August 13, 2010

The Liturgies at Soumela and Akhtamar on August 15 and 19

Dormition in Turkey. Liturgy on the Black Mountain

It is being celebrated by the Patriarch of Constantinople, for the first time after many years, at a historic monastery that has fallen into ruin, with thousands of faithful including many from Greece and Russia. But Christians don't trust the concessions of the Turkish government.

by Sandro Magister
August 13, 2010

The news was released at the end of June by the agency "Fides" of the Vatican congregation for evangelization. For August 15, which for the Orthodox is the Feast of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God, the Turkish government has authorized the celebration of a Liturgy in a place that is a symbol of the Christian faith of the East, as much of its flourishing as of its violent uprooting: the Monastery of Soumela of the Mother of God of the Black Mountain.

The concession was greeted with surprise by the Orthodox community, not only in Turkey, where the Greek-Byzantines of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have been reduced to a few thousand, but also abroad, especially in Greece and Russia.

Nonetheless, it's still a concession limited to a few hours. The Liturgy will be allowed to be celebrated only once, outside of the monastery, in front of the ruins.

The Monastery of Soumela, in fact, after withstanding the storms of history for fifteen centuries and staying alive even during Ottoman rule, was emptied and reduced to ruins in 1923, with the expulsion of the Greek Orthodox by the modern Turkish state.

Since then, it has been forbidden to celebrate the Liturgy there. The monastery, a small portion of which has been restored, has become a destination for tourist excursions from nearby Trabzon, the city on the Black Sea where on February 5, 2006, a young Muslim killed the Catholic priest Andrea Santoro.

For August 19, the Turkish government has made a similar concession for the Armenians. It has authorized the celebration of a Liturgy in the Church of the Holy Cross in Akhtamar, on an island of Lake Van.

This church, which had also fallen into ruin, was renovated in 2007. But it was set up as a museum, and until now the Liturgy has not been permitted to be celebrated there.

When the Armenian patriarch asked for permission to place a cross on top of the renovated church, the Turkish authorities refused. The church had to remain without a cross, without bells, without sacred markings, without pastors, and without faithful. Instead, the ceremony for the conclusion of the renovations prominently featured images of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

The Liturgies at Soumela and Akhtamar on August 15 and 19 will be attended by a few thousand faithful, many of them from abroad: an unusual number for Turkey, a cradle of the early Christianity propagated by Paul and for centuries a land of flourishing Christianity, but where today the churches – or the little of them that remains – don't even have legal recognition.

Moreover, last August 5 two churches dating back to the fourth and sixth centuries in the village of Yemisli in the region of Mardin in southeastern Anatolia were reopened for worship. The buildings were renovated by seventy-two families of the Syriac Orthodox community, which numbers about five thousand faithful in Turkey.

The concessions made this August by the government of Ankara are being interpreted as a move on the chessboard of Turkey's problematic entry into the European Union, which is impossible without minimal standards concerning religious freedom.

But these and other appearances of openness continue to be accompanied by massive and persistent constraint. One of the reasons why the Turkish authorities oppose religious freedom is the fear that an increase in places of worship would bring out into the open the many secret Christians, registered as Muslims, believed to be living in the country.

On the two imminent celebrations, and in particular on the history and symbolic significance of the Monastery of Soumela, here is what was written for the August 1 issue of "L'Osservatore Romano" by a highly informed expert on the subject, Franciscan Fr. Egidio Picucci.


By Egidio Picucci

The month of August will be remembered in Turkey for two extraordinary religious events: on the 15th, after 87 years, the "divine Eucharist" will be celebrated in the former Monastery of Soumela, on the outskirts of Trabzon, ancient Trebizond, abandoned by the monks in 1923; and on the 19th, another will be celebrated in the Armenian church of the Holy Cross in Akhtamar, built on an island in the splendid Lake Van, in the eastern part of the country.

The Turkish government has granted the authorization, greeted with surprise and satisfaction by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is organizing itself so that everything will go smoothly, seeing that about ten thousand Greek and Russian Orthodox are expected (seven thousand at Van), with the attendance of a few politicians from these two countries.

Greek television will broadcast the entire celebration live, so that in particular the descendants of the Greeks who had to leave Pontus during the Turkish occupation will at least be able to see the places where their ancestors lived and come to know one of the most significant places for Eastern Orthodoxy.

In fact, Soumela is known as the Monte Cassino of the East, because for fifteen centuries, from 385 to 1923, it was the monastery-guide for the safeguarding of Greek tradition, art, history, and culture, and of religion all over the territory of the Pontus, whose inhabitants heard their own language being spoken by the apostles in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

The monastery is located fifty kilometers from Trabzon, among the gorges of the Altindere (Torrent of Gold), at an elevation of 1,200 meters, spanning forty meters of a long rocky outcrop of Mount Zigana, at the precipice of a deep ravine.

