Sümela Monastery: The Pearl of Turkey’s Black Sea Region

*The featured pic: Sumela Monastery (photo from Babbsack)

Turkey’s Black Sea region is not the most popular choice for foreign tourists who travel to Turkey. It is largely overshadowed by hotpots like Istanbul and Antalya, the two cities that comprise the largest percentage of Turkey’s overall tourism.

Although the Black Sea is primarily visited by local tourists, it offers a wide range of fascinating sites and ineffably beautiful natural landmarks. In this article, I want to introduce you to Sümela Monastery, which is a vast monastery complex nested between the tall, evergreen mountains of Trabzon.

Let’s explore this astounding gem!

Sumela Monastery from far away (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Sümela Monastery

Sümela Monastery (Panagia Sumela in Greek) is a 1600-year-old Orthodox mountaintop monastery, built on the side of Karadağ Mountain, which is located in the Altındağ Valley of Trabzon’s Maçka district.

Currently included in UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites in Turkey, this religious complex is presumed to have been built in the 4th century AD during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I, by two priests named Barnabas and Sophronios who were natives to Athens, Greece.

Today, Sümela monastery is, perhaps, the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey’s Black Sea region. And with its amazingly well-preserved artistic frescoes and stunning architectural features and location, this magical site is deserving of its admiration.

Sümela Monastery is spread over a large area and consists of church buildings, chapels, rooms where once the monks lived, bathrooms, libraries that once hosted valuable ancient manuscripts, food cellars, a kitchen, and a section that was a natural spring with healing properties.

Frescoes at Sumela Monastery (photo by Acar54)

The etymology of the name “Sümela”

The most plausible theory about the root of the name “Sümela” suggests that the monastery got its name from the word “melas”, meaning “black” in Greek. This was, in fact, the archaic name of Karadağ Mountain, upon which the monastery is built.  Furthermore, “Stou Mela” means “the thing at Mela” in Greek. It is therefore suggested that the name “Stou Mela” seemingly shaped into “Sümela” over the centuries.

Inside Sumela Monastery (photo by Martin Cígler)

History of Sümela Monastery

Historical accounts concerning the monastery suggest that the two Athenian priests, Barbanas and Sophronios, had the same dream one night in which they both saw that a sacred icon made by St. Lucas, one of Jesus’s disciples, was taken by the angels to where Sümela Monastery now stands. Without even having met each other, these two priests traveled to Trabzon and ended up running into each other there. Upon retelling their dream to each other, together they started building the foundations of the Sümela Monastery.

Sümela Monastery was a religious complex where monks and priests received education. As it held the sacred icon made by St. Lucas, the monastery was the most important one in the area in centuries.

When the Eastern Black Sea coastal region came under Turkish rule, the monastery was not harmed in any way. The Ottoman sultans Selim I and Mehmet II granted gifts to the monastery and issued decrees that guaranteed its safety and autonomous state.

Frescoes at Sumela Monastery (photo by Ben Bender)

In the 18th century, the monastery went through a substantial restoration and was the largest it had ever been in the 19th century, following the addition of new structures. However, after the Greek residents left the area on account of the Population Exchange Agreement signed between Greece and Turkey in 1923, the Sümela Monastery was deserted. Some of the holy artefacts and the icon made by St. Lucas were transferred to the Benaki Museum in Greece in 1931 upon the request of the Greek president.

In 2015, the Turkish state funded a very comprehensive restoration of the monastery that lasted about 3.5 years. As part of this restoration project, 4 thousand tons of rubble were cleared, a 300-meter-long walking path to the monastery was built, a chapel was discovered where you can see one of the finest frescoes depicting the scenes of “Heaven and Hell” and “Life and Death”, and a chapel that was used as a watch tower and a room was found as well.

Frescoes at Sumela Monastery (photo by Herbert Frank)

Information for visitors

Sümela Monastery can be visited from 9am to 6.30pm in the summer period (15 March-15 October), and from 10am to 4pm in winters (15 October-15 March). The monastery is closed on weekends. The entrance fee to the monastery is 50₺. In addition, you will be required to pay a fee of 10₺ to enter Altındağ National Park. The total fee of 60₺ equals to $8 or € 6.40 (December 2020 exchange rates).

The monastery is free to visit for Museum Pass owners. If you do not have a Museum Pass, which grants free access to all the museums in Turkey that run by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, click to find out more about it or purchase it online.

There might be unannounced, abrupt changes in the visiting hours and fee of the monastery due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to your visit, I would recommend you to check the tourist information page of the monastery from the official website of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey.

The phone number for the tourism office of Sümela monastery: +90 462 326 07 48

How to get to the Sümela Monastery?

Going to Sümela Monastery is quite simple. If you will be traveling by your personal vehicle, simply go to the Maçka district of Trabzon and follow the signboards from there. The monastery is 47km away from downtown Trabzon, and it takes about an hour-long drive (one way) to get there. The parking lot at Sümela Monastery site is free.

If you are going to go to the monastery using public transportation, you can take minibuses from Trabzon to the district of Maçka, and then from there, you can hop onto another minibus to the monastery. Note that from Maçka to the monastery, it takes approximately 40 minutes. However, the scenery along the way is so amazing that you will be absorbed by its beauty and the 40 minutes will pass as quickly as an eye blink.

Click to access the minibus schedule between Trabzon and Maçka.

Sumela Monastery (photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

What else to see in the area?

Besides Sümela Monastery, there are two other important religious sites in the area that you should not leave without seeing: Vazelon Monastery and Kuştul Monastery.

Vazelon Monastery is a Greek Orthodox monastery that was built in the year 270AD. It went through a restoration in 565AD by the order of Byzantine emperor, Justinian I. Although the monastery was attacked and damaged several times in history, the frescoes depicting the scenes from the “Last Judgement” and “Heaven and Hell” are still intact. Vazelon Monastery was deserted in 1923 following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Since then, it is in ruins, and today, the monastery is quite dilapidated and has only a few frescoes left.

Vazelon Monastery (photo by Ingo Leonard)

Kuştul Monastery, (St. George Peristereotas Monastery in Greek), is a Greek Orthodox Monastery that was constructed in 752 AD. Legend suggests that the monastery was founded by 3 monks who were carrying the icon of St. George. Apparently, these monks were guided to the spot where the monastery was built by a flock of pigeons. At its peak, the monastery contained more than 180 cells where monks lived, and a collection of 7000 manuscripts. In 1923, following the Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey, the monks left for Greece. Today, the structure is in a state of neglect and dilapidation. The monks are now buried in the St. George Peristereotas Monastery in the Greek city of Naousa, which carries the same name.

Fresoces at Vazelon Monastery that depict the scene of “Last Judgement” (photo by Ingo Leonard)

Where is the Sümela Monastery?

Where are the Vazelon and Kuştul Monasteries?

Argun Konuk
Argun Konuk

I am a 25-year-old Turkish travel & history enthusiast, sharing my travel experiences in Turkey and different parts of the world!

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