Sumela Monastery and the Black Madonna

Clinging to the side of a mountain in the green and lush area of Maçka  is Sumela monastery, which was built in the fourth century.  I had joined a tour and traveled from the nearby city of Trabzon to visit the iconic building.

Sumela monastery Trabzon

We drove as far as possible and walked the last two hundred metres uphill. Most of it was uneven ground, sometimes narrow and large tree roots protruding out of the ground were an accident waiting to happen.

I reached the entrance, out of breath but my first view of the inside courtyard, confirmed that this was a worthwhile visit. A long flight of steps led down to the main courtyard, passing living quarters on the way.

Courtyard of Sumela Monastery

From there, the kitchens and church are the last places to explore.

Church

Furniture and personal possessions are not on display as the monastery was emptied in 1923.  A lack of signs or a personal guide also means that at times, it is impossible to realise where you are stood and what you are looking at. The main attraction is the unique location and view.

Sumela monastery

Why was Sumela Monastery built in this peculiar place?

Traditionally, monasteries were always built on hills so they would be looking down on the local community. The people who built Sumela took this concept to another level by building as high as they did.

The story of why the monastery is in this peculiar location will vary depending on whom you speak to. The most popular explanation, involves a belief in miracles if you are to accept it as the truth.

It starts with two priests and a statue.

The Black Madonna

The legend talks about two priests who found an statue of the Virgin Mary in a cave on this mountain. The dark color of the statue led the priests to believe they had discovered a Black Madonna typically associated with miracles.

They believed Saint Luke had made the Black Madonna and angels carried it to the mountain.

They said it was a sign from the Virgin Mary that they should build their monastery in that spot.

Could rumours that the priests made up the story about the Black Madonna to gain income for their monastery be true?

Either way, the monastery functioned peacefully for hundreds of years. The Ottoman ruler, Sultan Mehmet the second, gave it protected status, special rights and privileges. It also continued to receive donations because of the Black Madonna statue.

The Turkish war of independence put an end to daily life in the monastery. In 1923, the monastery was abandoned and many items were secretly smuggled to a new monastery in Greece. It is believed that the Black Madonna was one of them.

Monastery of sumela in Trabzon

Frescoes and Ancient Graffiti

For many years, the monastery lay empty, visited only by soldiers and passersby. The frescoes show signs of damage from this time. Rumours also suggest that American and Russian soldiers based in the area, in the early 1900s, chipped off parts of the frescoes for souvenirs to take home.

Sumela and frescoes

The most impressive display is on the ceiling and walls inside the church, showing various scenes from the Bible and figures of Christianity.

You can take photographs if you do not use a flash. Ignore this rule and guides will have no hesitation at shouting at you in front of everyone.

Frescoes in sumela monastry

Is it bad to say that while I normally frown at graffiti on ancient drawings, the engravings of peoples name and years actually fascinated me?

Who was Sahap Hakioglu and why did he visit the monastery in 1956?  There is no record that the monastery was open for tourism in this year.

Damaged frescoes

Three Drops of Magical Water

Next to the church is one spot that is always wet, because of water dripping constantly from the rock face.

When the monastery first opened, people believed that if you stood on the spot and three drops of water fell on your head in concession, then good luck and health would come your way.

The queue used to be long as sick people travelled from far afield to be healed. Thankfully, that rumour has been laid to rest!

Church at sumela

Handy tips to know about Sumela monastery

I cannot compare Sumela monastery to any other historic site in Turkey.

The renovation work makes it hard to image this building at the time of its construction in 386AD, but with a little bit of imagination, the services of a guide and a well-written book, you can appreciate it.

Sumela

Most of the tour agencies in the city of Trabzon have cheap tours on offer that depart every day.

One morning is enough to explore Sumela monastery fully. Take a bottle of water, as you will need it on the walk up and there are no cafeterias at the top.

A restaurant at the bottom of the hill serves food and drinks which is ideal if you want to spend a full day exploring the area.

Restaurant near Sumela

On the way down, there is a grumpy old man, who never smiles but he does play traditional Black sea music in return for a couple of coins.

