The holy icon of the Panagia Soumela, located in the homonymous Church in Vermio in northern Greece, is the symbol of Hellenism in Pontus and a poignant reminder of the Greek Genocide.
According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the icon is a work of the Apostle and Evangelist Luke.
Etymologically, the name of the icon and the monastery derives from the name of the mountain, which is called Mela, on which it is built.
In Greek, “stou mela” means “at Mel,” and in the Pontic dialect, it is pronounced “sou Mela.” Therefore, it is the Panagia at the Mountain called Mela.
In 386 A.D., two Athenian monks, Barnabas, and his acolyte, Sophronios, founded the Monastery on Mount Mela in Pontus in Asia Minor, a region located in present-day Turkey, after they were called by the Virgin herself to do so.
The icon was found at the end of the fourth century A.D. in a cave at Mt. Mela, and the monastery was built in this very location for the glory of God. The icon was renamed Panagia Soumela.
According to tradition, the Holy icon of Panagia Athiniotissa, which was iconographed by Luke the Evangelist, was transferred there by angels.
Throughout the course of history, thieves and Islamic troops have raided the Monastery because of its wealth of art objects. There are many relevant references on the miraculous intervention of Virgin Mary for the Monastery’s salvation, however.
In 1922, when the Greeks of Asia Minor and Pontus were driven from their ancestral lands, monks hid the icon of Panagia Soumela, painted by Luke the Evangelist; the handwritten Gospel copied on parchment by St. Christopher; and the Holy Cross made with the wood donated by Emperor Manuel Comnenos, in the chapel of Saint Barbara.
At the time, the holy icon was buried for safety—and it remained buried beneath the monastery for approximately thirty years.
Greece requests return of Panagia Soumela icon
In 1931, Metropolitan Polycarp of Xanthe and Minister Polycarp Psomiadis asked for the intervention of the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, in order to liberate the icon from its earthly grave in Asia Minor.
The request was approved by Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu after Venizelos asked for his permission to send monks to the Mt. Mela monastery to retrieve the icon and the other sacred treasures.
Father Ambrosios, who was one of the monks of Panagia Soumela, was chosen by Metropolitan Chrysanthos of Trabzon to undertake this special journey. Father Ambrosios set out to go to Turkey on October 22, 1931. Turkish soldiers and Greeks collaborated closely together so that the priceless items would be found.
Soon, the hidden icon was unearthed along with the other sacred objects that had been buried for safety. They were all returned to Athens and given to the Byzantine Museum of Athens until 1951, when the Panagia Soumela Foundation was founded in Thessaloniki by Dr. Philon Ktenides.
In 1952, the holy icon was officially enthroned in the Church which was built in Her honor on a site amid the Macedonian mountains in Greece in Kastania, Vermio.
Forty-one years later, in August 1993, the Cross and the Gospel of St. Christopher were also donated to the Church by the Byzantine Museum of Athens.
The icon of Panagia Soumela constitutes the very symbol of the Greeks of Pontus, who see the image as an embodiment of the trials and sufferings of their people.
Every year on the 15th of August, the feast day of the Dormition of Theotokos, thousands of pilgrims from around the world travel to the Monastery at Mt. Vermio to venerate the holy icon.