Reflections on the Soumela Monastery in Summer 1916

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Reflections on the Soumela Monastery in Summer 1916.
An Extract from the Diary of a Russian Soldier.

Russell McCaskie*

Sergei Rudol’fovich Mintslov (1870-1933), renowned bibliophile, author of numerous historical novels, archaeologist and bureaucrat in the Russian government, joined the Russian army in 1915 and was assigned to its occupation forces in Trabzon, northern Turkey in 1916. His experiences before, during and after this assignment were captured in diary form in what was published as A Trabzon Epic. A Diary. Kiev. Trabzon. Finland. The diary covers the years 1915-1918 and was first published in Russian in 1923.

His account begins with his journey to join the Russian army in Trabzon located on the shores of the Black Sea. It ends on the eve of his emigration from his estate north of what was then Petrograd and a Russia which was no longer ruled by a Romanov Tsar.

Throughout his account of his period in the army, we are witness to his observations about the conduct of the war including the inherent deficiencies in the operation and administration of the Russian army during World War I after the capture of Trabzon. The diary’s value lies also in his description of the places he visits in and around Trabzon, churches in which he undertakes archaeological studies and the constant shrewd assessment of the historical or cultural value of the places he visits when on duty.

These visits include a short journey and stay at the Soumela monastery (Figure 1).

The following translated extract is taken from his diary entry for 27 August (1916). It provides an insight into Mintslov’s journey to Soumela which he had undertaken with his family and the metropolitan of Rhodopolis. His account allows us to glimpse the wonders of the country through which he travelled, impressions of the monastery itself and the experiences of the monks who protected and preserved their sacred place in an increasingly hostile world.1

In the morning of the 24th we went by car to Cevizlik.2 The head of the locality was already waiting for us along with a relay of Cossack horses. The day before, I had already sent an interpreter and orderly to Livera[ Livera3 to metropolitan [of Rhodopolis] Kirillos to advise him about our arrival.

Cevizlik is located about 30 km from Trabzon on the road to Erzerum. The road winds along the slopes of the mountains in the valley of the Değirmendere, famous for the escarpment being the place near Trabzon where the Turks led out Armenians, slaughtered them like sheep and then threw their bodies into the water.4

Figure 1: Region south of Trabzon (scale: Trabzon to Gϋmϋshane = 65 km) (Crow and Bryer 1997: 285)

The road is wonderfully picturesque and if it were not for the continuous series of now transports, now large automobiles – lorries, throwing up blue-grey clouds of dust, travelling along would have been very pleasant.

Cevizlik lies at the very bottom of the crossing of two ravines. Not all that long ago, it was a small town, now only several little houses in the centre appear to be intact, where the commandant and the refreshment kiosk of the Union of Cities are set up.5

Everything else remaining – has been burned down or destroyed.

Due to the endless movement, dust hangs about in the town like a thick fog. There is no air at all. It is impossible to know how people do not suffocate from the stuffiness and the stench!

In Cevizlik, we went directly to the refreshment kiosk where the manager, a very nice sister, Asia, gave us tea and breakfast straightaway.

In the kiosk yard, established for any soldier – a huge thanks to the Cities – Cossacks brought horses; we adjusted the stirrups and our cavalcade, accompanied by a lot of curious looks, set out on a road, away from the road to Erzurum.

The path continued into the mountains and in about an hour the horses brought us to the village of Livera – the summer residence of the Rodopol metropolitan; the winter residence had been located in Cevizlik but had been burnt down by the Turks. His two-storey home – rather large but ordinary like other local houses – could be seen from the distance: it is built almost on the crest of a hill and above it a large tri-coloured Russian flag was fluttering.

We got to the house along a steep, narrow path winding through gardens and corn thickets; the metropolitan met us on the balcony and kissed me; I do not recognise blessings but I do like being involved with the clergy.

The metropolitan’s chambers turned out to be simple, poorly decorated rooms with unpainted floors and walls of timber planks.

Tea and apples appeared immediately. After this, our whole company set out on a tour and the metropolitan, gathering up his black cassock like a skirt, took the lead. After about two kilometres, we could see an old tower, serving no doubt as signal tower; the silhouette of the tower was outlined against the sky beyond the river on a distant summit of the mountain opposite.

A small glade stretched like a green rug beyond the tower and ended with a steep precipice above an abyss.

We rested right on the edge of the cliff and returned on the same path where supper was already waiting for us – luxurious for these times: soup and two dishes of mutton. The day, Wednesday, was a fast day but the metropolitan was unabashed, ate up everything just like us sinners – the meat and then yoghurt.

