Sümela Monastery is perched on the slopes of the Zigana Mountains south of Trabzon. The Sümela Monastery is known as Meryem Ana, or the Virgin Mary by the locals. Many people consider its origins to be extremely old, and this opinion is widely held among the Byzantine Greek community of the Black Sea coast. According to legends about the foundation of the monastery in books printed in Greek, the monastery was originally built during the reign of Theodosius and rebuilt in the sixth century during the reign of Justinian by Belisarios, one of his commanders. Modern day experts have conducted on-site investigations and report that there is nothing to substantiate this hypothesis. The Monasterys main source of income is an icon of the Virgin Mary, which is reputed to be of great age and believed by many to possess miraculous properties. According to the legend, the icon is the work of Saint Luke, a disciple of Jesus Christ and was sent to Athens after his death. During the reign of Theodosius in 4th century, the icon supposedly declared its desire to leave Athens and was borne to the mountains around Trabzon by angels and placed upon a stone. It was at that time that two hermits by the name of Barnabus and Sophronius happened to find the icon in this isolated location. So the buildings at Sümela were automatically regarded as being exceptionally old based on the legend.
It is said that Sümela was founded in the name the Virgin Mary.The name Sümela comes from the word melas, which means dark or black. Many feel the name then stems from the dark hues of the mountain valley in which the Monastery is situated. Some say the word sumela may refer to the icon of the Virgin Mary because the colour of the icon being so dark that it could be described as black. This possibility struck the eminent historian J.P Fallmerayer when he visited the Monastery in 1840 and could possibly be the origin of the name. It is known that l2th century Georgian art produced a number of icons of the Virgin Mary known as Black Madonnas, and these icons found their way into a number of monasteries. Black was used in order to emphasise the mysterious expression on the Virgins face. With the close proximity of the Sümela Monastery to the Caucasus then it might be reasonable to assume that this icon is a Black Madonna and the source from which the Sumela Monastery gained its name. The mountain also became known as Oros Mela (Kara Dağ) because of the Monastery. Black Madonnas are more common in Eastern Europe and are always kept in places of worship high up in the mountains where pilgrimages are made by Christians. There are usually healing waters in these locations as well. It is believed that in France, such icons arrived there by miraculous means. It is interesting to note that religious beliefs, as far as this phenomenon is concerned, are very similar in a number of widely scattered locations. The centre of the complex is built a cave-like depression almost 1,200 meters above sea level at a spot almost 300 meters above the river on a slope so steep that it is almost vertical. The narrow ledge of rock jutting out in front of the spot where the monastery forms the foundation for the Monastery.
The existing monastery buildings point to its having been built some time after the thirteenth century. At that time the Principality of Trabzon, under the Komnenos Dynasty, was developing as an independent state within the Byzantine Empire with Trabzon being the dominating city of the area. The title held by the princes that believed themselves to be the true heirs of the Byzantine Empire, but this was not accepted by the real Byzantine Empire when it regained control of Istanbul and revitalised the old Byzantine state. It was Alexios Komnenos III, who maintained an intricate system of contacts with the neighbouring Turkish beyliks, who should be considered the true founder of this monastery. Historical sources and documents point to the fact that Alexios III took a very special interest in the Sumela Monastery. It also appears that his great grandfather, grandfather and father had made regular donations to the monks - indicating that Sumela had been a religious center since the reign of Ioannes II - great grandfather of Alexios. According to another legend Alexios III had the monastery rebuilt and endowed it with wealthy foundations because of his belief that his life had been saved by the Virgin Mary.
