The Sumela Monastery (Greek Παναγία Σουμελά), stands at the foot of a steep cliff facing the Altındere valley in the region of Maçka in Trabzon Province, Turkey. It is a major tourist attraction located in the Altındere National Park. It lies at an altitude of about 1200 metres overlooking much of the alpine scenery below.
According to local tradition - not backed up by historical documents - the monastery was founded in the year 386 (during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I, AD 375 - 395) by two Athenian priests - Barnabas and Sophronius. Legend states that they found an icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the mountain and decided to remain in order to establish the monastery.
During its long history, the monastery has fallen into ruin several times and been restored by successive Emperors; During the 6th Century AD, it was restored and enlarged by General Belisarius at the behest of Justinian I.
It reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the reign of Alexios III (1349 - 1390) of the Komnenian Empire of Trebizond (established in 1204). At that time, it was granted an income from imperial funds. During the time of Manuel III , son of Alexius III, and the reigns of later princes, Sümela gained further wealth from new imperial grants.
Following the conquest by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1461, it was granted protection by order of the Sultan and given rights and privileges which were renewed by following Sultans. Monks and travellers continued to journey there throughout the years and the monastery was extremely popular up until the 19th century.
The Monastery was seized for a time by the Russians during the occupation of Trabzon between 1916 - 1918.
Today its main purpose is as a tourist attraction. Its place overlooking the forests and streams below make it extremely popular for its aesthetic attraction as well as for its cultural and religious interests. The Turkish government is currently undertaking necessary restoration works to the site.
Fabric and buildings
The principal elements of the Monastery complex are the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, library and sacred spring revered by Orthodox Greeks. These were built over a very large area.
The large aqueduct at the entrance, which clearly supplied water to the Monastery, is constructed against the side of the cliff. The aqueduct has many arches which now mostly restorated.
The entrance to the Monastery leads up by a long and narrow stairway. There is guard-room next to the entrance. The stairs lead from there to the inner courtyard. On the left, in front of cave, which constitutes the centre of the Monastery and which was turned into a church , there are several monastery buildings. The library is to the right.
The large building with a balcony on the front part of the cliff was used for the monks' cells and as guesthouse. It dates to 1860.
The influence of Turkish art can be observed in the design of the cupboards, niches and fire-place in the rooms of the buildings surrounding the courtyard.
The inner and outer walls of the Rock Church and the walls of the adjacent chapel are decorated with frescoes. The frescoes of the time of Alexios III can be seen on the inner wall of the Rock Church facing the courtyard. The frescoes of the chapel which were painted on three levels in three different periods are dated to the beginning of the 18th century. The frescoes of the bottom band are of superior quality.
The frescoes of the Sümela Monastery are seriously damaged since they have largely been moved from their original settings. The main subject of the frescoes are biblical scenes telling the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary.