A visit at the fabulous UNESCO wanna-be Sumela monastery.

Of course it was hanging in the fog!  What was I thinking?  But the light mist, the dense fog, and the ensuing haze gave the monastery a mystique that would have pleased the monks who obviously sought the quietude of as remote a mountain as they could find.  It deprived me of some famous views, but it pulled me into a world far from everything, disturbed only by a few outside intrusions.

Upon my inquiry with the tour agency yesterday, I was told that there would be a 10AM small tour bus going to the monastery “maybe, if there are enough people”.   During the summer months at least three full-sized buses are going, but it is winter…  After all the money and time I had invested in this visit a “maybe” was not going to do.  I also was not particularly keen to visit the monastery with the other if every so few potential tour bus participants, so I chose an early morning alternative: Dolmus (shared minibus) to Macka and a private taxi from there.  The advantage was that I would beat the “masses” by about two hours.  It worked like a charm.

What I had not expected was the three kilometer steep climb up to the monastery over slippery rocks and debris, passed the snow line into a dense and wet fog.  The rocky path serpentined up and up and up.  It was unbelievable.  I kept a steady pace, but boy could I tell my age when a sprite young man caught up with me out of nowhere who was trekking along at twice the speed.  He was one of those outside “intrusions”, but a pleasant enough one.   Already, before he caught up with me, I heard him shout down a few times to some companions who were behind him at half speed; they were his father and mother as he told me.  The three were from Iran, and the son and I chatted for a while until he was off again at his race-pace.

Due to the eastern location of Trabzon and the proximity to the border, there are lots of Russian and Iranian tourists here particularly now, where Noruz the big New Year’s celebration is happening in Iran.  (I wrote about that in last year’s blog.)  I could not believe that I drew a complete and utter blank and did not even remember how to say “hi” and “good-bye” in Persian after I had done so for almost two months last year and then more!  What is wrong with this brain?!

After that taxing climb, you pass a small ticket booth, go up another steep staircase and through a little door and there it is:  Way down, overhung by the curving mountain are a cave chapel, some rooms and the courtyard of the monastery clutching to the wall on one side and more buildings that encircle the courtyard on the other side, projecting out into the valley and all the way up to the point where you just entered.

The fog was so dense that the buildings down in the court were washed out and seemed farther away than they actually were.  Just standing there and looking down into this unexpected ensemble of buildings was breathtaking.  Due to the fog, I had not seen much of the façade of the monastery – a famous view which you can Google.  I also had missed the impressive aqueduct which comes in parallel to the mountain, except for the last few arches.

To suddenly stand on top of such a sprawling array of man-made structures in this wilderness was simply impressive.  Nobody was there, except for the young Iranian guy.  His father had also made it up the mountain and now stood next to me, looking down; his mother had long turned back.  The son shouted up to the father obviously reporting what was down there and the father decided it was not worth the climb down!  Within minutes they both turned and left.  They had come that far and the father did not even see the main attraction!  I was dumb-founded over so much, so much…what?  Ignorance?  Don’t-care?  Seen it all?  I had seen the Japanese looking all of three minutes at the King Tut mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but this topped it!  All the better for me!

With their departure silence fell over the monastery and I took my time taking in the changing angles by slowly descending the dozens of stairs to the courtyard, recognizing more and more details through the fog with each step that got me closer to the buildings.  There was the chapel which I had made out from the top, but it was covered with frescoes on the outside!  I have never seen anything like it.  Not only was it covered with images, it was exposed to the elements protected only by the overhanging rock formation which projected farther out than the rest of the mountain.  That anything of these paintings is left in this climate borders on a miracle!

The courtyard side of the chapel has an apse and is obviously man-made.  But the inside extends into a rough hollowed-out space which once must have been a natural cave.  I am sure it is what gave this location its inspiration.  Mela means black.  According to some information at the site, this does not refer to the black rock of the mountain, but to the black color in which the Virgin Mary was painted.  For the life of me I could not find a black Virgin Mary…  There were several depictions of her, but all quite white.  Once again, historical data is vague.  The origins of the monastery go back as far as the Byzantine era, the 6th and 7th century, but the images date from the 13th to the 18th century.  Clearly, a variety of styles can be distinguished.  Perhaps, there used to be a black Madonna?  I don’t have the answer.

The interior of the chapel was as impressive as the exterior.  Clearly, iconoclasts of possibly both Christian and Muslim faiths had been hard at work.  All the lower registers of the decoration were lost and graffiti was everywhere within human reach.  In some cases, even the middle registers had been systematically attacked with sharp tools to deface the imagery.  But the upper registers were well preserved.  Now everything is protected.  A sign warned of severe and full prosecution by the law in case of vandalism.  Some areas were as dark-blue as images I had seen at the Aya Sophia in Trabzon and in one church at the Goreme UNESCO open air museum.  Other areas had touches of gold and a third style was painted in almost pastel colors.

Much of the monastery is closed to the public.  A few heavily restored monks’ cells are open, but they are barren and look quite “Ottoman”.  The fireplaces and the niches in the wall completely resemble the wooden residential architecture I had encountered at Safranbolu.  You have views down and across the trees from up here since by now you have crossed not only the snow line, but the tree-line as well.  I mainly had a view of more fog…

Another short intrusion came with a group of giggly, uniformed school girls accompanied by their male teacher, who was on his cell phone the entire time… They seemed more interested in practicing their English than looking at the monastery:  Where are you from?  What is your name?  How are you?  And so forth.  After much picture taking of each other they were gone, too.

Unless you take time for these frescoes, unless you enjoy the wilderness and appreciate the ambiance of this place, you might wonder why you just climbed up a slippery mountain for a whole hour.  Indeed, as I was hiking down again – carefully, since now there was danger of slipping, and with my knees screeching, I passed another family who asked if it was much further – ready to give up!  I urged them to continue, but when I told them they had about 20-30 minutes ahead of them, I could see in their faces what soon enough would happen…  And there was the group that came with the bus – it had gone after all; 18 foreign visitors, mainly Koreans and Japanese and two Europeans.  I am so glad, I came early.

Somela was worth the trip.  Somela was worth waiting for.

It is on the wait-list to be considered a UNESCO monument.  I am not sure it will make it.  It is spectacular in its geographical location and must be twice as stunning in the summer months – if you can avoid the throngs of tourists.  But is it unique enough in its cultural significance?  The fresco styles are preserved better and in a greater variety at the Goreme UNESCO site in Cappadocia.  13th to 18th century put into a larger context is not that old and not that unique.  But no matter whether the UNESCO puts its stamp of approval on it or not – I would not, under any circumstances, have wanted to miss it!  And I would recommend it to anyone who is visiting Turkey.  Just cut your time in Trabzon short if you can, except for a visit to the Aya Sophia.

Good night.

2 comments so far

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  1. It saddens me as well when I observe people taking quick peeks at things or recording everything on a video to watch some day while missing the chance to take a deep breath and soaking in the “once in a lifetime” moment. If we ever get to Turkey, we will see out Sumela even if it means climbing the slippery path with these old bones.

  2. The way you describe it, Shangri la comes to mind.