Set into the side of a cliff, sits Sumela Monastery (often referred to as “Virgin Mary”) believed to have been founded named by two Greek priests named Barnabas and Sophronios in AD386 during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (3725 – 395). The priests were apparently guided to this location by the Virgin Mary. Once a popular destination for monks and both Christian and Muslim pilgrims, today it is primarily a tourist attraction.
The monastery is famous for an icon of the Virgin Mary kown as the Panagia Gorgoepikoos which is said to have been painted by the Apostle Luke. It is so dark that it is almost black. This icon is likely to be one of a number of 12th century “black madonnas” which were often found in places of worship across Eastern Europe. According to legend, after St Luke painted the icon, it was placed away in Athens, until angels carried it away to Trabzon. It is believed that Sumela’s monks travelled Anatolia, the Balkans and Russia, selling copies of the icon to raise money for the upkeep of the monastery.
In Greek, the word “Soumela” means “black” and so many believe that this name was given to the monastery in reference to the Black Sea region it is located in, or the Black Mountains which it is part of. However, others believe that this name was influenced by the colour of its famous icon.
The monastery has had a colourful history. Several times it has fallen into ruin and been restored again. It was granted special rights and protections by Sultan Mehmed II in 1461 following his conquer of Trabzon, and these rights were renewed by successive Sultans.
Its modern history is also colourful. It was seized by the Russian Empire when they occupied Trabzon between 1916 and 1918. It was then completely abandoned as a result of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. The monks who were forced to go to Greece were not allowed to take anything with them and so they allegedly buried the icon in the floor of the monastery’s chapel. It is believed that one of the monks secretly returned in 1930 and retrieved the icon, taking it to its new home in new Panagia Soumela Monastery on Mount Vermion, Greece.
As you arrive at the monastery you will have your breath taken away both figuratively and literally! Firstly, it is an incredible architectural and masonry feat – how on earth was it assembled at such a great height and in such a precarious location? As for your breath being literally taken away – access to the monastery is via a steep path through a forest, culminating in a steep flight of stairs. Although its a steep climb, it is worth it.
Inside the complex is the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, a library, and a sacred spring revered by Orthodox Christians. Beautiful frescoes depicting biblical scenes decorate the inner and outer walls of the Rock Church and the walls of the adjacent chapel are decorated with frescoes.
Just once a year, on 15 August, special permission is required to visit the monastery as on this day a special Greek Orthodox service is held for the Feast of the Assumption. Around 1000 people flock to the area for this service each year, and those who are not lucky enough to get permission to enter watch the event on widescreen televisions at a cafe several hundred metres away.
Don’t forget to take some water with you when you visit as there are no cafes or places selling water at the top!