The church at Panagia Soumela

Two weekends ago the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew led the church service held at the Monastery of Panagia Soumela in Trabazon, Turkey for the first time in 88 years. Iason Athanasiadis reports on being there on the day.

Two hours of Greek Orthodox liturgy had just swept over Panagia Soumela’s amphitheatrical space. After the last chants vibrated into the ether, many of the five hundred pilgrims, politicians and priests who crowded into the monastery yard blinked at each other, seemingly just registering the enormity of what had transpired.

On the day of the service, hundreds of pilgrims climbed the same steep mountain paths that Athenian monks Barnabas and Sofronios ascended in 386AD, on their way, Church tradition says, to discovering the miraculous icon of the Panageia of Soumela. The past was retired as priests in white vestments and black and purple headdresses surrounded the leader of the servide, Patriarch Bartholomew.

“Our ancestors’ souls have been released,” said Thanassis Stelidis, a lyra (kemenche) player from Thessaloniki who performed during the two hour ceremony’s most emotive part. “All these years, we were forced to fulfil our debt to them by coming secretly to light candles in their memory, banned from playing the lyra and having to make our prayers and the sign of the cross away from the Turkish authorities’ eyes.

“Today, we can finally do all this again in the open.”

This year, the Turkish government granted permission for a one-off Mass which, as in the case of other Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches around the country, may become an annual event. In the case of Panageia Soumela, a dramatically-located monastery seemingly suspended halfway up a steep rockface over 1000 metres above the Black Sea, it holds a special sensitivity and resonance for Pontic Greeks.

“For us, Panageia Soumela is like a patrida,” said a pilgrim attending the Mass who declined to give his name.
The monastery was abandoned at the conclusion of the failed Greek invasion of Asia Minor in 1923 as up to half a million Pontics were forced out, according to the rules of governing the Greek-Turkish population exchanges.

Tens of thousands were killed on both sides during the bitter andartiko (guerrilla campaign) that scarred the area.
It was this bad blood, in contrast to the peaceful evacuation of other centres of Hellenism such as Cappadocia, that had Turkish government and Patriarchal officials worried about Sunday’s liturgy.

Thousands of police and elite military units in patrol cars and armoured vans were deployed in concentric rings of security around the monastery, controlling both tarmac and dirt road access.

On the day of the service, hundreds of pilgrims climbed the same steep mountain paths that Athenian monks Barnabas and Sofronios ascended in 386AD. They were on their way, Church tradition says, to discovering the miraculous icon of the Panageia of Soumela. The past was retired as priests in white vestments and black and purple headdresses surrounded the leader of the service, Patriarch Bartholomew.

But in a demonstration that the past is never far away, the priests’ movements were followed by the sightless, hacked-out eyes of dozens of Greek Orthodox saints painted onto the monastery walls. Eighteenth century Turkish religious fundamentalists who believe that all representation of the human figure is a sin had vandalised the murals.

“Today, the tears of the Virgin Mary, the Protector of the Race (genos), have dried up,” Bartholomew said in a speech delivered in Greek and Turkish in which he also singled out for thanks nine Ottoman sultans who supported the monastery.

“In a place that was without liturgy for 88 years, a holy mystery was carried out,” said Father Dorotheos Tzevelekas, a priest who flew in from his parish in Clearwater, Florida for the event. “It was a totally unexpected diplomatic coup of the kind that brings people closer together.”

In Trabzon, a bastion of nationalism and superstition, some locals said they were worried that this year’s liturgy would be just a first step towards reopening the monastery as a training college for monks, creating a fresh batch of a breed that Turkish Muslims have traditionally viewed as possessing occult powers.

Writing in her 1956 classic The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macaulay notes that “this famous but remote Byzantine city had been much addicted to magic and full of notorious wizards, enchanters and alchemists… The arrival of the down-to-earth Ottomans who were neither clever nor imaginative, and thought wizardry wrong, had driven it underground, to be practiced privately and lucratively by the Greeks who remained in the city after the Turkish massacres.”

Opponents of the liturgy found other superstitious reasons why the liturgy’s timing was suspect. They pointed out that August 15 is a particularly ominous date since it coincides with both the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1461 and the first PKK attack in 1984.

Trabzon used to be a cosmopolitan region. It stood astride the Silk Route and a melting-pot of cultures, from Orthodox Russia and Georgia to Shiite Iran and Christian Armenia. In the 19th century, seaborne trade created a lucrative environment between Trabzon, Batum and Krasnodar in the Black Sea and as far afield as Genoa, Manchester and New York.

But nearly a century of ethnic nationalism has transformed a once open-minded city into a place notorious for its support of the hard right-wing Turkish nationalist MHP party.

“Its Turkish residents’ once minority status led to a need for a reassuring doubling of their identity as Muslim Turks,” said Nikos Sigalas, an Ottoman historian and researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies.

“Because they were always peripheral during the Ottoman Empire, they had to be more Turkish than the Turks in order to enter politics or succeed as internal migrants.”

Just eight local Catholics remain today in a region that was a 19th century favourite with British and American missionaries. No priest has replaced the one assassinated by religious fundamentalists in 2006 in a town that one local Christian described as “deeply intolerant”.

In 2007, Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul by a young man from Trabzon. In a demonstration of the prevailing atmosphere of permissiveness for the action, shocking images emerged of local policemen posing arm-in-arm with the killer.

The arrest of a series of high-level current and former military officials and politicians formerly thought of as untouchables, has intimidated members of Turkey’s unaccountable Deep State and swung the support of many liberals behind the Islamically-rooted governing AK Party.

“Ten years ago it would have been different,” said Ismail Findili, a local journalist working for the Milliyet newspaper. “Due to the AKP, society has evened out and become milder.”

Nevertheless, suspicion continues about the intentions foreigners have. When an intermediary conveyed the Athens News interview request to a local MHP deputy, he declined, claiming that “Israelis claiming to be Americans come here seeking to cause mischief.”

Three Molotov cocktails chucked into the yard of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki and Turkish press reporting that a Muslim cemetery in Thrace was allegedly desecrated by Greek extremists set a tense lead up to the liturgy.

Yet deft maneuvering on the part of the Patriarch and political pressures prompted populist politicians, such as Thessaloniki mayor Panagiotis Psomiadis and Russian Duma parliamentarian Ivan Savvidis, who had threatened to make provocative speeches, back out at the last moment. That explained why less than half the anticipated 10,000 Pontic Greek tourists showed up.

“The agendas of the Pontic associations and the kind of things the Patriarch is pushing through are so wildly different that they can’t both be accommodated,” said a knowledgeable source who asked for anonymity. “Erdogan and Vartholomaios have pushed the envelope and taken risks by making this happen and there are people who are trying to make life difficult for them.”