The monastery was founded in 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375 - 395), Legend has it that two priests undertook its creation after discovering a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the mountain.
During its long history, the monastery fell into ruin several times and was restored by various emperors. During the 6th century, it was restored and enlarged by General Belisarius at the behest of Justinian.
It reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the reign of Alexios III (1349 - 1390) of the Komnenian Empire of Trebizond, established in 1204. At that time, the monastery was granted an amount annually from imperial funds. During the time of Manuel III, son of Alexius III, and during the reigns of subsequent princes, Sümela gained further wealth from imperial grants. Following the conquest by theOttoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1461, it was granted the sultan's protection and given rights and privileges that were renewed by following sultans. The monastery remained a popular destination for monks and travelers through the years.
In 1682 and for a few decades, the monastery housed the Phrontisterion of Trapezous, a well-known Greek educational institution of the region.
The monastery was seized by the Russian Empire during the 1916-18 occupation of Trabzon.
The site was abandoned in 1923, following forced population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. The departing monks were not allowed to take any property with them, so they buried Sumela's famous icon under the floor of the monastery's St. Barbara chapel. In 1930, a monk secretly returned to Sumela and retrieved the icon, transferring it to the new Panagia Soumela Monastery, on the slopes of Mount Vermion, near the town of Naousa, in Macedonia, Greece.
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.
As of 2012, the Turkish government is funding restoration work, and the monastery is enjoying a revival in pilgrimage from Greece and Russia.
On 15 August 2010, Orthodox divine liturgy was allowed to take place in the monastery compound. A special pass issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is now required to visit on August 15, the day of the Dormition of the Theotokos or Feast of the Assumption, when a divine liturgy is held. Only 450 to 500 visitors are allowed inside the monastery, although widescreen televisions are available to observe the event at a cafe some hundred metres away from the monastery.
The principal elements of the Monastery complex are the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, a library, and a sacred spring revered by Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The large aqueduct at the entrance, which supplied water to the Monastery, is constructed against the side of the cliff. The aqueduct has many arches which have mostly been restored. The entrance to the Monastery leads up a long and narrow stairway. There is a guard-room next to the entrance. The stairs lead down from there to the inner courtyard. On the left, in front of a cave, there are several monastery buildings. The cave, which was converted into a church, constitutes the centre of the monastery. The library is to the right.
The large building with a balcony on the front part of the cliff was used for the monks' cells and for housing guests. It dates from 1840.
The influence of Turkish art can be observed in the design of the cupboards, niches and fireplace in the rooms of the buildings surrounding the courtyard.
The inner and outer walls of the Rock Church and the walls of the adjacent chapel are decorated with frescoes. Frescoes dating from the era ofAlexios III of Trebizond line the inner wall of the Rock Church facing the courtyard. The frescoes of the chapel which were painted on three levels in three different periods are dated to the beginning of the 18th century. The frescoes of the bottom band are of superior quality.
The frescoes of the Sümela Monastery are seriously damaged. The main subject of the frescoes are biblical scenes telling the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary.