads, and medieval forts and monasteries. The Ottoman occupation was particularly significant as large numbers of Turks settled in the Rhodope, and numerous Turkish settlements and communities continue to exist in the Rhodope today. During the Turkish occupation many attempts were made, usually through force, to convert Bulgarians to Islam. Those Bulgarians who did convert became known as Pomatsi, and where almost entire communities converted these are referred to as Pomak settlements or villages. Today their descendants inhabit the Rhodope mountains combining Islamic beliefs and practices with older Bulgarian traditions and customs. However, not all individuals or communities accepted Islam and consequently suffered persecution, with many being brutally killed. Several Bulgarian settlements in the Rhodope joined the 1876 April Rising against the occupying Turks. This uprising was swiftly and brutally crushed, most notably in the town of Batak where the inhabitants were massacred in the local church.
The Pirin mountains have a rich history and in ancient times the southern end around Sandanski was home to the Medi, a powerful Thracian tribe, perhaps best known as the tribe from which Spartacus came. Subsequently, during the Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria that was to last for 500 years the Pirin villages and towns produced many of the most influential figures in the Bulgarian renaissance and also many of the freedom fighters seeking an independent Macedonia. The most famous is probably Yane Sandanski who was born in May 1872, in the small village of Vlahi situated on the western slopes of the Pirin. He became a highly committed revolutionary leader seeking the liberation of Macedonia but fell foul of a rival revolutionary faction and was murdered near Pirin village in the southern part of the mountains. The grave of Yane Sandanski can be visited behind the church of Sv. Sv. Kiril i Metodii a short distance downhill from Rozhen Monastery.