Sumela Monastery - History and Facts | History Hit

Sumela Monastery

Altindere, Black Sea Region, Turkey

A 13th century monastery nestled into the cliff-face of the Zigana Mountains, this picturesque Byzantine monastery is located in a scenic, mountainous setting.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Sumela Monastery

Perched on the edge of a sheer cliff-face 300 meters high in the heart of beautiful Altindere National Park, stands Sumela Monastery, a picturesque Byzantine monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

History of Sumela Monastery

According to tradition the monastery was founded by Barnabas and Sophranius, two Athenian priests who visited the region during the reign of Theodosius I. Legend has it that the icon of the Virgin Mary, believed to have been the work of Saint Luke, was carried to the Zigana Mountains of Trabzon by angels, only to be discovered by Barnabas and Sophranius on their journey from Athens to the region. It is this icon of the Virgin Mary, arguable depicted in the style of a Black Madonna, which makes Sumela Monastery such a prized possession for the people of Trabzon and the Black Sea region.

While the ancient structures which may have stood on the site have not survived, the monastery which can be seen today is believed to have been founded in the 13th century AD, and further enlarged by Trebizond Emperor Alexios III sometime between 1349 and 1390. During the 1700s many parts of the monastery were expanded and renovated, with the addition of frescoes and a silver frame surrounding the icon.

In the 19th century new structures and buildings were added, including guest accommodation, and it became a popular destination for European writers. The monastery was finally closed in 1923 after the Turkish War of Independence following World War One, with a fire in 1930 destroying all wooden parts of the structure. Following the fire there was severe looting and the majority of the works of art are now in various museums around the world.

Sumela Monastery today

Whilst much of the artwork and frescoes have deteriorated beyond recognition, there are examples of Turkish artwork on exhibition in the courtyard and surrounding buildings, including examples of cupboards, fireplaces and other furniture. Manuscripts, books and documents found at the monastery have since been catalogued and are now on display at the Ankara Museum and the Ayasofya museum in Istanbul. Valuable items such as plates and crosses from the monastery are on display at the Museum of Byzantine Works in Athens, and the Icon, ‘Our Lady of the Roses’ is on display in the National Gallery in Dublin.

Today the monastery is reached via an incredibly narrow, steep path and staircase through the forest, initially chosen for defensive purposes. No trace remains of the large, ten-arched aqueduct that used to provide water to the monastery, instead all that remains is ruins. The frescoes on the inner and outer walls of the church are recent, with earlier works believed to be underneath these newer additions. This practice of re-painting older murals with newer frescoes is most obvious in the church carved into the rock of the inner courtyard, where inscriptions date back to 1710. It is also believed that frescoes from the reign of Alexios, including those of his sons, were also found on these walls, but no evidence exists today.

Recently the monastery has been granted restoration work, funded by the Turkish government, and there has been an influx of tourists and pilgrimages from Greece and Russia.

Getting to the Sumela Monastery

The monastery is in northern Turkey, a few kilometres inland from the Black Sea. High in the mountains, it’s accessed via a wiggly road, snaking up from the E97/D885: public transport doesn’t reach this far, so you’ll either need your own car or to hire a taxi from Trabzon. It’s about an hour’s drive from the city.