Greek Orthodox Sümela monastery in northern Turkey to host Dormition service

The Greek Orthodox Sümela monastery in Turkey’s northern Trabzon province will open its doors again on Saturday, to host the Dormition of the Virgin Mary service, following a five-year closure for restoration works.

The monastery of The Virgin on Mount Mela, as Sümela’s Greek name Panagia Soumela translates to, was founded in 386 AD, and is set into a steep cliff 1,200 metres above sea level. It was closed to the public in 2015, when rocks falling off the cliff became a serious safety concern. Renovations of the structure and its outdoor surroundings continued until May last year, when part of the site was opened to tourists.

On July 28, four days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended the first Friday prayers in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia following the monument’s reconversion into a mosque, he announced the ceremony at Sümela monastery.

In his announcement speech, Erdoğan said: “If we were a nation targeting the symbols of other beliefs, the Sümela monastery which we have had for the last five centuries, would be gone forever.”

Recent visitors discovered an unfortunate sight, as most of the faces in the monastery’s frescoes and mosaics had been carved out, with graffiti covering most of the art.

An article on the popular archaeology website Arkeofili said only frescoes that were too high to reach survived the vandalism.

It appears that the vandalism, although it has come to light recently, did not happen after the restoration. Photographs dating back to 1930s show graffiti, while those dated to 1972 show early examples of damaged faces juxtaposed with intact ones.

Faces depicted in a hidden chapel and a tunnel leading to it discovered in 2017 also showed signs of vandalism, although less severe.

The monastery is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, often referred to in Greek as Panagia, or “all-holy”. As such, the Dormition celebrated on Aug. 15, also known as the Assumption of the Virgin (Koimesis in Eastern Orthodox tradition), is particularly significant and has traditionally been celebrated by thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.

The monastery is one of the most important sites for the Pontic Greek community.

It is believed that Athenian monks Barnabas and Sophronios were commanded by Panagia herself to take an icon, believed to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist, to the site where the monastery stands today. The first iteration of the monastery was a cave that housed the icon, according to Pontos World website.

In the 14th century, emperors of Trebizond rebuilt the monastery which had fallen into ruin over time. Following the 1461 Ottoman conquest of the city, Ottoman sultans and wealthy patrons in the region endowed many gifts upon the monastery. Silver mines discovered in a nearby town allowed for more gifts to be brought to the holy site. Most frescoes and paintings were made between the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, as were many chapels and inner monastic buildings.

A stone staircase replaced the wooden ladder leading to the entrance was built by 1850, and new buildings were added to accommodate the thousands of pilgrims following the lifting of restrictions on Christians in 1865.

The monastery survived a Russian occupation of the Trabzon province during World War I, but truly fell into ruin following the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, which forced almost all Greeks out of the newly-founded Republic of Turkey - including the monks of the monastery. Tobacco smugglers started to use the complex, and a fire devastated a significant part of it in 1930.

Restoration efforts under the Turkish republic first started in the 1980s and were completed in 2010. Between 2010 and 2015, Orthodox Christians were able to hold the Koimesis celebrations in the revered monastery. Despite the narrow and extremely steep stairs limiting access, Panagia Soumela attracted some 230,000 visitors in 2012 and more than 45,000 since its re-opening two weeks ago.

The monastery is on the temporary list of UNESCO world cultural heritage sites, and Turkey is expecting to apply for permanent status after the restoration is fully completed, which is planned for July next year.

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of the Eastern Orthodox Church Bartholomew I of Constantinople spoke with President Erdoğan on July 28 and expressed his gratitude for the renovations, Greek daily Kathimerini reported. However, the patriarch will not be attending the Dormition ceremony due to concerns over the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.