The ruins of a monastery can be seen on the slopes of the Zigana Mountains to the south of Trabzon and at the foot of the mountain at the bottom of a wooded valley flows one of the tributaries of Değirmen Creek, which terminates at Trabzon. This place is known as “Meryem Ana”, or “the Virgin Mary” by the local people. Its old name is “Sumela Monastery”. Many people consider its origins to be extremely old, and this opinion is widely held among the Byzantine Greek community of the Black Sea coast. According to legends about the foundation of the monastery in books about Trabzon printed in Greek, the monastery was originally founded in the reign of Theodosius and rebuilt in the sixth century in the reign of Justinian by Belisarios, one of his commanders. However, foreign experts who have conducted on-site investigations consider that there is nothing to substantiate this hypothesis. The Monastery’s main source of income is an icon of the Virgin Mary, which is reputed to be of great age and believed by many to possess miraculous properties. According to the legend, the icon is the work of Saint Luke, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ and it was sent to Athens after the death of Luke. However, in the reign of Theodosius (4th century) the icon declared its desire to leave Athens and was borne to this hollow in the mountains around Trabzon by angels and placed upon a stone. It was at that time that two hermits by the name of Barnabus and Sophronius, who were then travelling from Athens to Trabzon, happened to find the icon in this deserted spot. Thus, buildings which are the subject of such legends are automatically regarded as being exceptionally old. Sumela is not the only example of this type, it is only one of a number.
It is said that “Sumela” (the Greek name of this monastery, founded in the name the Virgin Mary), comes from the word “melas”, which means “dark” or “black”. Many consider that this stems from the dark hues of the mountain valley in which the Monastery is situated. However, in the opinion of the author the word “sumela” could be an adjective used to refer to the icon of the Virgin Mary. The colour of the icon, which is so dark that it could be described as black, was one of the things that struck the eminent historian J.P Fallmerayer (1790-1861) when he visited the Monastery in 1840 and could well be the origin of the name. It is known that l2th century Georgian art produced a number of icons of the Virgin Mary known as Black Madonnas, and these icons found their way into a number of monasteries. Black was used in order to emphasise the mysterious expression on the Virgin’s face. It is also considered that the origins of this Georgian style could be traced to ancient Indian art. If the close proximity of the Sumela Monastery to the Caucasus is considered, then it would be reasonable to assume that this icon is a Black Madonna from which the Sumela Monastery gained its name. Thus, the mountain also became known as Oros Mela (Kara Dağ) because of the Monastery.
To put it in a nutshell, the Sumela Monastery at Trabzon was first referred to by this name in the Komnenos period. Sumela was founded in what must be the most beautiful spot in the magnificent scenery of this area, in which there are a number of monasteries, places of worship and other buildings of a religious nature. Sumela expanded over the centuries of Ottoman rule and became a complex of considerable size. The centre of the complex is a cave, or rather a hollow almost 1200 m above sea level and about 300 m above the river at the bottom of the valley, in the middle of a slope so steep it could be said to be almost vertical. The narrow head of rock jutting out in front of the cave, access to which is tiring and difficult in the extreme, formed the foundation of the Monastery, which grew in size and accumulated wealth over the centuries. Sumela is the most famous of the old monasteries in and around Trabzon.
It is known that mountains, high ground and caves have been invested with religious significance ever since ancient times. It is possible that there was once an altar in the cave and that as Christianity began to spread a group of monks set up a retreat. Of course, this hypothesis is based on information gained about similar cases. Only a detailed study and excavations carried out in and around the cave itself could cast light on its accuracy. However, no exact information can be gained at present. Although it is obvious that the legend about the Monastery having been founded by Barnabas and Sophronios in the reign of Theodosius (4th-5th century) and repaired by Belisarios, one of Justinian’s commanders, does not rest on concrete fact, like many legends it survives. If the foundation legend is ignored, then the existing monastery buildings point to its having been built some time after the thirteenth century. At that time the Principality of Trabzon, under the Komnenos Dynasty, was developing as an entirely separate state within the Byzantine Empire and its capital, Trabzon, dominated the area. The title held by the princes, who saw themselves as the true heirs of the Byzantine Empire and described themselves as emperors was not accepted by the true Byzantine Empire when, in 1261, it regained control of Istanbul and revitalised the old Byzantine state. It was Alexios Komnenos III (1349-1390) who maintained an intricate system of contacts with the neighbouring Turkish beyliks (the equivalent of principalities) who should be considered as the true founder of this monastery. Historical sources and documents point to the fact that Alexios III, whose two sisters and four daughters were married to Turkish beys (rulers of beyliks), took a special interest in the Sumela Monastery. It also emerges that Alexios’s great grandfather, grandfather and father had made donations to the monks, which would indicate that Sumela had been a religious centre since the reign of Ioannes II (1280-1285), great grandfather of Alexios. According to another legend Alexios III, who was saved from certain death in a storm by the intervention of the Virgin Mary, had the monastery rebuilt and endowed it with rich foundations, the conditions of which were set out in a Krysobullos, or decree. A verse consisting of five lines inscribed on a tablet dated 1360, which was over the monastery gates until 1650 states that “Alexios III, founder (ktetor) of this place, is emperor of East and West (Iberia)”. In 1361 Alexios witnessed an eclipse of the sun here at Sumela and the sun depicted on coins minted by Alexios is considered to refer to this event. In the Deed of Foundation, dated 1365, apart from references to the administration, land and income of the monastery there is also a warning about the “danger of a Turkish invasion of Trabzon” and the monks are urged to be “always on the alert”. Manuel III (1390-1417), son of Alexios III, like his father, took an active interest in buildings of a religious nature. In the year of his succession he presented an ornate