Black sea music

Every year, on August 15, the monastery closes its door to tourism and only a select few can enter for a special religious service.

Readers Question : Have you been to Sumela? If not, would you put it on your list of places to visit?

Sumela Trabzon

Contact me..

Natalie

Hi. My name is Natalie Sayin and I am the author of The Turkish Travel Blog. I am an eccentric,Internet addict with a passion for history.

I really shouldn't travel because I can not read maps and always lose my way! But hey, that never stops me and it is part of the fun! Leave a comment below to join the discussions.
Contact me..

Comments

  1. says

    . . it’s a wonderful site Natalie, and you’ve done it proud. Been a while since j and I were there and the restorations have changed the place a bit – must call in for another visit when we are back in the area.

  2. says

    Great post as always! I bet it was worth it to climb all the way up there! The Trabzon area is definitely on our travel list, but will have to postpone until the spring as our fall/winter trips are already booked. :-)

    We loved the Black Sea region around Safranbolu, Turkey, and would love to explore more of the area.
    Joy (My Turkish Joys) wrote about..Bademli Köyü: Turkish Village Life

  3. says

    What an interesting place! Places like this that cling to the side of cliffs or mountains always fascinate me. Seems like such a crazy idea to build it there, but it looks amazing.
    Ali wrote about..What If You Don’t Speak the Language?

  4. says

    WOW those photos took my breath away — once I noticed the monastery. It took me a minute! That is absolutely fascinating, and I love the story behind it, too.
    Abby wrote about..California Dreamin’

  5. says

    Amazing – it looks stunning! My list of things to do when I head back to Turkey keeps getting longer and longer!! :)
    Turtle wrote about..A close shave

  6. says

    Wow! That looks amazing. Every time I read your blog, I can’t believe that we haven’t been to Turkey yet! It’s such an amazing country. It’s been high on our list for years and yet for some reason, we can’t seem to get ourselves there. Something else always comes up. For now, I’ll enjoy you showing me around and build my itinerary in my head through your words and visuals. thanks for introducing me to yet another amazing location.
    Deb wrote about..Photo Giveaway Day 1: The Cape Buffalo

  7. Ginny Theo says

    We are considering a trip around the Black Sea next summer. I desperately want to visit the Sumela Monastery. My question; I have a chronic, not contagious lung infection and easily out of breath. If I were to walk slowly, use an inhaler & my husband’s arm for support, from your experience would I be able to make it?

    • says

      Hi Ginny, It would all depend on how serious the lung infection is and also how desperate you are to see it. It will be hard to get up there but if you are determined, I would do the following.

      Hire a car or a private tour guide and that way you won’t be rushed to keep up with others. Get the car to go up as far as it can. A lot of people park up at the restaurant at the bottom but you can go further in a vehicle.

      From there the hard walk will begin but take a bottle of water for refreshments and then you can stop when you feel weak and start again when you feel better.

      I do remember a table half way up as well as some stone walls along the route where you can rest to give your lungs a break and use your inhaler.

      It won’t be easy but if you are determined and take your time, I think you could do it.
      Natalie wrote about..The Friendly Locals of Beypazari

  8. says

    I was there in November and it’s true that inside is poorly sign-posted, but the view of the monastery from below and en route is gorgeous as are the paintings of Biblical stories in the church.
    Mandy wrote about..My town, Marrakech

  9. tommy phu says

    Very nice, forests, ancient houses, the pictures are carved on the wall that is the exciting thing for those who travel to Turkey.

  10. priti jariwala says

    Wow! That looks amazing. Every time I read your blog, I can’t believe that we haven’t been to Turkey yet! It’s such an amazing country. It’s been high on our list for years and yet for some reason, we can’t seem to get ourselves there. Something else always comes up. For now, I’ll enjoy you showing me around and build my itinerary in my head through your words and visuals. thanks for introducing me to yet another amazing location

    • says

      Raphael, I think you got mixed up with your pages. The monastery is in the Black sea area

  11. arshad mahmood says

    u r a great photo grapher

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