A pilgrimage destination for Byzantine Christians
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.
For centuries the city of Myra, located in the heart of Lycia on the southern coast of Turkey, served as a pilgrimage destination for Byzantine Christians. The fourth-century bishop of Myra, later canonized as St. Nicholas (and commonly remembered as Santa Claus), shaped the development of the Christian city before his traditional burial at Myra. For over 1,500 years, the church of St. Nicholas has stood out as an icon of the Christian saint’s influence in an area marked by the monumental remains of the earlier Greco-Roman Lycian populace.
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.
In “Destinations: Myra, Turkey” in the Summer 1998 issue of Archaeology Odyssey, Julie Skurdenis described Lycia and Myra:
I had come to Turkey to visit the sites of ancient Lycia, which dot a 160-mile stretch of Mediterranean coastline between the cities of Fethiye and Antalya. With its majestic rock-cut tombs, Lycia is a place of rugged beauty. It remains relatively remote, despite the recent intrusion of a modern highway.
But I had also come to Turkey because of Santa Claus, or Baba Noel, as jolly old St. Nick is known here. The Lycian city of Myra was home to St. Nicholas, the fourth-century A.D. Christian bishop who became associated with Christmas and gift giving.
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The English traveler Sir Charles Fellows, who visited Lycia in 1838, noted that Myra’s “ruins appear to be little injured by age.” Indeed, Myra—whose name may derive from the Greek word for myrrh, a fragrant gum resin used to make incense—is one of the most beautiful places along Turkey’s southern coast. When I arrived at the ancient city, the bright blue Turkish skies turned black, unleashing continual rainstorms. (Fellows had a similar experience on his first day at Myra: “Yesterday the rain came down in torrents,” he wrote, “and we remained busily employed in sketching and writing in our little hut, which was scarcely proof against the heavy rain.”) For me, however, the rain only heightened the ancient city’s dramatic beauty.
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.”
Sheltered under the theater’s vaulted passageways, I could have used a cold beer during an hour-long deluge of Jovian proportions! Other remnants of Roman Myra—its agora, baths and temples—still lie buried near the theater.
St. Nicholas’s church in Demre (also called Kale) is about a mile from the theater’s ruins. St. Nicholas was born in Patara, another Lycian city just west of Myra, around 300 A.D. Little is known of his life other than that he was bishop of Myra and may have been imprisoned during the final years of Emperor Diocletian’s reign. 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.
The four-aisled basilica has marble pavements, remnants of frescoes and an ornate broken tomb in the church’s southern aisle, which may have once held the saint’s bones. A huge modern statue of Nicholas looms over a small garden adjacent to the church: He carries a sack of gifts and is surrounded by a cluster of children.
Interestingly enough, the legend of Santa Claus was born, not in the frigid terrain of the North Pole, but in the warm climes of southern Turkey. As the story goes, St. Nicholas took pity on the poor girls of Demre who remained hopelessly unmarried, unable to afford a suitable dowry. So Nicholas began dropping bags filled with coins down the chimneys of the unsuspecting girls’ houses. In Europe, Nicholas became associated with the feast of Christmas; in America, his name was subsequently changed to Santa Claus.
Myra is not the only spectacular ancient Lycian city. On the road between Fethiye and Kalkan, one can find a cluster of sites with tombs cut from steep rock escarpments—a “string of Lycian pearls,” as one local caretaker called them with obvious pride. Xanthos boasts unique pillar tombs. Tlos contains a rock necropolis and numerous sarcophagi. Letoon, once the national shrine of Lycia, has three temples dedicated to the titaness Leto and her divine twins, Artemis and Apollo. And Patara, the birthplace of St. Nicholas, is renowned for its spectacular white sand beach as well as its monumental gateway and Lycian necropolis.
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on May 1, 2014.—Ed.
Who Was St. Nicholas? by Mark Wilson
The Hometown of Santa Claus by Mark Wilson
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