All religions have devout and pious followers. Dedicating their life purely to the existence of a higher power, many of these followers also vow poverty and obedience. The perfect example of the Christian religion is monks who go one-step further by living in designated monasteries.
From the Macka district of Trabzon in northeast Turkey, an interesting historical story talks about some Greek Orthodox monks and their monastery called Sumela. The man-made landmark is relatively bland in appearance and architecture but gains admiration from its precarious location on the side of a cliff face overlooking the Altindere Valley National Park.
The History of Sumela Monastery
Throughout history, monks traditionally built monasteries away from villages and towns, in high up positions on mountains and hills. This in part explains the remote location of Sumela, but an urban legend also adds an interesting twist to its history. In the 4th century, a monk called Barnabas had a dream in which the Virgin Mary told him to travel to go to the Pontic mountain range and build a monastery for her.
He set off on his travels taking another monk with him. They walked for many months looking for the holy place that would become a home for the devout Christians. One day, settling in a cave to rest, they found a statue of the Black Madonna and believed it was a sign to start constructing the monastery there.
Over the years, it received funding from many Byzantine emperors and under the reign of the Ottoman Empire, had protected status. Greek communities and villages in the area contributed towards its upkeep, and the monks sold small statues of the Virgin Mary while travelling around. Despite a few incidents of bandits, fires and much-needed maintenance, life in the monastery peacefully continued into the early 20th century.
That is when everything started to go wrong, not only for the monks and monastery but also for the country. The Russians invaded that area in 1916. The monks mistakenly looked forward to a healthy relationship with them but the Turkish war of independence ensued, and in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne demanded all Greeks living in the country go back to their homeland and vice versa. Life in the monastery finished. Monks took what they could or buried religious statues and icons.
Now deserted, cattle and sheep farmers used it for overnight shelter, while others with no interest or knowledge of preserving history, labelled graffiti on the walls and ancient frescoes. It was not until the 1980s when work began to preserve the old landmark. Furthermore, it was not until 2010 that the Turkish government opened it up to the public. Restoration work is constantly ongoing to keep as much of the original structure as possible and stop falling rocks from the cliff face.
Visiting Sumela Monastery in Trabzon
Public transport does not go directly to the Sumela monastery, so most people sign up for guided tours run by local travel agencies. Vehicles go as far as possible, but getting to the monastery is tough and unfortunately unsuitable for wheelchair users. Walking uphill on a winding dirt path intertwined with tree roots take roughly 30 minutes before visitors arrive at the entrance.
In accordance with religious expectations of poverty, the architecture is plainly simple, and nothing to boast about. However, once visitors pass through the entrance, they walk down a stone flight of 92 steps taking them to the rooms used by monks for sleeping. The balcony and front windows with magnificent views over the valley give an illusion of falling down the cliff face.
Coming out of these rooms, the towering rock face looks over the small courtyard. Monks impressively carved the kitchen, storerooms, and chapel out of it and in a discreet corner, water drips slowly from the rock because of the high humidity of the region. Old urban legends said if you stood underneath it, and three drops of water landed on your head, good health, and luck will come your way. These days, not many believe the story yet in the past, people travelled to Sumela purely to stand under the holy water tap.
As well as the view, the church is the highlight of the visit because of ancient frescoes adorning the front façade, and interior walls and ceiling. Much work has gone into their restoration, because of hundreds of years of neglect, as well as unavoidable damage and graffiti. Showing many biblical stories including the creation of Adam and Eve, Mary’s assumption, and the death of Able at the hands of Cain, even people with no religious beliefs will be impressed.
Temporary restoration work in 2016 closed Sumela to visitors, but it is usually a major stopping point on faith and religious tours of Turkey. It is also on the tentative list to join the UNESCO World, Heritage List.
- Sumela Monastery belongs to the Trabzon district of Turkey, and if you are planning to visit, our Trabzon area guide will be useful. Including the history, places to eat, shop and things to do, it is a rounded travel guide to short stays in the city and area.
- Our article of the most incredible landscapes to see in Turkey features Sumela and other must-see destinations for people who want to see the best and most beautiful landmarks of the country.
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