Though the faces of the Virgin and Child in today’s icon seem hardly distinguishable, this icon of the Theotokos has a unique and storied history. According to Tradition, St. Luke the Evangelist wrote the icon that came to be called the Panagia Soumela (that is, the Panagia of Mount Mela). After the Evangelist’s falling asleep in the Lord, one of his disciples carried the holy icon to its first resting place in Athens.
Eventually, two of the Athenian monks were instructed by the Theotokos to transfer the icon to Mt. Mela in the region of Pontos (present day Turkey), where a monastery was constructed in the Virgin’s honor. Throughout the Turkish occupation and hundreds of years of pillaging, the monastery was constantly rebuilt, and the icon remained safe.
However, in August 1923, during that awful genocide committed against the Pontian Greeks, the monks were finally forced to flee for their lives. Before taking leave, they buried several items for safekeeping in the front yard of the church of St. Barbara, located just a few miles from the monastery. Among these items were: a handwritten copy of a Gospel, a portion of the Holy Cross, and the Panagia Soumela icon.
On the Feast of the Dormition in 1931, then Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos was gathered with a crowd in the monastery of the Great Cave in Kalavryta, in Peloponnese. There, Metropolitan Polycarp of Xanthi mentioned the fate of the Panagia Soumela icon to the Prime Minister. Moved, Prime Minister Venizelos promised the Metropolitan he would use all his influence to recover the sacred items. After meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister, Prime Minister Venizelos received approval to have several monks lead the excavation, along with a team of Greek and Turkish soldiers. When the sacred icon and the other treasures were finally unearthed, they were taken to Athens and deposited in the Benaki museum for 20 years.
In 1950, a new church was constructed in Greece to honor the Panagia Soumela, and on the Feast of the Dormition 1952 the icon was enthroned in this new church. Hundreds of pilgrims come to venerate the holy icon every year, especially on the Dormition.
Due to the large number of Pontian Greeks in Australia, a request was made in the early 1970s for a copy of the Panagia Soumela icon to be given over for veneration. This copy of the icon currently resides in the Church of the Panagia Soumela in Melbourne Australia.
And on August 15 2010, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was permitted to hold a Divine Liturgy in the original Panagia Soumela monastery for the first time in 88 years. The Turkish government has extended permission for Patriarch Bartholomew to hold Liturgy on the Feast of the Dormition every year.