Recent archaeological activity at Myra has begun to expose a remarkably intact Christian city beneath modern Demre. While the church of St. Nicholas, the honeycomb tombs and the theater have endured as iconic symbols of the Lycian coast, the majority of the ancient city was buried under 18 feet of sediment deposited by the nearby Myros River.
Archaeologists have completed the excavation of a 13th-century chapel preserved with a Pompeiian clarity. Built just a century before the city was abandoned, the structure features a six-foot deesis fresco depicting Jesus, John and Mary holding scrolls with Greek Biblical texts, a style never before found in Turkey. Details of the architecture remain in pristine shape, including a cross-shaped window that shines directly onto the altar. Archaeologists working at the site hope that the preservation witnessed in the chapel excavation will extend down to the earliest Christian and Greco-Roman remains as well.
More on Myra and the Lycian Coast from the Biblical Archaeology Society
BAS Library members can explore Myra with Julie Skurdenis’s article “Destinations: Myra, Turkey.” Archaeology Odyssey, Summer 1998, 68-71. Selections of her article are copied in the Notes section below.
For information on the discovery of an ancient synagogue discovered near Myra, read the Bible History Daily news update “Ancient Synagogue Discovered in Southern Turkey”
To learn about Lycian democracy, read the Bible History Daily news update “Restoration Completed on the World’s Oldest Major Parliament”
Want to discover Lycia for yourself? Read about the Lycian Way, a popular hiking trail weaving through natural wonders and millennia of archaeological sites.
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The Demre church, now sunken into a hollow, probably dates to the fourth century. It was largely rebuilt in 1043 by the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX and again in 1862 by Czar Nicholas I. Except for a few 19th-century additions—such as a belltower—it looks the way it probably did in the 11th century, when Nicholas’s body was supposedly stolen by Italian merchants and carried off to Bari in southern Italy.
What is left of Lycian Myra, in addition to remnants of its acropolis wall, is its necropolis—dozens of tombs carved out of a steep cliff, one atop the other, honeycombing the mountainside. Some of the tombs are elaborate temple-like structures, but most resemble Lycian houses of 2,400 years ago; even their roofs were carefully carved out of the rock to resemble the ends of logs. The Lycians apparently believed that the dead should feel at home in their final resting places.
The interiors of the tombs are lined with stone benches, sometimes carved to look like beds, on which the dead were placed. Carved reliefs adorn the exterior and interior walls as well as the pediments above the entrances to some of the tombs. One recurring subject of these carvings is the funeral banquet, attended by the deceased and his family and friends.
Myra’s Roman past is represented by the well-preserved Greco-Roman theater, located at the base of the cliff beside the necropolis. Constructed in the second century B.C., the theater was damaged during the massive earthquake of 141 A.D. and restored by Opramoas, a wealthy official who lived in Rhodiapolis, Myra’s neighbor to the east. The theater’s cavea, or auditorium, rests against the cliff. Myrans attending plays or, later in the city’s history, gladitorial spectacles, would have entered either at ground level or through the huge vaulted passageways on either side of the cavea. Along the sides of these passageways are small rooms where sellers once hawked their goods, crying out the Roman equivalent of “Get your cold beer.”