İn Turkish: Sümela Manastırı; Panagia Soumela, "Virgin Mary of Soumela" in Greek) is a spectacular rock-hewn monastery perched dramatically on the narrow ledge of a steep cliff in the forests south of Trabzon. It was built in the fourth century, just before the Roman Empire split into east and west, by two Athenian priests, Barnabas and Sophronius, who, according to legend, found a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave. The monastery's location in this geopolitically tumultuous corner of the globe naturally saw times of trouble and fell into ruin numerous times throughout its history, with its most thriving times falling under Byzantine and Ottoman rule.
The twentieth century, however, was not kind to the monastery. It was abandoned following the chaos and inter-ethnic violence at the end of World War I, and the population transfer of Trabzon's (formerly Trebizond) Greek population back to Greece. Its remote location gave it some sanctuary, but its frescoes still attracted the occasional casually hurled rock by a bored shepherd. The beautiful frescoes today suffer from decades of heart-wrenchingly pointless vandalism by travelers—judging from the various alphabets and names scrawled across these impressive religious works of art, it appears that just about every culture in the world has taken part in the desecration. The buildings themselves have been fairly heavily restored in recent decades, as the Turkish government has stepped in to protect the monastery and to turn it into a museum.
The simplest way to get to the monastery is by tour, and you can find a tour in town by just asking any other traveler there (no tourist visits Trabzon without seeing Sümela). The monastery lies close to Maçka, about 30 km south of Trabzon, and those preferring to get to the monastery on their own means instead of taking a tour can get to Maçka by taking minibuses heading for Gümüşhane, Erzurum or other destinations south from Trabzon. The rest of the way, approximately 17 km to the actual site of monastery, can be done by dolmuşes from downtown Maçka, which will take you to the entrance of Altındere National Park (Milli Park). Then, the monastery is about half an hour walk away, which can be done through a forest trail, which was recently widened in order to cope with the ever increasing numbers of visitors, or along the tarmac road leading to the monastery. Those approaching with their own vehicles can get as near as 300 meters to Sümela itself, where there is a car-park in front of Hagia Barbara Chapel.
Today the monastery's primary function is as a tourist attraction. It overlooks forests and streams, making it extremely popular for its aesthetic attraction as well as for its cultural and religious significance.