TRABZON, Turkey — Following six-months of work to secure some 360 tons of rock mass to the cliffside, the Sumela Monastery in the Black Sea province of Trabzon has reopened for visitors on 1 May.
Previous restoration work undertaken by the Turkish government in 1991 was found in 2007 to have done harm to the original structure of the monastery. Improper stones were used and concrete poured within the grounds of the monastery.
Sumela Monastery, which has languished on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List since 2000, stands 1,200 meters above the picturesque Altındere Valley, carved into the steep cliffside of the mountain.
Although the monastery has remained Trabzon’s most visited tourist destination with over 1 million visitors every year, it was only partially — barely, really — reopened to worshippers in 2010 following an 88-year-long ban when the first Mass since 1923 was conducted by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew I.
Only one religious service is allowed per year. On 15 August, the day of the Dormition of the Theotokos or Feast of the Assumption, up to 500 worshipers are allowed to partake in a Divine Liturgy at the monastery’s church. A special pass issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is required.
The monastery was the focus of controversy earlier this year when the Turkish government allowed a DJ to perform within the courtyard for a video.
A video released on social media in February showed DJ Ahmet Senterzi performing in the courtyard of the cliffside ruins. Senterzi and his colleagues Volkan Gunduz and Cengiz Can Atasoy shot a music video at the monastery with a crew of 30 people. They set up a sound and music system as well as cameras.
Burası tarihi Sumela Manastırı.Bu nasıl bir tanıtım müziği.Çok üzüldüm
— Ayşegül Yılmaz♥️💙 (@aysegulylmz61) February 8, 2022
Greece’s Foreign Ministry stated at the time that the incident was “offensive” and “a desecration” of the monument.
“The recent images that were displayed on social media, in which a foreign band seems to be dancing disco in the area of the Historical Monastery of Panagia Soumela, are a desecration of this Monument,” it said.
“It is surprising that the permit was given to the band, as the Monastery of Panagia Soumela opens only for pilgrims,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said in its statement. “These images are offensive and add to a series of actions by the Turkish authorities against World Heritage Sites.”
Patriarch Bartholomew I reportedly sent a letter to the Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy raising his concerns regarding the use of the former monastery.
Euronews reported that the makers of the video clip had defended their decision, saying the footage was shot in order to promote Sumela as a tourist attraction and that Turkish authorities had granted permission for the event.
Sumela Monastery is built on a steep cliff with only one main entrance accessible by a 300-meter stairway. The ruins of the large, 10-arch aqueduct that once supplied water to the monastery can be seen at the side of the cliff by the entrance.
Next to the entrance is the guardroom. The inner courtyard of the monastery can be reached several steps down. The main sites of the structure include a cave, the ‘Rock Church’, and a large building with a balcony on the front side of the cliff dating to 1840 containing cell-like rooms for monks and guest and a library. Near the Rock Church, there is a partly ruined fountain which collects the sacred spring water from the mountain.
The Rock Church formed the foundation of the monastery, with later construction expanding the complex. Around the courtyard, there are also several dilapidated chapels.
The inner and outer walls of Rock Church are adorned with beautiful frescoes of biblical scenes of Christ and the Virgin Mary dating back to the 18th century. There is evidence that below these more modern frescoes are layers of much older works.
Areas of the monastery build or reconstructed after the invasion of Trabzon by Sultan Mehmet II in 1461 show the influence of Turkish art and design.
Details of the cupboards, niches on the walls, and fireplaces in the rooms surrounding the courtyard reflect this influence. The pointed arches of the fountain that collects the sacred water also evoke Turkish architecture of the period.
According to its founding legend, during the reign of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (375–395), two Athenian priests named Barnabus and Sophronius found a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on a mountain while travelling from Athens to Trabzon and decided to build a church there to create a house for the icon. This cave, now known as the Rock Church, today forms the center of the monastery.
It is said that the name of the Panaghia Sulema Monastery, founded in the name of the Virgin Mary (Panaghia in Greek), derives from the Pontic Greek “sou” (mountain) “melas” (dark or black).
There are two prominent theories on the origin of the name. The first is in reference to the black forest and dark rock mountains where the church is built. The second is in refence to the monastery’s famous icon of the Virgin Mary formerly housed in the Rock Church. The icon is remarkably dark in color, even described by some as black.
In the 12th century, it was common to describe Virgin Mary in black to emphasize the mysterious expression on Virgin Marys face. These “Black Madonnas” were mostly used in Georgian and Eastern European art.
In the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the monastery was repaired by his top commander Belisarius.
In the 13th century, Trabzon and other Black Sea coastal areas formed the Empire of Trebizond, a rump state of the Byzantine Empire. Trabzon became the capital and the ruling class titled themselves as the true heirs of the Byzantine Empire. During the reign of Alexios Komnenos III (1349–1390), the monastery took its present form and was funded annually by the imperial government.
When the Ottomans came and Sultan Mehmet II conquered Trabzon in 1461, he ordered Sumela to be protected.
In 1923, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the modern Turkish Republic was founded. The monastery was soon thereafter abandoned because of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey according to the Treaty of Lausanne.
In 1930, Pontic Greeks who had migrated founded a new monastery, also named Panaghia Soumela Monastery, on the slopes of Mount Vermion, near the town of Naousa, in Macedonia, Greece.
A fire that same year destroyed much of the wooden parts of Sumela Monastery were destroyed, including wooden balconies and porches in the courtyard visible in old photographs of the monastery.
In the following years, treasury hunters damaged numerous other parts of the monastery.
According to one legend, St. Luke, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, made the icon. Following his death, the icon was sent to Athens. However, during the reign of Theodosius I, the icon wished to leave Athens and it was carried by angels from Athens to Trabzon and put into this cave for Barbanus and Sophronius to find it.
In the center of the monastery, there was a sacred pool into which large drops of water would collect, dripping 30–40 meters from. The Virgin Mary, in both Christianity and Islam, is believed to bring good health and have powers of healing. Over the centuries, Christian and Muslim pilgrims traveled to Sumela believing that the waters collected in the fountain — symbolic of the tears of the Virgin Mary — had healing properties.