Tourists from around the world routinely trek 1,200 meters up into the mountains near the Turkish Black Sea city of Trabzon to take in the marvel of a monastery seemingly suspended from a cliff face. But for many, the marvel of Sümela Monastery lies in its symbolism.
On August 15, some 2,500 Orthodox Christian worshipers traveled to Sümela to attend the first mass held inside the Greek Orthodox monastery since 1923. Roughly 500 people squeezed inside the complex to witness the service presided over by Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos to mark a feast day honoring the Virgin Mary. Large screens showed the mass to hundreds of worshipers gathered in the valley below.
Sümela, founded 1,624 years ago, was abandoned after World War I and the start of the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey that forced some 2 million ethnic Greeks and Turks to leave their long-established communities in Turkey or Greece and return to their ethnic homelands. In 1923, the monastery fell silent for the first time since the 4th century; it lay empty for decades to come.
The monastery has since been partially restored and returned to life as a museum. Many of its elaborate frescos, however, remain vandalized and defaced.
Orthodox Christians have been pushing for years to hold services at the monastery on the August 15 Virgin Mary feast day. Legend has it that an icon of the Virgin Mary guided the monastery's founders to the site.
The Turkish government has not released a statement about the reason for the decision to allow a mass to be held again in Sümela. In the past, the authorities rebuffed similar such requests.
"First[,] it is a grace of God[;] then, it is a grace of government," TurkishPress.com reported Patriarch Bartholomeos as saying about the mass.
Worshipers came from Orthodox communities throughout the world to attend the August 15 service, including pilgrims from Russia, Armenia and Georgia.
But for many of the Greeks among them, the ceremony was as much about belonging as it was about their religion. Some clutched photos of their families who had lived in the region. One man talked longingly of how his grandparents, both born in the valley beneath the monastery, never felt Greek in all their years in Greece; instead, they had talked about the valley of Sümela as their home.
Another man, in his 60s, sobbed about how his father and other ethnic Greeks had built the churches, the houses, and had then been thrown out.
The decision to resume services within Sümela gives hope about the future to Laki Vingas, an ethnically Greek member of the council of the General Directorate of Foundations, which serves as a forum for Turkey's ethnic minorities.
"After 88 years, its coming back to its authenticity, its identity as a monastery," commented Vingas. "[We] hope that once a year, twice a year, we can have this occasion, that the authorities will allow the Orthodox faithful to celebrate this service."
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Istanbul.