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Sumela Monastery After the Foundation of the Modern Turkey

By Busra Mese

In the aftermath of World War I, Sumela Monastery was abandoned following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. In this period both Greek people and clergy members left the region. During this period, the monastery was quite worn out  and remained neglected. The wooden structures and the frescoes on the walls were significantly destroyed by the fire. The monastery was closed to visitors for a long time and remained abandoned.

However, the Monastery has been a point of interest for foreigners who came to the region for different reasons since 1960 and as a result, a road was built to the monastery. The keys of the monastery were kept in the Forest Management Department in the region and keys were given to those who wanted to visit.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism took the Sumela Monastery under protection with minor restorations in 1972. The Monastery was officially opened to visitors in 1986 and has been flooded by many local and foreign tourists since then. Sumela Monastery has taken its place among the most important faith tourism destinations in Turkey today. Sumela Monastery was included in the temporary list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage in 2000, and efforts for its entry into the permanent heritage list are still ongoing.

SUMELA MONASTERY AT THE PRESENT TIME

Location of Sumela Monastery

Sumela Monastery is located within the borders of Altındere Village, which is 17 km south of Maçka district of the city Trabzon. This magnificent building was built on the top of rocks and carved into the side of a steep cliff, 1200 meters above sea level and 300 meters above the Altındere valley below. The main parts of the Monastery complex are the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse and a library. The most important aspect of the monastery that makes it physically important is that it was built as a structure hidden among the rocks in nature and away from residential areas.

It is not possible to drive right up to the monastery. To reach the Monastery, at a certain point you will need to get out of your vehicle and follow a path up there.  When you first get out of your vehicle, you cannot see anything around you; however, when you look up at the sky you will see Sumela Monastery hanging in the rocks like a nest in the branches of a tree. That is the most exciting moment for many visitors before they climb up to Monastery. That moment also  makes people think about the motive and the way in which that magnificent building was built in those ancient times.

Today, the Sumela Monastery has become Turkey’s most important faith tourism center. Especially after the partial completion of the restoration process, an influx of visitors to the monastery began. However, since the partial opening of the monastery coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of foreign tourists was not high. However, at the end of the restoration process, it is expected that Sumela Monastery will be a very important faith tourism destination after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restoration of Sumela Monastery

The Sumela Monastery suffered great damage because of being abandoned by priests and Greeks in the region after the First World War. Afterwards, it was exposed to the destruction of the local villagers living in the region.  Restoration has been on the agenda since the monastery was officially opened to visitors. Many small-scale restoration works have been carried out, but the largest and most important restoration process was started on September 22, 2015. During this restoration process, the monastery was completely closed to visitors.

At the end of the first phase of the restoration, Monastery was partially opened to visitors on May 25, 2019. At this stage, industrial climbers ensured the safety of the cliffs where the monastery building is located. During this period, works were carried out to secure some 360 tons of rock mass to the hillside.

With the completion of the second phase of the restoration, certain parts of the interior of the monastery were opened to visitors on 29 July 2020. Up to this point, 65% of the monastery has been restored.

The restoration of the remaining parts of the Monastery was completed on 1 May 2022. All areas of the Monastery have been opened to visitors for the first time. The Monastery has been visited by thousands of people since the first day of May, 2022.

THE PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS OF THE MONASTERY COMPLEX

The main parts of the Monastery complex are the Main Rock Church, several chapels, student rooms, a kitchen, a guesthouse, a library, and a sacred spring.

Main Entrance and the Aqueduct

There is a wide courtyard, guard rooms and a high aqueduct at the entrance of the monastery. The large aqueduct at the entrance supplied water to the Monastery.The spring water which is thought to have existed for centuries still flows in the fountain built in the courtyard.  The entrance to the Monastery leads up a long and narrow stairway. This is the only entrance and it is not possible to enter from the other sides of the monastery due to the rocks and steep cliffs.

There is a guard-room next to the entrance. However, toilets for visitors were built next to what is now known as the guard rooms. The stairs lead down from there to the inner courtyard. On the left, in front of a cave, there are several monastery buildings and the cave, which was converted into a church. The library is to the right.

Rock Church

The Rock Church which is located at the center of the monastery actually has the appearance of a natural cave and is on the left side of the entrance. The Rock Church constitutes the center of the monastery. There is a chapel addition to the part of the Church towards the courtyard

The inner and outer walls of the Church are decorated with frescoes. Most of these frescoes stand in overlapping layers belonging to different periods. The frescoes in the lowest layer are considered as more valuable and are of superior quality. It is estimated that the frescoes found in the uppermost layer belong to the 18th century.

In accordance with the Christian tradition, the main subject of the frescoes are biblical scenes telling the story of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. There are also frescoes depicting the Commeneos Kingdom. The frescoes of the monastery were seriously damaged.

Chapel and Hermitage Rooms

In the interior of the monastery, there are several chapels in caves located inside the rocks. In addition, during the most recent restoration works, the hermitage rooms were discovered and these rooms can be accessed through secret passages through the caves. There are different frescoes in both the chapels and the hermitage  rooms. However, these areas are currently not open to visitors.

Library and Main Student Building

At the main entrance to the Monastery, there are the library and student rooms on the right and from outside the Monastery they appear to be mounted on the rocks.  Each of these rooms has small windows looking towards the valley. There is a magnificent view of nature from these windows. In this section, there are guest rooms and monk rooms as well. This main building leaning against the rocks has 6 floors in total. This building gives a magnificent view of the monastery from long distances. It is thought that this building took its final form in 1860.

A part of the main building overlooking the valley was used as a library. During the Ottoman period, many important books were sent to this library. There are also monks’ rooms in the building as well. The hermitage rooms, where monks can live in seclusion in nature, maintain their exact structure today. The building also has student and guest rooms. In addition, there are cellar rooms on the lower floors of the building

Sacred Sumela Spring

On the left side of the inner courtyard of the monastery, there is a holy spring known as holy water. The spring section has also been restored and water is still flowing. The holy spring has a very sacred value for visitors. As a matter of fact, Trabzon Chamber of Commerce has suggested selling this holy spring water to tourists, but it has not been implemented yet.

 

Kitchen and Dining Room

There is a kitchen and a dining room on the left side of the main building, just across the inner courtyard of the monastery. In this section, food was prepared for the monks, students and visitors in the monastery. The kitchen section has regained its original structure with the restoration carried out after 2015.

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