cross believed to contain a holy relic (stavrotek), in this case a piece of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified, to the Sumela Monastery. The last members of the Trabzon Komnenos dynasty issued decrees endowing the monastery with great wealth or sanctioning its deeds of foundation. After the conquest of Trabzon and the surrounding area by the Ottomans, the sultans issued decrees protecting the ancient rights of the Sumela Monastery, just as they had for the monasteries on Mount Athos and at Sina, in fact they even granted certain privileges to Sumela and presented gifts as well. Thus the two candlesticks once in the Monastery are known to have been presented by Selim I (1512-1520). A decree issued by Mehmet II, conqueror of Trabzon, acknowledging the rights of the monastery exists. Local publications inform us that other, similar decrees were kept in the monastery; these include the decrees of Bayezid II, Selim II, Selim III, Sultan Murad and Ibrahim, Mehmed II, Süleyman the Magnifıcent, Mustafa and Ahmet III. It has been established that the Voivodas of Wallachia took a close interest in Sumela from the second half of the l8th century onwards, constantly despatching letters and aid. Among these rulers was Ghikas (1755), Stephan (1764), and Hypsilantes (1775). Naturally, all the correspondence between the Patriarchate in Istanbul and the monastery throughout the Ottoman period was kept in the archives of the monastery. Sumela both expanded and grew richer under the aegis of the Voivodas in the l8th century and many parts of it were rebuilt. Archbishop Ignatios had the surfaces of all the walls adorned with frescos in 1749. The golden age of this monastery was unquestionably the l9th century, when rebuilding and magnificent decorations were carried out with gifts sent in a wave of enthusiasm by Greek Orthodox communities all over Anatolia.
The Sumela Monastery is reached by means of a steep path through the forest. Its entrance was evidently designed with security in mind and final access to the building was via a long, narrow flight of steps. A large aqueduct abutting the mountainside at the side of the steps brought water to the monastery. Old photographs reveal a structure with ten wide arches which is in extremely good condition, but it is now in ruins. As you pass through the main entrance, where there is accomodation for the doorkeeper and other rooms you descend a flight of steps into an inner courtyard. In the centre on the left is a church built on to the cave containing the sacred spring, opposite which are a number of monastery buildings laid out in a random fashion. On the left side of the courtyard is a comparatively new fountain where the waters of the sacred spring oozing from the mountainside collect. It is now half ruined and full of rubble. On the left, inside the cave, is the church-which is the oldest part of the monastery. The church juts out at right angles into the courtyard. And its walls are covered with frescos, both inside and out. However, a close examination of the frescos reveals that they are of comparatively recent origin and that beneath them are layers of much older and more valuable murals. The existence of the latter is also recorded in various sources. On the right side of the courtyard are a number of rooms for the accommodation of guests known to have been built circa 1860, together with a library and there are a number of small chapels around the courtyard. In old photographs taken before the monastery reached its present stage of dilapidation we see that the walls of all the buildings facing the courtyard have wooden balconies and verandahs. Rice describes the fine wood-carving on some of the above. In one of the now extremely dilapidated chapels are murals considered to date from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. At the far end of the courtyard a narrow corridor extends above a narrow, jutting rock and from this point an impressive building contiguous with the cliff face extends in the other direction. This part of the complex, which is most striking when viewed from a distance, is the main monastery building where the monks once lived. Apart from the three main floors there are several rows of cellars below and a set-back storey at the top. The rows of arches and galleries under the eaves endow the building with a stately air. This barrack-like building, which is visible as a whiteness on the darker background of the cliff when viewed from afar was built in 1860 in the course of the major repairs and renewal referred to above. However, apart from its size and location the building does not possess any really noteworthy artistic or architectural features. There was once a wooden roof with wide overhanging eaves but this, together with the timber structure of the building has collapsed, leaving only four walls, in the middle of which is the vast, empty well of the building. When one looks downwards from the tower that juts from the front wall the dizzying height of its location becomes clear.
In spite of the fact that the architectural and artistic value of this structure is disputable it has been regarded in recent years as the most important part of Sumela. However, it is the church in one corner of the inner courtyard that is the most important. The church was formed by hewing away the rock of the cave interior to create a smoother surface and closing the mouth of the cave with a straight wall. Abutting the latter is a small chapel which juts out from the wall. The inside and outside walls of the chapel were adorned with layer upon layer of frescos from the l8th century onwards and in some places three layers can be clearly discerned. The bottom layer is superior to the others in terms of colour and quality. The change in subject-matter discernable in each layer is interesting and inscriptions stating that these works were executed in 1710 and 1732 have been discovered. On the other hand, on the courtyard-facing wall of the rockface church frescos dating from the reign of Alexios III were once found. There, on either side of Alexios III stood his sons, Manuel III and Andronikos. Unfortunately, however, no trace of these portraits remains today. Outside, parts of a huge Apocalypse scene, of which only the upper bands remain, can be seen on the rock-face and underneath its flaking plaster other scenes are visible. On the wall of the small chapel a dragon and two mounted figures, St George and St Demetrios, are discernable and we discovered the existence of a further two layers of paintings beneath this top layer. Thus, on top of the bottom layer, where the figure of an emperor wearing a diadem is depicted is yet another figure of the same kind also wearing a diadem-and on top of this, a Transfiguration scene. On the other hand, in the older parts of the monastery, there are correspondingly valuable paintings in places where the plaster has not flaked off completely, in the lower layers, but this would be the subject of a separate study.