History of the Sumela MonasteryLocated nearly 350 meters high up in the mountains and not far from Turkey’s northeastern coast with the Black Sea, Sumela has been a place of religious devotion since at least 386. Legend has it that a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary, known as the Panagia Gorgoepekoos and believed to be painted by St. Luke, was brought by an angel to one of the mountain’s caves for safekeeping. There it remained until it was discovered by two Greek monks from Athens named Barnabas and Sophronis. In order to honor and protect the icon, the monks built a church on the site which over the years evolved into the monastery that we know today.
Sumela changed hands several times during the middle ages. At one point it became part of the Trebizond Empire, a breakaway state from the then diminishing Byzantine Empire. In 1340, the monastery was expanded by the Trebizond Emperor Alexios III, after which it became an important pilgrimage site for Greek and Orthodox Christians. Over the years, the monastery became an extremely elaborate place filled with courtyards, dormitories for the monks and intricately decorated corridors filled with beautiful frescoes around the main church.
As the Turks continued to expand and Byzantine influence waned, the number of Greek and Christian pilgrims to Sumela greatly began to diminish. However the isolated nature of the monastery helped to protect it from looting and the monks were more or less left to themselves in peace.
Unfortunately for Sumela, the Graeco-Turkish conflict of the 1930s changed this. Most Greeks were pretty much expelled from Turkey and the situation forced the monks of the monastery to hide everything of value, including the icon of Mary, before they departing themselves. In 1931 when tensions had somewhat subsided, the Turkish government of Kemal Ataturk allowed the icon to be and taken back to Greece, where it is located unto this day.
Sumela TodayAfter the monks had left, the monastery fell into disrepair. However in the 1990s a major effort to restore the monastery was initiated and today, Sumela has become a popular tourist spot. Every year, thousands of tourists come here and take a 40-minute hike up the mountain to explore the monastery.
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