Explore The Black Sea coast
At the beginning of the Byzantine era a large number of monasteries sprang up in the mountains behind Trabzon. The most important and prestigious – and today the best preserved – was Sumela (increasingly signposted as Sümela), clinging to a cliff-face nearly a thousand feet above the Altındere valley, the sort of setting that has always appealed to Greek Orthodox monasticism. Despite the habitual crowds, often rainy or misty weather – and rather battered condition of the frescoes – Sumela still rates as one of the mandatory excursions along the Black Sea.
The name Sumela is a Pontic Greek shortening and corruption of Panayia tou Melas or “Virgin of the Black (Rock)”. She has been venerated on this site since at least the year 385 AD, when the Athenian monk Barnabas, acting on a revelation from the Mother of God, discovered an icon here said to have been painted by St Luke. He and his nephew Sophronios found the holy relic on a site that matched the one in his vision – a cave on a narrow ledge part of the way up the nearly sheer palisade – and installed the icon in a shrine inside.
A monastery supposedly grew around the image as early as the sixth century, but most of what’s visible today dates from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Over the centuries the icon was held responsible for numerous miracles, and the institution housing it shared its reputation, prompting even Turkish sultans to make pilgrimages and leave offerings.
Sumela was hastily evacuated in 1923 along with all other Greek Orthodox foundations in the Pontus; six years later it was gutted by fire, possibly started by careless squatters. In 1931 one of the monks returned secretly and exhumed a number of treasures, including the revered icon of the Virgin, now housed in the new monastery of Sumela, in northern Greece. Since 1996, the monastery has been undergoing restoration. The work done thus far is in reasonable taste, even extending to proper ceramic canal-tiles for the roof. Most important of all, the surviving frescoes have been consolidated and cleaned.
However you arrive, all paths converge at the ticket booth by the monastery gate.
Sumela actually occupies a far smaller patch of level ground than its five-storeyed facade would suggest. A climb up the original entry stairs, and an equal drop on the far side of the gate, deposits you in the central courtyard, with the monks’ cells and guest hostel on your right overlooking the brink, and the chapel and cave sanctuary to the left. Reconstruction of most of the former living areas is complete, though there are still a number of off-limits areas and unsightly scaffolding. The degree of vandalism and decay is appalling: sophisticated art thieves were caught levering away large slabs of the famous frescoes in 1983, and any within arm’s reach have been obliterated by graffiti-scrawlers – much of the graffiti is pre-1923 vintage Greek, with some even as old as 1875, but Turkish, European and North American visitors have also left their marks.
The main grotto-shrine is closed off on the courtyard side by a wall, from which protrudes the apse of a smaller chapel. A myriad of frescoes in varying styles cover every surface, the earliest and best ones dating from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, with progressively less worthwhile additions and retouchings done in 1710, 1740 and 1860. The highest cave paintings are in good condition – ceilings being harder to vandalize – though the irregular surface makes for some odd departures from Orthodox iconographic conventions. The Pantocrator, the Mother of God and various apostles seem to float overhead in space; on the south (left) wall is an archangel and various scenes from the Virgin’s life (culminating in The Virgin Enthroned), while Jonah in the Whale can be seen at the top right.
Outside on the divider wall, most of the scenes from the life of Christ are hopelessly scarred. Among the more distinct is a fine Transfiguration about ten feet up on the right; just above sits Christ in Glory, with two versions of the Ascension nearby. At the top left is Christ Redeeming Adam and Eve. On the apse of the tiny chapel the Raising of Lazarus is the most intact image. Next to it is the Entry into Jerusalem, with the Deposition from the Cross just right of this. On the natural rock face north of all this appears the Communion of Saints in Paradise. When craning your neck to ogle the surviving art gets too tiring, there is (mist permitting) always the spectacular view over the valley – and the process of imagining what monastic life, or a stay in the wayfarers’ quarters, must have been like here in Sumela’s prime.Read More