In the decree he issued, there was a verse consisting of five lines inscribed on a tablet dated 1360. This decree hung over the monastery gates until 1650 and states that Alexios III, the founder of the monastery, is emperor of all - both East and West. In 1361, Alexios witnessed an eclipse of the sun at Sumela and the sun depicted on coins minted by Alexios is believed to refer to this solar event. Manuel III, son of Alexios III, like his father, took an active interest in buildings of a religious status. In the year of his succession he presented an ornate cross believed to contain a piece of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified to the Sumela Monastery. The last members of the Trabzon Komnenos dynasty issued decrees endowing the monastery with great wealth and sanctioning its deeds of foundation. After the conquest of Trabzon and the surrounding area by the Ottomans, the sultans issued decrees protecting the ancient rights of the Sumela Monastery, just as they had for the monasteries on Mount Athos and at Sina. Two candlesticks once in the Monastery are known to have been presented by Selim I and a decree issued by Mehmet II, the conqueror of Trabzon, acknowledged the rights of the monastery still exists. Other similar decrees were kept in the monastery including the decrees of Bayezid II, Selim II, Selim III, Sultan Murad and Ibrahim, Mehmed II, Süleyman the Magnifıcent, Mustafa and Ahmet III.
The correspondence between the Patriarchate in Istanbul and the monastery throughout the Ottoman period was kept in the archives of the monastery. Sumela both expanded and grew richer under the aegis of the Voivodas in the l8th century and many parts of it were rebuilt. Archbishop Ignatios had the surfaces of all the walls adorned with frescos in 1749. The golden age of this monastery was unquestionably the l9th century, when rebuilding and magnificent decorations were carried out with gifts sent in a wave of enthusiasm by Greek Orthodox communities all over Anatolia. According to what Fallmerayer wrote in 1840, the monks of Sumela traveled the whole of Anatolia, the Caucasus, the Balkans and even into Russia to collect money by selling rather poor copies of the icon referred to above. This money would then be taken back to the monastery and one of these monks carrying the sum of forty thousand kuruş was robbed and murdered in Kayseri. The Ottoman state had the murderers arrested and executed as well had the stolen money returned to the monastery. The interior of the monastery was sumptuously appointed and around 1860 when new structures were added forming a large complex of buildings. A number of foreign travelers visited the monastery in the l9th century and wrote about it.
One of the most detailed descriptions of the Sumela Monastery is that of G. Palgrave in the 1800's. In an article published in February of 1871 he provides some very interesting information including a statement to the effect that the popular legend that Sultan Murat fired cannon at its walls was impossible because his army could not have been anywhere near the monastery. Palgrave also refers to gifts made by Murat and Selim I and that he saw a miniature of the decree issued by Alexios III. In another decree issued by Selim II, which Palgrave is said to have seen in the monastery, the Sultan openly states that he was displeased by unfavourable remarks made by the monks in regards to him. The Russian invasion of Trabzon, which lasted from 18 April 1916 until 24 February 1918 aroused hopes that a Christian Pontus state would be reborn in Trabzon. The doors were finally slammed on this hope in 1923 after the War of National Liberation, when all Byzantine Greeks in Turkey were sent to Greece and the Sumela Monastery was closed down. Those who migrated founded a new monastery at Verria (formerly Kara Ferye) in Macedonia. Their reluctance to part with their old memories and desire to keep traditions alive were signified by a modern icon of the Virgin Mary placed in the monastery. The abandoned monastery quickly deteriorated and a fire in 1930 destroyed all the wooden components of the buildings as well as there later being a great deal of needless destruction inflicted by treasure seekers.
To reach the Sumela Monastery visitors must climb a steep path through the forest. At the entrance the final access to the building is by a long, narrow flight of steps. There is a large aqueduct along the mountainside at alongside the steps which brought water to the monastery. Old photographs reveal a structure with ten wide arches that were in extremely good condition, but that now lie in ruins. Passing through the main entrance visitors go down a flight of steps into an inner courtyard. In the center on the left is a church built on to the cave containing the sacred spring, opposite which are a number of monastery buildings laid out in a random fashion. On the left side of the courtyard is a comparatively new fountain where the waters of the sacred spring seeping from the mountainside collect. To the left inside the cave is the church which is the oldest part of the monastery. The church juts out at right angles into the courtyard. And its walls are covered with frescos, both inside and out. However, a close examination of the frescos reveals that they are of comparatively recent origin and that beneath them are layers of much older and more valuable murals. The existence of the latter is also recorded in various sources. On the right side of the courtyard are a number of rooms for the accommodation of guests known to have been built circa 1860, together with a library and there are a number of small chapels around the courtyard.
