A Trip to Faraway Pontus
Pilgrimage to Panagia Soumela

by Christos An. Stavrakoglou

Translation by Joanna Michalakeli

Pontian Monastery of Panagia Soumela, founded in 4th century
and burned in 1922 by Turkish Muslim forces.

Attempting a trip to Pontus, which is almost 3500 kilometres away, and with limited tourist infrastructure, definitely requires determination. However, our desire to become familiar with another piece of the land of Asia Minor, where Hellenism flourished for many centuries, led us to overcome every reservation. Besides, it was the great success of the previous trip to Cappadocia as well as the guarantee provided by the organizers, who were the people in charge of the club of OTE (The Greek Telecommunication Company) in Mytilene again.

Therefore, forty-five people with common interests and emotional bonds with Asia Minor, are setting off for our nine-day trip, on Saturday morning, on the 3rd of last July. From Aivali heading for the North- East, we cross Vithinia and Paflagonia and on the second day we arrive in historic Pontus, with a first stop in picturesque Amaseia. It is the city where the two Hierarchs from Lesbos, Germanos Karavangelis and Efthymios Agritellis, accomplished a brilliant mental and national achievement in very difficult times. From there, through the valley of the river Iris, with the rich apple orchards and the rice fields, we are visiting Tokati with the intense oriental colour and Neokaisareia. Afterwards, we pass through the Pontian Alps with the dense forests and the luxuriant bushy vegetation and we arrive at seaside Oinoi, at the Black Sea, which welcomed us tranquil and joyful, as if to dispel the bad rumours which “lay heavy” on it.

From now on, we will continuously travel along the coast, to a place of exceptional natural beauty with picturesque beaches and abundant vegetation. It is a relatively narrow flat strip of land, which at some places is “interrupted” by verdant mountains that descend towards the sea, and at others places it becomes wider with fertile valleys that become narrower and lead down to deep canyons, as they advance towards the mountains. Trim fields full of hazel-trees and tea plants beautify the hills and scent the air. From there and above, you could see the verdant mountains, the renowned Pontian mountains, which the folk poet sang with much sensitivity.

“There, like you high ridges, you never grow old
many years elapse, you always bloom”

You always bloom! Indeed, Nature endowed the Pontian mountains with eternal youth. It raised them high in the sky so as to be close to God and the angels, to be “dressed” in mist and be “crowned” with the thunderbolts.

And in this enchanting place, the Greek visitor’s historical consciousness starts its own journey to the distant past. The legends and tales, the works and days of this shrewd race, the glorious states from one end to the other (end) of the coast of inhospitable Pontus. Sinopi, Amisos, Thermiskyra, Oinoi, Polemonion, Kotyora, Kerasous, Tripolis, Ermonassa, Trapezous, Ofis, Kallisti, Rizous, Athina, Vathys Limin, a string of precious stones on the sea God’s chest. In this really secluded spot, you feel that you are at the centre of history, at the centre of a Greek world which left its traces alive.

Our main destination is Trapezounta, the seat of the glorious empire of Megalokomninoi, where we stayed for two days, while our special attention turns to Panagia Soumela. It is said that only for Panagia Soumela is it worth visiting Pontus. With the pleasant anticipation of such a remarkable sight, we set off to visit the historical Monastery. From Trapezounta we took the main street that leads to the inland. This street was of tremendous commercial interest in the past, since it was the end of the famous “road of the silk” which started from China. Nowadays, it is also of special sightseeing interest, since it leads to the most enchanting landscapes of the Pontian Alps, such as the highlands of Hemsin and the passage of Zygana. From this place, as it is believed, Xenophon’s Myrioi sighted the sea after wanderings to Kurdistan and Armenia which lasted several months.

At some point, we by-passed and entered the valley which the river Pyxitis (Virgin Mary’s river) flows through with the luxuriant vegetation of pine trees, chestnut trees, rhododendrons and “pyxaria” (box trees); the river was named after this tree. We reached the foot of the mountain Melas, on the slope of which the Monastery has been constructed. The bus set us down at a wide and flat place surrounded by towering plane trees, where the water spouts out everywhere with great roar.

From now on we continued with the minibuses, “the dolmous”, as the Turks call them. We took a winding dirt road on the steep slope following reversely a spumy current which rolls from mountain peak. We arrived at a place- it must have been approximately at the height of the Monastery- from which not even the minibuses could advance any more, and we continue on foot for three quarters of an hour approximately.

