Clinging to a rock face, nestled high up on a steep cliff in the Pontic Mountains in the Altındere National Park, Turkey, is the 4th century Sumela Monastery; a site of great historical and cultural significance.
Having already visited the Monastery of Ostrog (Montenegro) and the spectacular Metéora complex of Greek Orthodox monasteries, both of which are perched precariously in isolated places, we were aware of the tradition typical of inaccessible Monasteries throughout the region.
The remoteness of such sites meant that the monks were often safe from invaders; they believed the altitude bought them closer to god and the servitude involved in the construction of such remote structures surely secured them a seat in heaven?
With such solitude these beautiful locations are highly conducive to prayer, contemplation and meditation. They became the focus of pilgrimage; a place to turn your mind away from the distractions of the outer world and focus on discovering the profound truths of the inner world.
For over 1,629 years a monastery of some description has endured the elements on this secluded spot in Northern Turkey 1,200 metres up. During its long history the monastery has fallen into disrepair several times, then consequently restored by various emperors throughout the ages. It was around the 13th century that this existing incarnation (including the frescoes) was formed during the reign of Alexios III.
During the Ottoman Empire the monastery was granted the sultan's protection and given rights and privileges that were renewed by following sultans protecting it for many decades.
During the 1916-18 occupation of Trabzon the monastery was seized by the Russian Empire, then in 1923 the site was abandoned during the Turkish War of Independence.
Today the monastery is open as a tourist attraction; despite its cultural and religious significance the site draws in curious visitors who marvel at its location alone.
Unlike the perfect frescoes we witnessed at Decani monastery, the frescoes here have endured years of weathering, as well as vandalism during the times that the monastery was abandoned.
At first glance the vandalism my seem unthinkably sacrilegious but on closer inspection un-digestible layers of scratchy scrawl engraved on the surface reveal a fascinating insight into the monasteries history.
Who was Nebile Okur and what was he doing here in 1970? But it’s not just modern day graffiti, look a little harder and you’ll notice earlier and earlier dates; 1964, 1952, 1911, 1899, 1878, 1833, 1803, 1774, 1762 and the earliest we spotted 1511. The names and dates here document the times that are often unaccounted for by the history books.
Like many of the Frescoes in the Göreme cave churches we visited in Cappadocia the eyes and faces on the paintings have vanished. It is said that the eyes are often worn due to pilgrims touching them. Some say that the faces were often chipped off by people wanting to keep a souvenir of their visit.
The frescoes of the chapel were painted during different periods; in places the newer layer has been completely removed or fallen off revealing the previous frescoe which has been systematically chipped for the new layer of plaster to adhere to.
Sumela monastery is a marvel from both outside and in; externally, the sheer devotion of its construction and breathtaking position in the landscape. Internally, within the crumbling and restored walls, echo stories over the millennia of prayer, devoutness, safety, war, sacrifice and a restored feeling of peace and optimism for the future.