We slept side-by-side in two rooms; the metropolitan offered me his bedroom and bathroom but having peeped into it during the day, I had seen such a large army of bugs on the walls, rejected the offer and lay down together with my family on a mattress on the floor in the other room.

Before I went to bed, I went out onto the balcony and the starry night bewitched me; the mountain summits were sleeping; a whitish cloud perched almost level with us on one of them. A great silence reigned, a nirvana, clearly sensed by man only when he stands so unfathomably high above the world!

In the morning, after a hearty snack and tea we all, including the metropolitan, got on our horses and set off further – to the Soumela monastery, a 5-hour ride from Livera: road length here is measured only by how many hours it takes to go on foot.

The metropolitan’s guard walked in front armed with an English magazine and a huge quantity of bullets on belts which made him look like he was about to fight a whole army.

I won’t begin to describe our path. I will say only that the road, often not exceeding half a metre in width wound at a huge height through mountains and crags above abysses at the bottom of which a bouncing river roared and continuously foamed, no less inferior to the Terek6. The ravines, overgrown with walnuts, plane and all kinds of other trees made abrupt zigzags and each turn opened up new, staggeringly beautiful views.

We crossed the river twice; the first time at a ford and the second on a path which ran to a high, unstable bridge. Its narrow planks swinging over the violent river did not even have a hand rail. The metropolitan went across first very calmly; the bridge bent and danced beneath him like a rocking horse. I confess I went onto this wretched toy feeling terrified; in the middle of the bridge, my horse which had been stepping carefully, suddenly hurried forward and took off at trot; I just managed to restrain it but the bridge seemed like an earthquake and almost crashed down.

Along the way, we often came across springs gushing right out of the mountains. A couple of times, we dismounted and greedily drank the crystal, cold water for a while.

The forest became thicker and darker: twice our path crossed Turkish trenches and hiding places and finally in a glade, the blackened walls of a burned out and damaged building appeared. The ravine ended; ahead stood a high forested ridge furrowed by cliffs. The metropolitan stopped and got off his horse.

“We’ve arrived,” he announced smiling, indicating somewhere higher up.

I glanced in that direction and froze. Our ravine turned sharply right and the roaring and booming river jumped over gigantic rocks washing the steep mountain which was propping up the sky itself.

At some immeasurable height, up to where only eagles could fly, the long white buildings of the Soumela Monastery were stuck to the sheer rocky precipice.

Three shots rang out; the guard was telling the monks of our arrival. The horses were huddled together, agitated. We let them have a short rest, crossed a bridge and began to climb along steep endless zigzags; the monastery was now hidden from us by a thicket of trees, now suddenly showed itself in all its incredible beauty.

The famous Inkermanskii Monastery7 in the Crimea is an abject dwarf in comparison with this wonder of the world – which number I do not know!

I said to my daughter jokingly that we were riding our horses to the clouds, but in reality we were almost doing just that.

Breathing was hard and after many stops, the horses brought us to a narrow rocky recess on which a shed had been built; the completely vertical side of a reddish cliff rose further ahead; stuck to it on the right, long and rather steep stairs led off; its end rested on an outcrop on the cliff in which a low door had been made. Beside it the black figure of some monk appeared.

We got off the horses and approached to greet him.

The metropolitan, the abbot and the rank and file monks here are all dressed in completely the same way; you can only know the metropolitan by his black staff with its silver knob; this staff though was a few centimetres longer than a normal staff and only this makes it different. The metropolitans wear neither Panagia nor crosses on their hoods.

And I must confess that a comparison of our [Russian] prelates and the Greek metropolitans is not in favour of the former! Our “humble ones” are in reality demi-gods; they are never to be seen on foot, they drive about like icons – only in four wheeled carriages; they do not know their flocks nor even the priests of their diocese. Our bishops and metropolitans are worshipping bureaucrats while here they are shepherds. They know their boundaries like their own hand; their flock is known to them not only by each face; the people take all their needs and troubles first of all to the metropolitan. You had to see Kirillos when we went across the mountains; the peasants he met bowed to him and he knew each one by name and exchanged many words with them showing that he knows their lives right down to the last iota.

The monks greeted the metropolitan respectfully but in a most peaceful manner as an equal to the elder; there was no fuss, nor the usual Russian silliness in the face of authority and there was no umbrage in anyone.

We went up the medieval stairway and came to a very small quadrangle; a small bell hung from the gate; a wall rose in front of us and the reddish walls of a church, painted from top to bottom with ancient frescoes looked out at us through an entrance arch.

