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Sumela Monastery : The Monastery In The Clouds

Sumela Monastery : The Monastery In The Clouds


Sumela Monastery


What is more admirable, the fact that it is carved in the steepest rocks, the fact that it is standing there since the 4th century or the frescoes inside the Sumela monastery? The perfection of the dwellings carved on a steep cliff hard to reach even under present day circumstances creates amazement. Admiration and amazement are the two words summarizing each visitor’s reaction in front of the Sümela wonder…

Together with the Hagia Sophia (Church) Museum, Sumela Monastery is one of the two historical buildings which attribute worldwide renown to Trabzon.

Sources claim that the Sumela monastery was built by two priests, Barnabas and Sophranius from Athens under the reign of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius (375-395). The Greek word “melas” meaning black is at the origin of the name Sümela, due to the name of the mountain against which the monastery is leaning called the Black Mountain (Karadağ) and to the black colour of a fresco depicting Virgin Mary inside the building.


In the 6th century, Emperor Justinianus orders the wornout monastery to be restored. The restoration work undertaken under the supervision of General Belisarios leads the way to an extension of its dwellings.

The Trebizond (Trabzon) Komnenos Principality founded in 1204 provides largescale support to the monastery, thus contributing to its golden period.

Sümela continues to flourish under the Ottoman Empire as well and enjoys additional privileges granted by Sultans’ decrees.



“Manasterios” meaning in Greek language, “to live alone”, it is believed that the word monastery was derived from that Greek word to signify a location where monks retire to live in asceticism. Such tradition exists also in the Buddhist and Hinduist faiths.

But Christian monasteries are more common and their initial precedents were first seen in Egypt. Many monasteries were established in Anatolia and Europe, particularly in relation with the Orthodox Christian faith developed within the boundaries of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Priests and priestesses were usually in separate institutions, donations constituted their source of income. With their libraries and frescoes, the monasteries were considered important centres of knowledge and art.

They were usually erected away from population centres; on high hills or cliffs difficult of access, in order to create a proper environment for meditation and to be protected from invasion. Sümela’s location is a perfect example.

In winter it is almost impossible to get through to it, even in today’s conditions. Sümela is always covered with fog, in summer like in winter. Therefore, it is called the “Monastery in the Clouds”, a metaphor reflected on frescoes as well.

In the 18th century Sümela is restored once again and new frescoes are added. Finally, in the 19th century, larger dwellings are being added and the monastery attains then its full splendour as it stands today.

Sümela’s renown reaches western Europe during that period and many a traveller who visited Sümela give account of their admiration in their travel books.

During the 1916-1918 period in which Trabzon was under Russian occupation, the fate of the monastery changes. Seized by the occupation forces during that time, Sümela is slowly being abandoned and is totally evacuated in 1923. The monastery remains in poor condition for many years until it is taken under protection in 1987 within an area declared National Park together with the woods surrounding it.


The section with 72 rooms.

The Sümela Monastery which lies on the territory of the Maçka county, Trabzon Province is accessible through a road passing through the mountains. After getting off from the vehicle, one has to climb a while and then go up 64 stairs and finally go down 92 stairs… Once you reach the monastery’s courtyard your exhaustion is replaced by admiration and amazement.

Sümela is a large building complex with the Rock Church, the chapels, the kitchen, the students’ rooms, the library, the guest rooms and the ayazma (spring of water regarded as sacred by Orthodox Greeks). The fivestorey front building housing 72 rooms was adorned once upon a time by splendid balconies, as can be seen from earlier photographs. The monastery’s water supply was provided through aqueducts, partly restored nowadays, bringing water from the 4 km. far Karaağaç plateau.

An excursion to Sümela is certainly an unforgettable cultural journey due to the architecture, the atmosphere reflecting past centuries and definitely due to its fabulous frescoes.


In Sumela Monastery The Black Virgin Mary fresco no longer exists.

The frescoes inside the monastery are dated from the 9th to the 18th centuries and are believed to have been created in three successive layers. There are various rumours concerning the Black Virgin Mary fresco: that it never existed, or that it was deteriorated through wear and tear of time or that it was taken away by priests coming from Greece at the beginning of the 20th century…

In the oldest part of the monastery, the Rock Church and the Chapel, inner and outer walls are decorated with frescoes depicting Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary and scenes from the Bible.


Monasteries in Trabzon

Sümela Monastery is undoubtedly the most significant historical treasure amongst the various monasteries located in Trabzon. The other monasteries’ buildings in the region such as Vezalon (Yahya), Gregorius Peristera (Kuştul-Hızır İlyas), Panagia Theoskepastos (Kızlar), Panagia Keramesta (Kızlar) are partly destroyed or in poor condition. Sümela erected on Black Mountain at an altitude of 300m.up from the valley, is not only Trabzon’s most important heritage but one of Turkey’s foremost historical sites.

An important leg of the country’s faith tourism, the monastery is receiving many visitors from April to October. Furthermore, in the last two years, vast religious ceremonies were held at Sümela under the leadership of Bartholomeos, the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Phanar , in the presence of many orthodox believers from Russia, Greece, Georgia and the USA.

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