Sunday, August 22, 2010


Last Sunday I went to Trabzon to observe the Orthodox liturgy being held at Sumela, a monastery that was built into the side of a cliff in the sixth century.  Sumela has been abandoned since the population exchanges of the 1920s emptied the Black Sea coast of its Christian populations.  The state has restored the monastery and turned it into a museum, and as a state property, religious ceremonies cannot be held there.  However, this year the Ministry of Tourism and Culture gave permission for an annual service to be held at Sumela and at the church on Akdamar Island, an ancient Armenian Orthodox church that has also been turned into a museum.

Sumela from one end of Altindere valley
The valley, from the entrance to the monastery 
Looking out one of the
monastery's windows
The Ecumenical Patriarch entering the monastery,
with entourage.  Did I mention that this
place is on the side of a cliff?

A few thousand pilgrims came from Greece, Russia, Georgia, and the US, as well as Turkey's own Greek Orthodox population.  Most of the pilgrims were descendants of Pontic Greeks who left in 1923, although for the last ten years they have been returning to Trabzon every summer on holiday, to see their old villages and to find the few remaining speakers of their own dialect of Greek.  A few villages high in the mountains still have Pontic Greek speakers, Muslim Turks who are as valuable for their cultural preservation as for their utility as guides in the tourism sector.  (It's a strange world we live in, in this modern era.)  In my hotel, the night before the liturgy, the Greek tourists all gathered in the rooftop restaurant with musicians and cameras to dance the dances their parents and grandparents had taught them.  My host and guide for the weekend, the hotel owner, told me that the instruments, music, and dance steps are indistinguishable from the traditional dances of the region.  The music was even passingly familiar to me from Azerbaijani folk music, which isn't surprising given that Trabzon is in the foothills of the Caucasus.  Most of the time, an old Greek man played the kemenche and sang the accompaniment, but at one point a young Turkish man played while a young Greek sang.  Many of the older pilgrims wept during this song, and at the end the room was filled with deafening cheers from the visitors as well as the locals, who had called their friends to come see the sight.

The dude on the right has a kemenche.  I have no idea what
role it has in the liturgy, but there you go, visual evidence.
My host and guide, Gokhan, with his son Batuhan

I'm not an expert on Orthodox ceremonies, so if anyone can weigh in and explain the photos I've taken or correct my terminology, by all means, do so.  

The crowd of pilgrims at the heart
of the monastery, with a view of
the mountains outside the walls
Pilgrims lighting candles
outside the monastery
The makeshift altar, framed
by the old frescoes on the walls
of the monastery buildings
The Ecumenical Patriarch holding a
crucifix aloft during the liturgy
Reading aloud at the altar
Clerics watching the ceremony and the
crowd.  No one's immune to technology!
One Russian pilgrim near me
Pilgrims kissed this icon after the ceremony
I'm not sure what the significance of this
cloth is, held over the Patriarch's head 
while he blesses (?) the communion wine.  
However, I saw a museum exhibition 
earlier this week that included a communion 
cloth from the 1600s - one presumes it's 
an important part of the liturgy!
Taking communion
Communion bread is distributed
through the crowd

Sadly, the frescoes have been badly damaged by years of neglect, harsh weather, and vandalism.  The next step in preserving the monastery is to repair the icons, paintings, and mosaics to their original state.

The decorated, damaged walls
Even with damages, the
frescoes are beautiful.
The vandalism is equal-opportunity: there are Turkish
names and Greek initials scratched into this fresco.  I
don't know who you people are, but I hope your
mother smacked you for this!


  1. I am Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox and the service looks very similar to what I used to see in Bulgaria. It's really neat and I am so glad Turkey decided to allow the celebrations. I personally think that if more countries in the region allow those types of celebrations and exchanges, it will greatly improve the relationships of the countries in the region. History is history and there are some very ugly chapters in there but that doesn't mean that we can't come to terms with it and be respectful to our neighbors and the sacrifices they (their ancestors) had to make...

  2. I know I'm horribly behind the power curve here, but your pictures are wonderful. A real sense of being there. Any close-ups of the frescoes?

  3. Ok, this rocked my socks. What an amazing experience! Thanks for posting.

  4. FD - the close-ups were spoiled by fervent pilgrims jostling me. I'll see if I can scrounge any up.

  5. Incredibly ex-post-facto comment — Orthodox, Middle East religion nerd, potential future FSO here. The cloth is called the Aër and is used to cover the chalice and paten before communion. Most practically, it's to keep flies from falling in; the aër is elevated during the recitation of the Creed, goodness knows why. I'm sure there's a deep symbolic explanation but I'm not up for it. Wikipedia may have more.