The gatekeeper struck the bell and in response, small bells from behind the wall began to chime to meet the metropolitan: the Greeks here have no large bells at all. Beyond the arch, 75 steps of a second staircase led down to a long open back gallery of monastery buildings; we found ourselves in the monastery yard paved with stones; before us above the church and white bell-tower hung the dark arch of a gigantic cave in the cliff. A large building housing the monastery’s cells and rooms, right on the very edge of the precipice, fenced off the yard like a wall. The number of rooms for new arrivals bespeaks their size – there are 18 of them besides, each of which is of a size that you could fit an average four-room flat in St Petersburg completely into it.

They took us to the largest; several soft divans and armchairs were against its walls; the floor was covered in a luxurious carpet.

With some pleasure, we sat down to rest after our long and difficult journey; taking a seat on the opposite wall was the metropolitan, abbot and the monastery librarian – Father Anfim, a tall abbot, starting to grey but with a purely military bearing; he had dark eyes and something of a proud eagle-like and authoritatively rapacious look on his face.

The monks talked about the monastery’s misfortunes.

In the Easter week8 of this year, several Turkish soldiers9 turned up at the entrance gate and demanded entry. They were refused. Then the soldiers announced that the next day, a whole detachment would come and force them to surrender.

The Turks kept their promises which caused anxiety in the monastery. The monks hid whatever they could and that night, they themselves ran from the monastery down the mountains paths and stole into Livera to the metropolitan. A young novice had locked the gate behind them, tied a long rope to an outside balcony and having lowered himself down on it from a height exceeding Saint Isaac's Cathedral10 to a cliff ledge, crawled on further and also disappeared.

The Turks turned up at the monastery the next day, knocked and then tried to break the gate but the thick iron did not yield. They fired their rifles at it and deep hollows remain in the iron. Seeing that nothing would come of this approach they broke off parts of the wall and opened the gate.

The detachment installed itself in the monastery and stayed for two months until Russian forces approached.

I have to testify that the Turks turned out to be more seemly than us – they took only silver and especially expensive carpets from the monastery; everything remaining – carpets, furniture and the valuable library – all remained untouched. They did, however, take one official document – a most ancient text of some sultan – from the library. They did not tear up a single manuscript nor single book and ruined absolutely nothing. The walls of the cave cathedral, painted with frescoes, were covered in silver; they pulled this off but did not touch the valuable gold decorative metal plate on the most holy venerated icon of the Holy Mother, attributed to the evangelist Luke.

The Turks also seized all the monastery’s utensils; according to the metropolitan, knives, forks, spoons etc. were all of solid ancient silver. This is not surprising. The Soumela Monastery is extraordinarily rich: in Trabzon, Platana, Fola and a number of other towns, it owns lots of houses and private shops; the Greeks do not prohibit monastery trade; monastery land is a whole kingdom.

Having rested, we set off to look around this underground world beyond the clouds.

The small church, cave and snug little courtyard in front of it leads the visitor to the first years of Christendom. In the church, a small altar is separated from the worshippers by a low iconostasis and has neither a pulpit nor a side door: all exits of the deacons and priests are through unbelievably narrow royal gates; incidentally, in all Greek churches, even lay people enter the altar through these very gates. Christian services have been held in this church for fifteen centuries. There is no doubt that due to its fortunate location, the cave has been lived in since pre-historic times and has seen in its lifetime, all stages of man’s experience.11

Unfortunately, the external wooden frescoes on the wall and altar ledge of the cathedral have all been covered and spoiled by inscriptions, made by the knives of visitors. I thought that such abundance of stupidity happened only with us in Rus’: it turns out there are plenty of Greeks who do this too!

In two places near the church, springs have broken through the rock face and only their murmur breaks the silence of the yard.

We looked around the guests’ quarters; everywhere, even in rooms set aside for common folk, there was soft furniture, although with cheap upholstery. A balcony with a canopy leaning on columns of white stone stretched along the whole upper floor of the hostel building. I know nothing which can compare to the raw beauty of the view from this balcony!

Below, at the bottom of a head-spinning chasm, the roar of a river could be heard in the distance; a dense sea of forest flooded the opposite slope; the thick leafy forests, rising up the cliff from the depths of the ravine are then replaced by conifers; higher up, pale green meadows begin only to end with completely bare rocky summits.

Cliffs are everywhere; the river, hidden by them can be seen only in places; it emerges from gorges such that there are no roads along it nor tracks: the path stops suddenly at the foot of the monastery and beyond it in the ravine, there is a kingdom of chaos, cliffs, the gloominess of a timeless forest, wild boar and bears.

By evening, and it came on quickly, clouds came to spend the night in the ravine; one of them was on the opposite mountain, another lay over the monastery below the balcony.

