Seemingly super-glued to a sheer cliff face high above the dense forests of the Pontic Mountains, Sumela Monastery is a little known hidden gem in North Eastern Turkey. Built by Greek Orthodox priests 1,600 years ago, this Byzantium masterpiece with its ornate frescos and secret cave dwellings has survived through the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empires and the Greco-Turkish War. Today the monastery welcomes an ever-increasing flow of visitors, from all faiths and from around the world.
Where – Altindere National Park, 50KM south of Trabzon. (Google Maps)
Get There –Dolmus from Trabzon (to Maçka). 60 minutes. 15TL (€5)
Admission – 15TL (€5) Open 09:00 – 18:00
Essentials – Good sturdy footwear, waterproof jacket
Andddd? – Ubiquitous Gift Store. Restaurant with WC close by, selling fresh trout, snacks and ice cream
As the dolmus bus winds up the steep mountain road, you can catch glimpses of the impossibly perched Monastery. The dolmus will drop you off at the base, so prepare yourself for a 300m walk along a steep, rutted track. The monastery will come into view once more, appearing to overlook the forested landscape as if it were its kingdom.
Legend has it that in 386AD, two Greek Orthodox priests found a statue of the Black Madonna (associated with miracles) in a cave perched on the cliff. Believing that it was a sign from the Heavens, the two priests decided to build a monastery right there… no matter how difficult building on a cliff was going be. The hard-working priests managed to carve out an intricate lair of chapels, libraries and living quarters. Fair play lads.
The monastery as it appears today was built around the original cave lair in the 13th century and remained an important and active site until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. As part of a deal after the Greco-Turkish war (1919 – 22), the Greeks and the new state of Turkey ordered a large-scale people swap. The thousands of Greek residents in North Eastern Turkey were forcibly moved to Greece, regardless of whether they even had any remaining links to Greece. This lead to the swift demise of the monastery.
Under the ultra Nationalist rule of Ataturk, the monastery fell into disrepair and succumbed to fire, cultural vandalism and the theft of relics. Amazingly, until 2010 it was forbidden for any Orthodox ceremonies to be held at the monastery.
While many of the religious frescos have been irreparably damaged, the higher frescos haven’t suffered as badly and are still in remarkable condition. The vivid colours portray dramatic scenes from the Bible. The frescos appear to dazzle as they are lit up by the sunlight that seeps through dark hallways and narrow windows.
To be honest, the graffiti that covers some of the frescos is actually of interest. I mean, when was the last time you saw “Johnny was here, 1865” scribbled on a wall in your home town? The graffiti stretches way back to the 19th century and you can’t help but think of the people who etched their names into the walls. Do their ancestors come along and pay homage to their Great-Great-Grandfathers piece of graffiti?!
Today, the Monastery is growing in popularity as a destination. However it is still very far from the maddening crowds and you will have plenty of time and space to explore this cliff edge wonder….just don’t look down! At the moment, due to previous damage around half of the site is off-limits and also tourist information is sparse. Thus making it difficult to know what the frescos represent (unless you’re a mega bible basher) or what each room was used for.
After seeing the monastery, you can walk in and around the lush forest that surrounds the Monastery and there is a quaint restaurant below serving up fresh grilled trout and some badly needed ice cream….yum! The dolmus returns to Trabzon in the afternoon, so you should have no trouble getting back. Unless you fancy a night in a cold, dark, isolated monatery….spookyyyy!
*For the less adventurous, or if you are in a hurry – numerous tour companies operate tours to Sumela from Trabzon city centre.