Built in a seemingly impossible spot, Sümela Monastery is perched on the edge of a rugged cliff in the Pontic mountains in northern Turkey, overlooking the lush forests below. First constructed in the 4th Century, the Greek Orthodox monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the Christian world, predating Greece's famous Meteora monasteries by over 700 years.
Sumela Monastery is situated in the stunning Altindere National Park and is surrounded by thick forests and clear streams, with mountains stretching high overhead. The origins of the monastery's name are unclear but seem to reference the colour "black" (melas) - perhaps in recognition of the Karadaglar (Black Mountains) where it is located or the black Madonnas which are common in the area. The latter seems most likely - locals call the monastery Meryem Ana (Virgin Mary), and an icon to the Virgin is believed to have been found in a cave on the site.
Visiting the monastery is an essential addition to any Black Sea coast itinerary. The surrounding area is beautiful and the route to the monastery involves a twisting path though the national park. The monastery itself is fascinating to explore and has recently been restored by the Turkish government. Here's all you need to know about visiting this remarkable site.
First built in the 4th Century, the monastery is believed to have been founded by two Athenian priests - Barnabas and Sophronius - who found an icon to the Virgin Mary in a cave in the cliff. The Rock Church was carved into the cave by the priests and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the site expanded over time.
Restoration work was undertaken in the 6th Century, but the current monastery layout (and much of the complex) dates from the 13th Century when the Komnenian Empire of Trabzon (or Trebizond) invested in the site. During the 18th Century, the monastery expanded and many parts were rebuilt and restored, and in the following century, many of the ornate decorations were added, funded by Greek Orthodox communities in Anatolia. At this time, the monastery became a pilgrimage site.
The monastery was destroyed in 1930 due to a fire and has recently been restored.
Many people are enchanted with the exterior of the Sumela Monastery without even wandering inside, however, it's worth seeing the building up close. With restoration recently completed, it's possible to explore the complex when you visit. Some of the highlights of the complex include the Rock Church, the aqueduct, the library and the living quarters of the monks.
When you arrive at the foot of the monastery, you can the ruins of a large aqueduct against the side of the cliff. Many of the arches of the aqueduct have been restored and you can walk along the path along the aqueduct. The aqueduct once supplied water to the monastery and it's also visible at the entrance of the building.
The oldest part of the building, the Rock Church is the core of Sumela Monastery complex, and where the icon of the Virgin Mary is said to have been found. As mentioned above, the church was formed by carving into the cave, smoothing the surfaces and closing the mouth of the cave with a straight wall. The interior and exterior walls of the church are covered in frescoes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
The smaller chapel was built at a later period and its murals mostly date from the 18th Century (older paintings may have been covered by the current artwork or destroyed). The frescoes have been damaged over the years, with many of the faces obscured.
From the inner courtyard of the building, you can see a number of interesting rooms, inclduing the monastery and the library. At the far end of the courtyard, follow the narrow passageway to the large monastery building. This is where the monks lived and includes three main floors, with a series of collars built below. This is the part of the building which seems to hang from the cliff when looking at the monastery from a distance.
If you're in Trabzon or one of the nearby towns on Turkey's Black Sea coastline, visiting the monastery is a must. The Sumela Monastery is a 40-minute drive from Trabzon and it's worth going for the view of the exterior alone.
From Trabzon, you can hire a car and drive to Altındere National Park where the monastery is located. You will need to take a shuttle from the car park to the monastery, and you'll need to walk the last stretch. As the monastery is built the side of a cliff, the path through the forest is steep and there is a long, narrow stairway up to the building itself. When you get to top, the views are definitely worth the climb! You can explore the monastery complex and there is a museum on-site.
From the upper car park, stroll to tiny Aya Varvara chapel and don't miss the viewpoint behind the building. Before you go up the stairs, take the boardwalk along the aqueduct and pay a small fee for views over the archaeological site.
You can also do guided tours to monastery from Trabzon (see below). Once in the Altındere National Park, tour groups will also need to take the park's shuttle to the monastery.
If you don't want to drive to the monastery yourself, there are a couple of tour options from Trabzon. You can choose whether you want to do a half-day tour focused on the monastery itself, or a full day tour which also includes visiting the historical Zigana Pass and Karaca Cave. For both tours, you can either be picked up from your hotel or from a predesignated meeting place.
Both tours take you into the national park and allow a couple of hours for exploring the monastery. The full day tour then moves on to the Zigana Pass, which was one of the most important passages of the historical Silk Road. After that, the tour heads to the Karaca Cave known for its stunning stalactites, stalagmites, and travertines.
Duration: Half-day or full-day options available
Tour type: Small group tour up to 15 people. Private tours are also available.
Excludes: Museum and entrance fees, lunch, shuttle service fee in the park
Cost: Approx. US 50 depending on tour – budget an additional 150 Turkish Lira for entrance fees and shuttles. Private tours can cost significantly more.
Last Updated 17 November 2022