I got up during the night and having wrapped myself in my felt cloak, went out on to the balcony. The sky shone with bright winking fires. Clouds filled the entire ravine and on their whitish shroud, the dark mountain summits rose up like islands in the sea; the river roared on more clearly.

The spectacle was such that I woke up my family and we all rushed out to the balcony to admire God’s world.

In the morning, having looked around the library containing not a few ancient manuscripts and signed the visitor’s honour book which had been started as early as the 1660s we, accompanied by all of the very few monks, started down the staircase on our way back.

Again, the soft quiet peal of the bells farewelled us. From the upper courtyard, we looked for the last time at the little church hidden in the dark part of the cave and began to descend to the horses which were waiting for us.

Near them, we farewelled the monks and leading our horses by the reins, it was like we sank into the fresh green forest.

Now and then, the monastery could be seen hanging in the air through the shafts of light through the tree tops; after the bridge, we got into our saddles and the marvellous fairy tale of the power of the human spirit, having flown beyond the clouds, disappeared around a turn.

After about 4 hours of riding, the metropolitan stopped and got off his horse; he was no longer going our way and had decided to make his way to his abode along a mountain path not suitable for horses.

“There are just about five kilometres left for me!” the dark-complexioned Kirillos said smiling.

We took our leave and kissed. From my saddle, I could see for a long time the dark figure of the metropolitan cheerfully climbing upwards, leaning on his staff.

By five o’clock in the afternoon, we were in Cevizlik and having eaten at the provisions kiosk, whirled away in our automobile to Trabzon.

*I wish to thank Sam Topalidis for introducing me to the Russian text of Mintslov’s diary and asking me to translate it into English.

1. A brief history of Soumela is available in Sam Topalidis The Soumela Monastery, Pontos, available at https://www.pontosworld.com/index.php/pontus/news/795-the-soumela-monastery-pontos-2
2. In the Russian text, Mintslov spells this town, located to the south of Trabzon, as Джевизлик – Dzhevizlik. It is usually called Machka.
3. Livera (Gr: Λιβερά, today Yazlik) is a village in the Maçka region of Pontos. A Christian Greek village, it was divided into three parishes. Livera was the seat of the Diocese of Rhodopolis and at its centre was the church of St George. The small Greek metropolitanate of Rhodopolis (south of Trabzon) covered the three great Greek monasteries of Soumela, Vazelon and Peristereota. https://pontosworld.com/index.php/pontus/places/658-livera - accessed 1 August 2020.
4. He was probably told of these stories. His friend Chrysanthos, Greek metropolitan of Trabzon, wrote about these atrocities, so he may have told Mintslov. He may have read reports subsequently and embellished this account much later – say in the early 1920s. The name of the river in English is Mill River.
5. Union of Cities (All-Russian Union of Cities for Helping Sick and Wounded Soldiers) [СОЮЗ ГОРОДОВ -Все­российский союз городов помощи больным и раненым воинам] was one of the largest societies that assisted the Tsarist government in the organization of medical assistance, accommodation of refugees etc. in the First World War. It also participated in front-line committees attached to the commanders-in-chief on the front. Representatives of the Union were included in special meetings and other higher institutions of the military. See https://bigenc.ru/domestic_history/text/4245662 - accessed 8 September 2021.
6. A river in the north Caucasus renowned for its rapids.
7. A reference to the St Clement Monastery (Свято-Климентовский мужской монастырь) a cave monastery in the Crimea near Sevastopol. Its web site is http://kliment-monastery.ru/ - accessed 8 September 2021.
8. Greek Orthodox Easter was in April 1916 (Topalidis in press).
9. Mintslov uses the Turkish term for soldier: “asker”.
10.Saint Isaac's Cathedral or Isaakievskii Sobor (Russian: Исаакиевский Собор) is a cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia.
11. Bryer and Winfield (1985: 254) state the monastery seems to have been established by the 10th century.

Bryer A and Winfield D (1985) The Byzantine monuments and topography of the Pontos, vol. I, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection, Harvard University, Washington DC.
Crow J and Bryer A (1997) ‘Survey in Trabzon and Gϋmϋşhane vilayets, Turkey, 1992–1994’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 51:283–289.
Mintslov SR (1923) Trapezondskaia epopeia, (unpublished translation by R McCaskie), Sibirskoe Knigoizdatel’stvo, Berlin.
Topalidis Sam (in press) Greek Pontos, Afoi Kyriakidi Editions SA, Thessaloniki.
Topalidis Sam The Soumela Monastery, Pontos. Available at https://www.pontosworld.com/index.php/pontus/news/795-the-soumela-monastery-pontos-2


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