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The monastery was founded during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I (r 375-395) by two priests named Barnabas and Sophrianios. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian commanded his general Belisarios to restore and enlarge the monastery.

Sumela Monastery’s present form dates to the 13th century. The complex gained importance during the reign of Alexios III (r 1349-1390) of the Komnenian Empire of Trebizond, which was established in 1204, and it was at this time that the monastery was granted an imperial charter stipulating its sources of revenue. Additional edicts during the reigns of Alexios’s successors beginning with his son Manuel (III) further increased the monastery’s revenues.

After the eastern Black Sea region came under Ottoman control in the 15th century, Sumela and many other monasteries continued to be occupied by monks and to enjoy imperial protection and rights–now granted by sultans–just as they had done during the days of the Byzantine emperors.

Many parts of Sumela were renovated in the 18th century, at which time some of its walls were also decorated with frescoes. The monastery owes the impressive presence that we see today to the addition of a number of major structures that were put up in the 19th century, when Sumela reached the pinnacle of its wealth and brilliance and became a destination for travelers and a subject for authors from all over the world.

Although the frescoes of the monastery have suffered from the passage of time and neglect, they are still worth a visit. Their subjects are mainly New Testament scenes telling the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Sections of the monastery that were in imminent danger of collapse have been restored. Other restoration and conservation work is currently in progress.