Created: 07 August 2016
According to tradition, the two Athenian monks Sophronius and Barnabas, who were Sotirichos and Basil (nephew and uncle) as laymen, founded the Stavropegic Monastery of Panagia Soumela at the end of the 4th century, in the southern coastal town of Trabzon near the Pontian Matsouka province and villages Skalita and Larachani of mount Melas.
Πάντα σύμφωνα με την παράδοση η εικόνα μυστηριωδώς το 380μ.χ., στην εποχή που βασίλευε ο Θεοδόσιος ο Μεγάλος “πετώντας” έφυγε από το χώρο όπου φυλασσόταν στην Αθήνα προς Ανατολάς και μετεγκαταστάθηκε σταAlways according to tradition, in the year 380AD, in time Theodosius the Great reigned, the Icon mysteriously left the site where it was kept in Athens "flying" eastward and moved to the northeast of the Black Sea. Then, during the time when the believers were seeking the Icon, the Virgin appeared "in a dream" to Vasileios, who, at that time, was a thirty-year old unmarried reverent from Athens, the son of pious believers Constantine and Anne, and, to his nephew, with whom he lived together, the eighteen-year old deacon Sotirichos. According to tradition, Vasileios saw a beautiful and brilliant young maiden to the right of the altar, encircled by "infinite" crowds of white-dressed youth, who addressed Vasileios by saying: "Vasilios, arise quickly along with your nephew Sotirichos and, once you leave your possessions, become monks. And thou whilst be renamed Barnabas, and your nephew, Sophronius "and she explained that she was the Virgin Mary and promised to be near them throughout their lives.
The next day the two men, almost frightened, visited the sacred Icon of the Virgin in Athens to worship and to pray. They were amazed when they listened to a voice inviting them to follow the path to Pontus, a voice who informed them she while commanded them:
"I go before you, sons, as I said, to Mount Melas that I have chosen, being with you." Immediately after what they had heard by Virgin Mary, both Christians watched ecstatically Her celestial flight, watching the Holy Icon being held by two Angels and being pulled out of the Church, and then ascending to the heavens "heading eastward" and disappearing into the clouds.
In the coming days both faithful Christians visited the abbot Theodoulos who, by revelation, knew what had happened to them and after he catechised them in monastic life, then he anointed them as monks, giving them the names Barnabas and Sophronius. The next night, in the hour of prayer, the two young monks saw the Virgin in a brilliant light, addressing them with their new names saying: "Barnabas and Sophronius, peace be to you, for it is Me, do not be afraid, but keep on your way with the grace of the Lord, until you reach the mountain where I am driving you."
With their faith in God and their love for Mary as their sole supplies, the two monks traveled for three years following a brilliant light. They faced difficulties, trials and attacks. They came into contact with other monks and ordinary Christians in Athens, Corinth, Meteora, Larissa, Thessaloniki. They worshiped Saint Demetrios, they visited Halkidiki, Mount Athos, where they stayed for a few months, and then moved up to Maroneia in Thrace. From Maroneia, hiking through Redestos they arrived in Ephesus, Smyrna, they passed toward Mytilene and from there, having boarded the ship, they arrived in Constantinople. Having stayed there for a while, they left for the Black Sea, and after hiking for thirteen days, they arrived in Trabzon.
There, once hosted by Greeks who had lived on the Black Sea coast for centuries, they worshiped the Virgin of Chrysokephalos and the patron saint of Trabzon St. Eugene and then walked towards the interior of Pontus. Once they passed "Tas Karyas" ie the present-day "Tzevislouk" in Turkey, they arrived to the point where three mountain ranges converge and the waters of two rivers, Pyxitis and Larachanis come together. In accordance with tradition, a villager hosted them and offered them fresh fish. He even explained that he had caught them this morning by the river Pyxitis, whose sources spring from Mount Mela. Once the monks heard the name of the mountain, they left their food and begged the peasant to show them the way to Mount Mela. A friendly villager explained to them that they should follow the flow of Pyxitis to reach Mount Mela. So, the next morning, they headed to the foot of the imposing vertical mountain of Mela.
In their long morning trekking, the two monks were impressed by the wildlife they saw, the voluminous mountains with their flat and conical peaks, the forest that had been inaccessible till then, virgin, inhospitable, without a path to be able to cross.
So they had to climb rocks and to rely on tree trunks to climb. After a long and grueling effort, they managed to climb to the top of the mountain. Suddenly, they saw a cave ahead of them. Tradition says that although they found the cave, access was impossible, as they struggled to climb from where they were, but also as they were physically worn out.
Powerless as they were to do something themselves to reach the entrance of the cave, they prayed again to the Mother of God, begging Her to give them strength and help them to overcome this problem. Then, a big fir tree, which was located between the cave and the point where the monks were almost hanging, miraculously leaned gently towards them, as a bridge, joining them with the top.