We are enjoying the unique opportunity to walk in the Pontian forest and particularly at high altitude and become familiar with its attractions. We are walking through the endless arch of the towering and we hope that this road will never end. You want neither to speak nor to listen to the people standing next to you. You only want to enjoy these exceptional attractions with all your senses. To listen to the distant roar of the water and the wind in the foliage, to smell the scent of the fir tree and the different kinds of shrubs, to refresh your eyes with all the tints of green, to fill your lungs with fresh air, to drink in the freshness which the wet ground emits with your body and the soilage at high noon.

It is true that the mountains offer you a different sensation, a different beauty. I agree, the plains are beautiful and the sea is even more beautiful. However, the mountains are really special. It is the pride of the earth, its bravery, its stony silence. On their slopes, they are carrying the “tracks of the centuries”. You ascend to their peak and you touch the sky, you descend to their canyon and you enter the occult of the earth. Do you believe that out Gods did not know when they selected a mountain as their residence and particularly the highest?

Our trip is coming to an end and we are standing in front of a tall stone staircase. We ascend it and we see the legendary monastery ahead of us. (It resembles) a swallows-nest that is stuck on the side of the giant rock. An achievement of human will and competence which even the contemporary construction projects would envy. We went down a few stairs and we stood at the forecourt. Underneath yawns the deep canyon of Pyxitis. Just opposite the dark green slopes ascend to the top of the mountain gradually, amphitheatrically. They raise their peak in order to see this great wonder of human faith.

To the left, the eye follows the deep stream up to the azure of the sky. The wild beauty of Nature! The revelation of the grandeur of holy creation! The absolute solitude and loneliness! Here, in this suspended gallery, the hermit’s soul renounces the flesh, it is elevated, it ascends the sky’s stairs and falls at God’s feet with a strong yearning.

The Monastery of Soumela experienced a great and splendid history. Emperors, Patriarchs and Sultans endowed it and protected its rights and its privileges with golden bulls and firmans. Crowds of people thronged in order to offer their oblations and ask for the grace of Virgin Mary.

Dimitris Psathas, who spent his childhood in Trapezounta, remembers grandma’s narrations: “Good Lord, what a crowd thronged there every year-on the fifteenth of August- from the whole of Pontus and Russia and what songs and dances and kementzedes (the Pontian lyres) and tabors, for the whole day. And the monks had prepared the cauldrons with the various dishes and the loaves of bread, the fine upstanding “zipkalides” drawing the daggers for the “sera” (Pontian dance) and let the dance and the rifle and the pistol shots echoing the joy of the Greek nation”.

What remains from this glorious Monastery nowadays? The little chapel carved into the rock, where the icon of the Virgin was kept, several crumbling buildings- eight of them were chapels- and the four-storeyed hospice, which is the only building that is maintained in good condition. Of these buildings, only the little chapel and the forecourt can be visited. Unfortunately, the Turkish state did not display the necessary concern for the preservation of this splendid monument. It was abandoned defenseless till 1972 to the destructive rage and voracity of the smugglers of antiquities and the treasure hunters, who demolished the buildings, dug the floors down, stole the icons and the treasures and ruined religious paintings that were exceptional works of art.

“When the Turks plundered the Romania City (the city in the Byzantine Empire)
they conquered the churches and burned the icons”

Of the many treasures of the city, only the icon of the Virgin which was created by Evangelist Luke has survived, a gospel and a cross of great value; these are kept in the recounted Panagia Soumela in Vermio today, while several manuscript codes and books can be found in the museum of Ankara.

We stayed at the area of the historic Monastery and we said goodbye with a lot of emotion and bitter reflections.

The Monastery of Panagia Soumela was the spiritual and religious centre of Pontian Hellenism from the early Byzantine years until the uprooting. Nowadays, plundered and devastated after the great disaster, it remains there and it will continue to remain in spite of time, so as to remind the visitor the passage of Hellenism and Orthodoxy. An imperial bull indelibly printed on the gigantic rock.

[Note: The whole travelogue to Pontus appears in the “Calendar of Lesbos 2005” by Mr. Aristeidis Kotzamanis.]

Pontian Monastery of St. George, founded in 737.

HCS maintains an extensive, permanent archives which it encourages visitors to browse at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/contents.html.

For more information about Mr. Stavrakoglou or Ms. Michalakelli, see their brief biographical sketches under the Contributing Authors section, or the pages about Vatoussa, Lesvos.

Readers who enjoyed this article may also wish to see Black Book: The Tragedy of Pontus, 1914-1922 [large PDF file, 6.36 MB, containing entire book, Adobe Acrobat required to download and view], Governor Pataki Issues Proclamation, An Unforgettable Story of Survival: Book Review by Prof. Nina Gatzoulis of Thea Halo's Not Even My Name, Greece Celebrates August 15, and especially the HCS page dedicated to Pontus at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/pontusone.html

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