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Sumela Monastery in Trabzon

Sumela Monastery in Trabzon
Many monasteries were built in the mountains behind Trabzon at the start of the Byzantine era and the best preserved and most important is Sumela. The monastery is dramatically perched on the narrow ledge of a steep cliff in the forests south of Trabzon in the region of Macka. It stands over 300m above the Altindere valley and was built in the 4th century by two Athenian priests, Barnabas and Sophronius.

Icon of Virgin Mary

They discovered an icon of “the Virgin Mary” that was said to be painted by St. Luke and which Barnabas had seen in a vision at the exact site where the holy relic was found and then placed it inside the cave on the narrow ledge. The Virgin has been worshipped here since 385. The monastery grew around the icon from the 6th century but most of what is seen today is from the Trebizond’s Komnenos dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries when several of its rulers held their coronations there rather than the imperial capital. The icon was said to have created numerous miracles which even Turkish sultans believed and would make pilgrimages to leave their offerings.

Sumela in Recent History

Sumela was abandoned at the end of World War I when in 1923 the Greek population were forced back to Greece and six years later was destroyed by a fire.
On returning secretly in 1931 a monk removed a number of treasures, including the icon, from a hiding place and the Virgins icon is now housed in a new monastery in Sumela northern Greece. Unfortunately because the treasures were stored in a damp underground place for 8 years the illuminated manuscripts from the Byzantine times that were taken had rotted away. Renovation and restoration works at the monastery have been on-going since 1996 and the surviving frescoes have being consolidated and cleaned and the Turkish government has stepped in to protect the monastery and turn it into a museum.

The Monastery Buildings

The ticket booth at the monastery gate opens daily June-Sept 09:00-18:00; Nov-Feb 09:00-16:00; Mar-May & Oct 09:00-17:00 and all paths that lead there merge at the booth.
The main buildings of the monastery complex are the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, guesthouse, library and sacred spring that was worshipped by Orthodox Greeks. The original entry stairway takes you up 5 storeys and on the far side of the gate leads you back down to the central courtyard.

Here to the right are the guest hostel and cells for the monks’ overlooking the edge with the chapel and cave sanctuary on the left. Although some are yet to be restored most of the former living areas have been completed. The degree of vandalism and decay is incomprehensible; art thieves had tried to pry off parts of the frescoes in 1983 and other areas ruined by graffiti dating back as far as 1875 and all attributed to Turkish, European and North American visitors.

The inner and outer walls of the Rock Church and the walls of the adjacent chapel are decorated with frescoes dating from the era of Alexios III are in many styles and cover every surface. The best are the earlier ones dating form 14th and 15th centuries and there are some additional and retouched ones from 1710, 1740 and 1860. The highest cave paintings have managed to stay in good condition because of their proximity. There is a large aqueduct at the entrance built against the side of the cliff and most of the arches have been restored.

Getting to Sumela Monastery

To get there you can take a taxi from the Trabzon taxi rank on Ataturk Alani; a minibus to Sumela which are next to the taxi rank or use an organised tour. If you have your own transport it is 43km from central Trabzon taking the coastal highways. The side road that approaches the monastery provides a stunning view as you climb up through the dense fir forests that can often be shrouded in cloud mist catching the occasional glimpse of the whitewashed walls reaching an altitude of 1200m. The monastery is linked to the valley floor by a trail and takes around 30 minutes to walk and is often very slippery.

If you use a car there is a steep partially paved track (no buses allowed) leading up the valley for 3.5km and you park at the hut used by the restoration team and walk in the rest of the way and it takes about 10 minutes from there.

The third approach and less popular than the others; about 1km along the cement drive you cross the wooden bridge over the stream and the path will bring you past an abandoned chapel and to the main trail just below the monastery.

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