In old photographs taken before the monastery reached its present stage of dilapidation we see that the walls of all the buildings facing the courtyard have wooden balconies and verandahs. Rice describes the fine wood-carving on some of the above. In one of the now extremely dilapidated chapels are murals considered to date from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. At the far end of the courtyard a narrow corridor extends above a narrow, jutting rock and from this point an impressive building contiguous with the cliff face extends in the other direction. This part of the complex, which is most striking when viewed from a distance, is the main monastery building where the monks once lived. Apart from the three main floors there are several rows of cellars below and a set-back storey at the top. The rows of arches and galleries under the eaves endow the building with a stately air. This barrack-like building, which is visible as a whiteness on the darker background of the cliff when viewed from afar was built in 1860 in the course of the major repairs and renewal referred to above. However, apart from its size and location the building does not possess any really noteworthy artistic or architectural features. There was once a wooden roof with wide overhanging eaves but this, together with the timber structure of the building has collapsed, leaving only four walls, in the middle of which is the vast, empty well of the building. When one looks downwards from the tower that juts from the front wall the dizzying height of its location becomes clear.
In spite of the fact that the architectural and artistic value of this structure is disputable it has been regarded in recent years as the most important part of Sumela. However, it is the church in one corner of the inner courtyard that is the most important. The church was formed by hewing away the rock of the cave interior to create a smoother surface and closing the mouth of the cave with a straight wall. Abutting the latter is a small chapel which juts out from the wall. The inside and outside walls of the chapel were adorned with layer upon layer of frescos from the l8th century onwards and in some places three layers can be clearly discerned. The bottom layer is superior to the others in terms of colour and quality. The change in subject-matter discernable in each layer is interesting and inscriptions stating that these works were executed in 1710 and 1732 have been discovered. On the other hand, on the courtyard-facing wall of the rockface church frescos dating from the reign of Alexios III were once found. There, on either side of Alexios III stood his sons, Manuel III and Andronikos.
Unfortunately, no trace of these portraits remains today. Outside, parts of a huge Apocalypse scene, of which only the upper bands remain, can be seen on the rock-face and underneath its flaking plaster other scenes are visible. On the wall of the small chapel a dragon and two mounted figures, St George and St Demetrios, are discernable and we discovered the existence of a further two layers of paintings beneath this top layer. Thus, on top of the bottom layer, where the figure of an emperor wearing a diadem is depicted is yet another figure of the same kind also wearing a diadem-and on top of this, a Transfiguration scene. On the other hand, in the older parts of the monastery, there are correspondingly valuable paintings in places where the plaster has not flaked off completely, in the lower layers, but this would be the subject of a separate study.
Works of Turkish art are on exhibition in some of the buildings around the courtyard. For example, details such as the cupboards, nooks and fireplaces in the rooms gave the interior a positively Turkish air. The pointed arches of the fountain where the water of the sacred spring accumulates are also Turkish in character. However, possibly the most striking features are the painted designs in dark red on some of the walls, these being an imitation of the brick pointing designs encountered in l8th century Turkish buildings. There is also said to be a rockface chapel where there are a number of frescos hewn into the mountain side about one hundred metres to the north of the monastery. Sixty-six of the mainly l7th and l8th century manuscripts from the monastery library, which had been previously catalogued, are now in Ankara Museum. A further one thousand tetraevangeliums the Four Gospels, adorned with minatures and dating from Byzantine times are kept in the Ayasofya Haghia Sophia Museum in Istanbul. There are also 150 printed books. Of the plate and other valuables from the treasury of the church is a silver cross or stavrotek presented by Manuel III, Prince of Trabzon, a handwritten manuscript and a large number of documents, which are now in the Museum of Byzantine Works in Athens. The icon of this monastery, known as 'Our Lady of the Roses', is now in the National Gallery in Dublin. The silver candlesticks presented by Sultan Selim were stolen in 1877. Another icon belonging to the monastery is in a private , collection in Oxford. In the Benaki Museum, Athens, is a silver medallion on which the Holy Trinity is depicted and another ornate medallion dated 1438, together with an altar cloth or epitaphios dated 1438. Source: www.goturkey.com ~ Turkey's Official Tourism Portal
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