As they were approaching the top of the mountain, at 1063 meters, they discovered the entrance of a large niche. While trying to get through, hundreds of swallows, startled by the unexpected human visit, flew over their heads beating them, as they were leaving the warmth of the cave forever. At the same time, their faces were lit by a golden glow that flooded everywhere around the surrounding area. As they stooped to enter the interior of the cave, they saw, ecstatic, on a rock, the icon of the Virgin Mary!
There, in the niche of the mountain, fed by the wild grasses that grew in the region, the two monks were cleaning the place for seventeen days and nights, overcoming many difficulties and obstacles to make it accessible and habitable.
Tradition again states that during the time when the monks were struggling to find ways to build the monastery, the Divine Providence appeared to the abbot of the Monastery of St John the Baptist of Vazelon (near Sachnoi and Tirzah villages) in a dream and commanded him: " for what I have spoken to you, arise, listen to the voice coming from the mount and betake it, so that you may not disregard my own words". The abbot then instructed the monks Barnabas, Justin and Nikitas to load two donkeys with food and move in search of two monks. The monks hiked through tough conditions and they made it to the cave where the icon had been installed. They worshiped Her grace, they delivered food to the monks and returned to Vazelon monastery where they informed their abbot. The abbot, considering the presence of the Virgin in Pontus as a gift of God, ordered a large entourage of monks to go near Barnabas and Sophronius with all necessities and to work with them to establish the first monastery of the Archangel Michael.
Later, according to the abbot Panaretos Topalidis of Vazelonos monastery, the monks of Soumela, as a token of respect and love for the patron monastery, sent to Vazelon every year until 1800 fifty whites (money of that time), twelve pounds of wax, oil and a donkey every seven years, one that had a letter of thanks by the monks hanging from his neck.
Before that and after the two monks had prayed in distress for many days in search of water, the point where they had found the icon of Our Lady enthroned began spurting water through arid stones. While, as tradition says, from Her Icon the voice of Mary is heard again: "Behold, you are given water from the dry stone, that is not only for your needs, but it shall heal every passion of those who will come to it in faith.
From then on and for sixteen centuries, these five drops of hallowed pure water have not stopped dripping, daily, into a natural basin which had been formed from a height of about sixty meters. These healing properties of holy water made the monastery famous, not only to the Christians of the region, but also to Muslims, who continue to come to this day and seek the grace of Mary.
During that time, the villages surrounding Mount Mela, heard about the abode of two monks on the heights of their mountain and the villagers spontaneously rushed to the aid of the monks.
Specifically, residents of the nearby village Kouspidi, seeing the piety of both monks and their difficulties, they supplied them with food and building materials.
So, with the help of the monks of Vazelon Monastery, the two monks built their first cell on the left side of the staircase that is located inside the monastery. The first temple they built was that of the Archangel Michael, which was renovated at various times and even survived until the early 20th century (1930).
In the inauguration and consecration of the church of Archangel Michael, the bishop of Trebizond only sent priests. But when the church of the Virgin Mary was completed in 286AD, during the empire of Theodosius the Great, the consecration and inauguration in the name of the Virgin was made in the presence of the bishop of Trebizond and the Roman commander Avgoustalios Kortikios - who then converted to Christianity - officials and many faithful pilgrims from the surrounding villages.
As Epaminondas Kyriakidis writes, before his departure Kortikios during his first visit provided the two monks with an amount of gold. The monks, having thanked him, returned the gift with the observation that "those who manage and serve this precious jewel, the image of the Virgin, do not require all that is necessary for those who manage perishable values". And that it would be enough for them only that the Roman commander would attend the inauguration of the monastery together with the local bishop. That is why the Avgoustalios Kortikios can be considered to be the founder of the first monastery.
Nevertheless Kortikios, after he had taken back the gold coins he had given before his departure, he left a pouch full of silver coins in a hidden location of the monastery.
With this donation, the monks later opened the way to the monastery in order to be accessible to those who wished to visit it, but also they built other cemeteries under the step of the monastery.
Then, after the Icon had acquired excellent reputation and the faithful began to flock to Her grace, many monks came and formed the priory of the monastery. Indeed the monks, wanting to give hospitality to the pilgrims, built a hostel in the valley below the monastery. At the same time Barnabas and Sophronius monks extended their activity beyond the monastery. Barnabas built the church of St. Constantine and Helena in the village of Skalita, located approximately three hours opposite the Abbey, while Sophronius built the chapel of Santa Barbara, just hundreds of meters below the monastery of Soumela and parallel to it. That was the chapel that, 1500 years later, became a safe hiding place for the Holy Icon and the other two holy heirlooms of the Monastery, the Gospel of St. Christopher and the Cross of Emperor Manuel III, which contains a piece of sacred wood from the Holy Cross.