Myra and Santa Claus
Myra was a leading city of the Lycian Union and surpassed Xanthos in early Byzantine times to become the capital city of Lycia. Its remains are situated about 1.5 km north of today's Demre, on the Kaş-Finike road. Most of the ancient city is now covered by Demre and alluvial silts, for it is located on the river Demre Cay in a fertile alluvial plain. Today this large plain is almost covered with greenhouses stuffed full of tomatoes. In ancient times this area was probably farmed extensively, for export and trade with the interior of Lycia.
The date of Myra's foundation is unknown. There is no literary mention of it before the 1st century BC, when it is said to be one of the six leading cities of the Lycian Union (the other five were Xanthos, Tlos, Pinara, Patara and Olympos). It is believed to date back much further however, as an outer defensive wall has been dated to the 5th century BC.
The city is well known for its amphitheatre (the largest in Lycia) and the plethora of rock-cut tombs carved in the cliff above the theatre.
The origin of Myra's name is uncertain and may be a modified form of a Lycian name, like Tlos and Patara. The name was popularly associated with the Greek name for myrrh and the emperor Constantine Porphrogenitus describled the city as "Thrice blessed, myrrh-breathing city of the Lycians, where the mighty Nicolaus, servant of God, spouts forth myrrh in accordance with the city's name." However, Myra does not seem to be known for its production of myrrh, the only product actually recorded is rue.
Myra once had a great temple of the goddess Artemis Eleuthera (a distinctive form of Cybele, the ancient mother goddess of Anatolia), said to be Lycia's largest and most splendid building. It was built on large grounds with beautiful gardens and had an inner court defined by columns, an altar and a statue of the goddess. Not a trace of it remains today, however, since St. Nicholas (the bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD) in his zeal to stamp out paganism in the region, had the temple of Artemis, along with many other temples, completely destroyed. See more about St. Nicholas below.
In Roman times the emperor Germanicus and his wife Agrippina paid Myra a visit in 18 AD and were honoured with statues of themselves erected in Myra's harbour (Andriace, located 5 km southwest of Myra).
St. Paul changed ships at Myra's port on his way to his trial in Rome, in about 60 AD, after he had been arrested in Jerusalem after being charged with inciting to riot. Andriace was a chief port for Egyptian vessels passing through the area; Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire and the imperial government had a fleet of grain ships that carried grain to Rome and other parts of the Empire. Andriace was a major trans-shipment point for grain from Alexandria - grain came from the plain near Myra, and was also possibly brought in by boats, to be shipped onwards from Lycia. It is likely that Paul made the trip to Rome on a grain ship, these were often used to transport passengers as well.
Emperor Hadrian visited Myra in 131 AD and built a huge granary at Andriace composed of seven rooms and decorated with portraits of himself and his wife who accompanied him on his visit. You can still see the granary as you drive along the main Kaş-Finike highway into Demre (the western part of Demre).
The Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II made Myra the capital of the Byzantine Eparchy Lycia until the city fell to the caliph Harun ar-Rashid in 808 AD after a seige and quickly went into decline. Then, early in the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118 AD), Myra was overtaken by Seljuk invaders.
Because of the terrible plague that swept through Anatolia (Myra lost one-third of its population to it in 542-3 AD), Muslim raids, flooding and earthquakes, Myra was mostly abandoned by the 11thcentury. What remains is very impressive - a large theatre with the backdrop of Myra’s famous rock-cut tombs. The sight of these is quite striking.
Features of Myra include:
- Amphitheatre - Myra's Greco-Roman theatre is the largest theatre in Lycia and one of the main attractions of Myra, still in good shape. Its double-vaulted corridors are still preserved and an inscription in a stall space reads "place of the vendor Gelasius" - the location of an ancient concessions stand. It has 38 rows of seats and its facade was richly decorated with theatrical masks and mythological scenes.
- Rock-Cut Tombs - The famous rock-tombs of Myra are in two main groups, one above the theater and the other in a place called the river necropolis on the east side. Although most of the tombs are plain today, Charles Fellows tells that upon his discovery of the city in 1840 he found the tombs colourfully painted red, yellow and blue. The entire cliff face must have once been a bright riot of colour.
To the west of the theatre the steep cliff is pockmarked with a huge number of closely packed rock-cut tombs in an asymmetric pattern, house type rock-cut tombs. A few are temple tombs and one can see steps carved out out the rock that lead to them. Most of the tombs are from the 4th century BC, and many contain funeral scenes in relief, some scenes portraying the daily life of the deceased.
The tombs on the eastern face of the hill resemble those next to the theater. Approached by an uncomfortable rock-path is the monument known as The Painted Tomb, one of the most striking throughout Lycia. It is the ususal house-type tomb with the outstanding feature of a group of eleven life-size figures in relief.
- Church of St. Nicholas
This church can be visited a short distance from the site of Myra on the outskirts of Demre and is well worth the trip. Inside the church is the sarcophagus of St. Nicholas although his remains were taken to Italy. The earliest church of St. Nicholas was built in the 6th century AD, supposedly over St. Nicholas' tomb. Later it was rebuilt, the present church is from the 9th century (probably rebuilt after Arab attacks). It was further rebuilt in 1042 under the patronage of Constantine X and a monastery was added at that time or shortly after. Czar Alexander II bought the building in 1863 and began to have it restored, but the renovation was not completed. Excavations and restorations were done during the 1960's and continue today from the early 1990's. Wall painting restorations were carried out from 2000-2005. The church's floor is of beautiful opus sectile and cosmati, types of luxury marble mosaic floor tilings, and there are some remains of wall paintings (see photo below). A marble sarcophagus was reused to bury the bones of the saint, but actually they were stolen earlier and taken to Bari, Italy (see info below).
The Church was a popular pilgrimage center attracting pilgrims from home and abroad in all periods, even after the remains of St. Nicholas were stolen in 1087 AD.
The church and its close environs were registered as a 1st-degree archaeological site in 1982, and also placed on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. It is ranked among specialists as the third most important Byzantine structure present in Anatolia.
- See photos of the church and its gorgeous floor and wall paintings
- Press release about the special event that was held on September 4, 2005 at the church to inaugurate the opening to public view of the newly restored wall paintings in the Church. Also gives info about the church and its architecture.
St. Nicholas was a popular bishop at Myra in the 4th century AD, born in Patara between 260 AD and 280, famous for his miracles and known for his kindness. His parents died of the plague and he was left a wealthy young man.
It is said that he was thrown into prison by Emperor Diocletian, perhaps participated in the Council of Nicaea, implored Emperor Constantine for a large tax reduction for Myra which was granted and destroyed Myra's renowned temple of Artemis (among many others). After the death of St. Nicholas, Myra became a rich pilgrimage centre with many new churches built.
In 1087 Italian merchants, during the confusion of the Seljuk invasion, stole his body at Myra and transported it to Bari in Italy, which became a pilgimage center and where his relics are still preserved today. An oily substance called Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from them. Venetian sailors also claimed to have taken the body.
St. Nicholas' cult spread beyond the Byzantine Empire in the 6th -11th centuries, celebrated especially in the East Church under Russian imperial patronage. He later became the patron saint of Greece and Russia as well as of children, sailors, merchants, scholars, those unjustly imprisoned and travelers.
St. Nicholas was known for his charitable nature and humility. Several legends about him have been based on his kind and giving nature and have led to the development of Santa Claus.
His representations in art are as various as his alleged miracles.
For more infomation about St. Nicholas, see the website St. Nicholas: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus.
- See photos of the church and its gorgeous floor and wall paintings