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Sumela Monastery; The Pearl of the Black Sea

By Busra Mese

A trip to Black Sea region is never complete without a visit to the stunning Sumela Monastery located in the borders of Altındere Village in the  Maçka district, which is 45 km south of the city of Trabzon in modern Turkey. This magnificent  building was carved into the side of a steep cliff, 200 meters above the Altındere valley below.

It is not known when the monastery was founded, but according to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the date goes back to AD 386, during the reign of the emperor Theodosius I (375 – 395). Thus, the basic core of the structure is over 1600 years old. The monastery was still active as a Greek educational institution until the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Sumela Monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and it is called the Virgin Mary Monastery by the local people.

Since Sumela Monastery is located on the side of a steep cliff and away from people and settlements, it has had a mystery throughout history. Many legends have been told about the foundation of the monastery. The most well-known of these three legends are as follows:

According to the first legend, Virgin Mary had appeared in the dreams of two Athenian priests named Sorphonios and Barnabas and she asked them to build a church in her name, and that to do this they should follow the path she showed them to reach the Karadağ (Mela) Mountain. Both priests, unaware of each other, came to Trabzon to realize their dreams and met while doing research in Trabzon. They realized that both of them had the same dream, and then they went to the place which the Virgin Mary showed them in their dreams.  Priests first built a church in the cave at the foot of the mountain and then built the Sumela Monastery there. The two priests  lived in the Monastery for the rest of their lives and died there.

According to another legend, the Virgin Mary icon made by Saint Luke flies around and lands on the place in Maçka, where the Church of the Virgin Mary is located today. Then, Barnabas and his nephew reached Trabzon by the way of sea and came to Maçka and built the Monastery there.

According to a third legend, Virgin Mary icon made by Saint Luke, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, and it was sent to Athens as an inheritance after the death of Luke. However, in the reign of Theodosius (4th century) the icon declared its desire to leave Athens and was brought to Trabzon by angels and placed upon a stone. It was at that time that two monks by the name of Sorphonios and Barnabas travelled from Athens to Trabzon and found the icon and built the Monastery on  that spot.

However, as a result of scientific examinations made by scholars, it was argued that the Sumela Monastery  might have not been built at around 4th century. The scientific data show that the present Sumela Monastery emerged during the Commeneos reign (founded in 1204) in the Trabzon region in the 13th century. Between 1340 and 1390, the campus increased its importance during the reign of Alexios III and his son Manuel III. Later on, the Monastery took its present form during the Ottoman period.

Therefore, leaving aside the foundation myths, it is estimated that the Sumela Monastery, which we know as today was built in the 13th century. It is possible that there were churches or similar hermitages in the cave in this region before the Monastery was built.

THE ORIGINS OF THE NAME: SUMELA

The original name of the Sumela Monastery is “Panaghia tou Melas” (Our Lady Of The Black Mountain). The word “Panaghia” symbolizes the Virgin Mary and  “Tou Melas” means dark black. Over time, the original name was turned into “Panaghia Sou Melas” with the pronunciation of the local people and then it was called “Sou Melas” excluding “Panaghia” and finally the name has remained  as “Sumela”.

With the conversion of the region to Islam, the Sumela Monastery was also called “Virgin Mary. Today, however, the name Sumela Monastery is being officially used.

SUMELA MONASTERY DURING THE REIGN OF COMMENEOS

Sumela Monastery was a very important religious center during the Commeneos Kingdom. The monastery experienced its greatest development during the reign of King Alexios III between 1349 and 1390. The royal family built many palaces, churches and libraries in the region at that time and especially made important donations to the Monastery. King Alexios III held his coronation ceremony in this monastery in 1350. Later, new buildings were added to the campus in 1360. It is estimated that the main building with 72 rooms, which was built on the rock seen from the outside was built at that time. The Royal Family often provided financial support for the development of the monastery. Later, in 1390, King Alexios III’s son, King Manuel III  ascended to the throne and wore his crown like his father in this monastery. In this period, the monastery was developed considerably and became a much more important religious center with help of the to the Foundation created for the development of the Monastery.

SUMELA MONASTERY IN THE OTTOMAN PERIOD

Following the conquest of Trabzon in 1461 by Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the region came under Ottoman rule. However, the Ottoman State did not pursue an oppressive policy in the region. After gaining the control of Trabzon, Sultan Fatih issued an edict and granted privileges to the Monastery officials and their religious activities. The region has maintained its old existing social structure. Therefore, Sumela Monastery continued its function as a very important center during the Ottoman rule. Ottoman Sultans consistently provided financial assistance for the maintenance and development of the Monastery throughout the history. Many edicts issued for the Monastery by the Ottoman Sultans in order to ensure the activities of the clergy members and the functions of the Sumela Monastery.

Until the Russian occupation of Trabzon (1916 – 1918) during the World War I, the Sumela Monastery stayed active and was visited by monks and Christian pilgrimages. During the Russian occupation, Monastery Monks got involved in politics and encouraged Greeks in the surrounding areas to revolt against the Ottoman State. It is stated that the monks of the Monastery were responsible for the death of 500 Turkish soldiers sent to suppress this uprising. After this event, the monks of the Monastery took shelter in the church of Santa Maria in Trabzon. It is stated in different sources that the monks took valuables while leaving the monastery and placed dynamites in different parts of the Monastery as a trap for Turkish soldiers. However, it estimated that  these dynamites were detonated by the shepherds in the region after the Turkish soldiers left. And the Monastery was severely damaged by these explosions.

In 1923, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and an independent Turkish Republic was founded by Ataturk. After 1923, the Sumela Monastery was abandoned following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in accordance with the Treaty of Lausanne. Those who migrated to the Greece founded a new monastery at Verria and continued their Sumela traditions in Greece.

 

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