Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The New Monastery of Panagia Soumela

Panagia Soumela or Soumeliotissa is the Virgin Mary venerated greatly by the Pontian Greeks. The name "Soumela" derives from the Greek phrase "Stou Mela", i.e. at Mount Melas, signifying thus a particular locality in Pontus (Northern Turkey). The first Monastery of Panagia Soumela is located in Pontus, near Trapezounta. However, due to the population exchange of 1922, about 1.5 million Greeks came to Greece from Asia Minor; a big part of which came from Pontus. 

Leaving behind the monastery and the icon of the Virgin Mary was a heavy burden for all the Pontian Greeks. In 1931 on the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos, at the monastery of Mega Spelion (the Great Cave) in Kalavryta, Peloponnesos, Greece, many people had gathered to pray before another icon of the Evangelist Luke, the Panagia Speliotissa. Amidst the crowds were many Pontic Greeks and the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos (1864- 1936). Metropolitan Polycarp of Xanthi mentioned the hidden icon of Panagia Soumela to the Greek Prime Minister. Upon hearing this account, Venizelos was touched and made a promise that he would do whatever was possible to retrieve the icon.

During the same year, Eleftherios Venizelos met the Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu, and asked for his permission to send monks to the Mt. Mela monastery to retrieve the icon and the other sacred treasures. Father Ambrosios, who was one of the monks of Panagia Soumela, was chosen by Metropolitan Chrysanthos of Trapezounta to undertake this special journey. Father Ambrosios set out to go to Turkey on October 22, 1931. Upon arriving at the sacred site, Father Ambrosios was moved with tears. The laborious task of excavating began. Turkish soldiers and Greeks helped, including Father Ambrosios. Soon the hidden icon was unearthed along with the other sacred objects. They were all returned to Athens and deposited at the Benaki Museum in Athens for 20 years.

In 1950, Dr. Philon Ktenides encouraged fellow Pontic Greeks in Greece to build a new church for Panagia Soumela. The church was built on a site amid the Macedonian mountains in Greece. This sight was Kastania of Vermio. It was chosen because it reminded Dr Ktenides of the wild and natural beauty of the heights of Mt. Mela in Turkey.

In 1951 the icon was transferred from the Benaki Museum to Kastania in Macedonia. The miraculous icon was enthroned at Kastania on the 15th of August 1952. Even though the new home of the icon is called the Monastery of Soumela, there are no monks or nuns who live in this remote mountain site. The Church of the Dormition may be visited by pilgrims and tourists. Every year on the 15th of August which is the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos, thousands of pilgrims from around the world travel to this Monastery at Mt. Vermion to venerate the holy icon.

The original Soumela monastery in Turkey, is also accessible to the pilgrim and tourist. The monastery's four storey façade remains in good condition, although the back is destroyed. Located at an altitude of 1,200 metres, it is a magnificent structure. It clings to sheer basalt wall, high above green forests and a mountain stream. Many of the sacred icons have suffered as targets from desecrators and graffiti scribblers. The monastery once upon a time housed 72 cells, guest quarters, an aqueduct, small chapels, icon room, library and dormitories.

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