At the start 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), which clings to a cliff-face nearly a thousand feet above the Altındere valley, 46km south of Trabzon, in precisely the sort of setting that has always appealed to Greek Orthodox monasticism. Despite the usual crowds, often rainy or misty weather, and the rather battered condition of its frescoes, Sumela still rates as one of the mandatory excursions along the Black Sea.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can make the hour-long journey to Sumela from Trabzon by taxi or on a tour. However you arrive, aim to spend at least three hours at the site, allowing for a good look around and a spot of lunch by the rapids which flow through the valley below. The monastery itself is linked to the valley floor by a newly paved road, as well as a commonly used, recently widened and often slippery woodland trail (30min).
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 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, partway up the all-but-sheer palisade – and installed it 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 countless miracles, and the institution that housed it shared its reputation, prompting even Turkish sultans to make pilgrimages and leave offerings.
Six years after Sumela was hastily evacuated in 1923, along with all other Greek Orthodox foundations in the Pontus, it was gutted by fire, possibly started by careless squatters. In 1931 one of the monks returned secretly and exhumed various 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, extending to proper ceramic canal-tiles for the roof. Most important of all, the surviving frescoes have been consolidated and cleaned.