Founded in the year 386 AD during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375 - 395), Legend has it that two priests undertook the founding of the monastery on the site after having discovered a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on the mountain.
During its long history, the monastery fell into ruin several times and was restored by various Emperors. During the 6th Century AD, it was restored and enlarged by General Belisarius at the behest of Justinian.
It reached its present form in the 13th century after gaining prominence during the reign of Alexios III (1349 - 1390) of the Komnenian Empire of Trebizond (established in 1204). At that time, the monastery was granted an amount annually from imperial funds. During the time of Manuel III, son of Alexius III, and during the reigns of subsequent princes, Sümela gained further wealth from imperial grants. Following the conquest by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1461, it was granted protection by order of the Sultan and given rights and privileges which were renewed by following sultans. Monks and travelers continued to journey there through the years, the monastery remaining extremely popular up until the 19th century.
In 1682 and for a few decades it housed the Phrontisterion of Trapezous, a well known Greek educational institution of the region.
The Monastery was seized by the Russian Empire during the occupation of Trabzon in the years 1916-1918. The site was finally abandoned in 1923, following the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey after the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1930, the miraculous icon of the Panagia Soumelá, as well as other sacred treasures of the monastery, were transferred to the new Panagia Soumela Monastery, on the slopes of Mount Vermion, near the town of Naousa, in Macedonia, Greece.
Today the monastery's primary function is as a tourist attraction. Its place overlooking the forests and streams below, makes it extremely popular for its aesthetic attraction as well as for its cultural and religious significance. Currently restoration work funded by the Turkish government is taking place. It is currently enjoying a revival in pilgrimage from Greece and Russia.
There has been some controversy among Orthodox Christians as the divine liturgy has usually been forbidden in or near the monastery. On 15 August 2010 divine liturgy was allowed outside the monastery.
The principal elements of the Monastery complex are the Rock Church, several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, a library, and a sacred spring revered by Orthodox Greeks.
The large aqueduct at the entrance, which supplied water to the Monastery, is constructed against the side of the cliff. The aqueduct has many arches which have mostly been restored. The entrance to the Monastery leads up a long and narrow stairway. There is a guard-room next to the entrance. The stairs lead down from there to the inner courtyard. On the left, in front of a cave, there are several monastery buildings. The cave, which was converted into a church, constitutes the centre of the monastery. The library is to the right.
The large building with a balcony on the front part of the cliff was used for the monks' cells and for housing guests. It dates from 1840.
The influence of Turkish art can be observed in the design of the cupboards, niches and fire-place in the rooms of the buildings surrounding the courtyard.
The inner and outer walls of the Rock Church and the walls of the adjacent chapel are decorated with frescoes. Frescoes dating from the era of Alexios III of Trebizond line the inner wall of the Rock Church facing the courtyard.The frescoes of the chapel which were painted on three levels in three different periods are dated to the beginning of the 18th century. The frescoes of the bottom band are of superior quality.
The frescoes of the Sümela Monastery are seriously damaged, having largely been moved from their original settings. The main subject of the frescoes are biblical scenes telling the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary.