High in the Pontic Mountains overlooking Turkey’s north coast, the Sumela Monastery seems partially suspended in air, as if it’s about to float off over the deep chasm below. The 1600 year old monastery, now a national museum, was founded by two Greek missionaries in 386 A.D. Remarkably, it continued to function as a Greek Orthodox monastery for most of the centuries until being abandoned in 1923. Several kilometers outside of Trabzon, a popular resort on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Sumela remains the major tourist draw in this northern region. Driving up into the mountains in our mini-bus was to experience a rapid change in altitude, vegetation and clime. Parts of the roadway were incredibly steep, with waterfalls cascading down the near-vertical slopes on both sides. Waterfall in Pontic Mountains.
The steep hillsides turned out to be as difficult to maneuver as they looked. The last half mile or so we had to hoof it up the mountainside to the monastery, at about 3,900 feet (1200 meters). The government had purportedly widened the pathway to better accommodate tourists, but I think they missed some spots… Despite surviving some true pitfalls, arriving at the monastery made the trek worthwhile. The original buildings of the monastery have largely been repaired and restored, thus helping us envision what this monastic village looked like by the 13th century. The Turkish government continues to fund restoration and preservation of Sumela.
Main plaza of Sumela. Left of center is the Rock Church, the edifice on site, built into a cave in the rock face. Above: The Rock Church, and in photo in middle, one side of the Rock Church, displaying beautiful frescoes on an outside wall. Many of the outer frescoes date to 12th c., while the earliest ones inside the church date to the early 17th c.
Legend has it that the two Greek priests discovered a “miraculous” icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on this mountain. Supposedly, the icon was made by St. Luke and transported to this site by angels. The two priests decided to build a monastery around the cave — hence the Rock Church — and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary.
One additional legend holds that the icon showed a black or dark-skinned Mary, hence the word “mela” in the name, which means “black” in Greek. The original icon itself is no longer at Sumela. When a forced “population exchange” took place in 1923 between Greece and the newly formed Turkey, the priests were not allowed to take the icon with them. One enterprising priest buried the icon under the floor of another of the monastery’s chapels before fleeing. In 1930, another priest returned to Sumela and secretly spirited the icon to the “new” Sumela monastery in Greece.
An interesting side note concerns the Virgin Mary’s role in Islam, which honors her as being the perfect example of womanhood. The virgin birth of Jesus is a demonstration of God’s (Allah’s) great miracles. Surprisingly, Mary’s name is mentioned more times in the Quran than in the entire Christian New Testament. Over the first thousand years of Sumela, both Christians and Muslims came to the monastery to pray to the icon of Mary and ask for blessings or to be healed of various afflictions. In 1461, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered this region of Turkey. Perhaps in recognizing the of Sumela to both Christians and Muslims, he decreed that it not be converted to a mosque, but continue to function as a Greek Orthodox monastery. It’s a telling tribute to Mehmet’s stature that all succeeding sultans respected his decree until the early 20th c. when the Otooman Empire collapsed.
The interior walls and ceiling of the chapel were covered in beautiful frescoes that were created at three separate periods. The earliest of these date to the early 17th c., although archaeologists suspect that there are even earlier frescoes underneath the existing ones. Nevertheless, almost all have sustained damage, many severely so, from anti-Christian vandals and ignorant tourists. My favorite fresco, after the singing angels (above) is one depicting the biblical story of Jonah and the whale:
Another relatively undamaged fresco is of the Madonna and baby Jesus:
Extremely isolated as it was, Sumela Monastery’s inhabitants could not live completely sealed off from the outside world. For starters, the steep, rocky terrain was not conducive to crops. While water aplenty cascaded down the mountains surrounding the enclave, the water didn’t obligingly straight into the wells. The monks solved both problems by building both an aqueduct to direct the abundant water to them as well as a pulley system that allowed them to haul food and other supplies up the mountain.
And a final look at Sumela from the roadway below: