Hanging monastery in a forest

16Tucked up in the north-east of Turkey, Sumela is an extraordinary monastery that clings to a mountainside, seemingly defying gravity, south-east of the small town of Maçka near Trabzon.

Even if you’ve never heard of Sumela you will almost certainly know what it looks like, because it’s one of those images that tourist offices love to display as bait for their guests.

Remember a picture of a crumbling ruin high up above the pine trees with no obvious means of access?

That’s Sumela.


How did it come to be there, you can hardly help but ask, and the answer lies in a story that tracks right back to the fourth century when Sts Barnabas and Sophronius came to the area in search of an icon of Mary (Meryamana in Turkish), the Mother of Jesus, supposedly painted by St Luke.

Unlikely as it may seem, they finally found the icon way up on the mountain where they established a shelter to protect it. Over time, word of the discovery spread and the shelter swelled into a shrine, complete with beautiful frescoes on its rock-cut ceiling.300 DSC01398

By the time the Ottomans came roaring into Trebizond (Trabzon) its fame was so great that they too took an interest in the shrine, paying for more frescoes to be painted on the outside walls of a monastic church which had been painstakingly attached to the rockface.

But of course there was no happy ending to the story. As the centuries wore on, so the number of monks prepared to live in such a remote location dwindled to a handful.

In 1916 the site had to be abandoned for the first time in face of the Russian occupation of what had become Trabzon. A few monks returned for a few more brief years. Then came the 1924 Graeco-Turkish population exchange at the end of the Turkish War of Independence which meant that the remaining monks, as Christians, were required to leave the country.

Once abandoned, the monastery and its frescoes suffered considerable damage from fire, theft and vandalism. Some so-called art-lovers even went so far as to chisel away whole sections of the paintwork for themselves. 

The 18th-century frescoes on the exterior of the church at the heart of the monastery have been terribly defaced, but the far more important 14th-century versions inside the rock shrine are in better shape, and a guide should be able to point out images of some of the breakaway Komnenian kings of Trebizond on the ceiling.

200 DSC01407Since 2000 the mainly 19th-century buildings have been reconstructed. 
Some purists will probably dislike the end result, with its distinctive new roofs, but it’s far from being the worst restoration in Turkey, and certainly makes it easier for the average layperson to envisage how life might have been lived up here among the birds.

Several paths converge on the monastery which looms above climbers like a receding desert mirage.

The most popular path is steep and winding, so come equipped with sturdy walking shoes -  coming down again can be especially treacherous, especially after rain when the wet leaves on the path are as slippery as banana skins.

A couple of alternative paths offer less arduous access.


Most people will stay in Trabzon but there is also accommodation in Maçka.

Coşandere Pansiyon On the road from Sumela to Maçka. Tel: 0462-531 1190

Transport info

There are daily flights from İstanbul and Ankara to Trabzon, and buses from all local towns including Erzurum and Iğdır.

Although there are many organized tours to Sumela especially from Trabzon, it’s perfectly easy to get here under your own steam, either by car or using a local minibus. It takes some time to get through the ugly Trabzon urban sprawl, but once you reach Maçka the scenery bucks up considerably until finally you reach the Altındere National Park which protects the monastery and its surroundings.

Doing it yourself you'll find minibuses for Sumela leaving from the dreary minibus terminal facing Trabzon harbour.

Read more: http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?load=detay&link=156933



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