According to tradition, it was the Virgin herself who showed the place to the Athenian monks Barnabas and Sophronios, who, coming from the Chalkidiki peninsula, turned the smaller caves of the mountain into cells and the largest one into a church, displaying there the most artistic of the three icons venerated at that time in Athens and attributed to Saint Luke.

The fame of the mountain shrine and of the sanctity of the two monks, who died in 412 (on the same day, tradition assures us), drew pilgrims, obtained donations, and above all summoned other monks, becoming the leading center of culture and pilgrimage in all of northeast Asia Minor.

Even the emperor Justinian mingled among the humble people who braved the nearly inaccessible mountain, on the way back from one of his campaigns against the Persians, leaving a silver urn to house the relics of Saint Barnabas and the text of the four Gospels written on gazelle skin.

In spite of everything, the monastery was an easy target for bandits, who did not spare even the monastery, pillaged and burned in 640, but rebuilt four years later by Christophoros of Vazelon, a courageous monk who restored the morale of his fellow monks and fortified the construction so ingeniously that Athanasios of Trebizond reproduced it in building the Great Lavra of Mount Athos.

Experience, nonetheless, taught the monks that in order to protect themselves they needed stronger, military-style fortifications, so they made the monastery an almost inaccessible perch, turning it into an oasis of peace in the midst of a growing turmoil of wars and struggles, allowing it to reach its greatest splendor at the time of the empire of the Komnenos family, the rulers of nearby Trebizond.

In 1350, Alexios III asked to be crowned emperor there, and left a "chrysobull," or golden seal, there. With him, the monastery became a masterpiece of Byzantine art. Manuel III was also crowned there, leaving as a gift a relic of the cross, which was placed in the treasury; a great relic in a great reliquary.

The monastery's activity was not even interrupted by the Turkish conquest in 1461. On the contrary, Mehmed II Fatih ("the Conqueror") paid a very respectful visit there, leaving a "firman," an imperial decree, guaranteeing the monks ownership of the surrounding land. Selim I also held it in high esteem, staying there during a hunting expedition and later sending five huge spiral candlesticks, as tall as himself, encrusted with jewels and gold inscriptions. He returned there on the eve of the war against Ismail of Tabriz, and a third time after his victory, to deliver two massive golden candelabra taken from his enemy.

Gifts and privileges came from other sultans and from various patriarchs, sign of a devotion that placed the "Panàgia tu Mèlas," the All-Holy of the Black Mountain (the name Soumela seems to be derived from a corruption of "tu Mèlas") above even the shrine of Hagia Sophia in Trebizond, the glory of the city nestled on the coast of the Black Sea.

The life of Soumela seemed imperishable: faith, art, technology – it is said that an ingenious communication system permitted messages to be sent between the monastery and Trebizond in just ten minutes – and culture had made it the soul of the Pontus, a cardinal point of the spirit for pilgrims, scholars, and artists; the monks had turned it into a balcony wide open to heaven, and not just a way station in the countryside. Its reddish doors seemed to be painted with the blood that saved from death.

But in the winter between 1915 and 1916, the dream was shattered for the first time in fifteen centuries: the war forced the monks to leave mountain and monastery. They returned after the Russian occupation, and again following the armistice of 1918. It was a parenthesis of five years, because the Greco-Turkish war of 1923 drove them away forever, while unknown hands tried to obliterate Soumela with fire.

The memory of the monastery lived on in time thanks to European scholars who sifted among the ruins, bringing to light the remains of frescoes of surprising freshness and of intense spirituality. The monk Ambrosios saved the most precious relics walled up in the church of Saint Barbara: the icon of the Virgin was taken to the Monastery of Dovràs, near Veria, in Greece, and the manuscript of the Gospels went to the Byzantine museum of Athens.

Today, not a few enthusiasts confront the mountain to visit the ancient relic amid the vegetation, so surprisingly attached to the mountain that it seems suspended between heaven and earth. Even if the remains of a few heavy windows seem like the eyelids of death, behind them flutter recollections of life. The library, the remains of the church of the Dormition, the refectory, the 72 cells for the monks distributed over four floors, the lookout spot on the fifth floor pulse with memories and are a genuine balcony over the infinite, cradled by the waters of the Altindere, snaking through rocky ravines.

Led by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the Orthodox will therefore experience at Meryemana Monastiri, the present Turkish name for Soumela, moments of profound emotion, proud that such ancient vestiges of faith have withstood the fury of time and of men.