who is known worldwide as Santa Claus, was born in the ancient Lycian city of
Patara, an important city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
Around 300 AD, during a prosperous era for Patara, a rich wheat merchant had
a son and named him Nicholas. His birth was accepted as a gift from the Heavens,
the fruit of his parents’ prayers and wows and a savior for the poor people. It
is believed that he performed miracles even as a young man. According to one
legend, Nicholas was trapped under the wreckage of an old church and he survived
it while his mother was crying and calling out for him.
After the death of Nicholas’ father, he inherited a large estate which he
decided to use to aid the poor. At around the same time, one of Patara’s
wealthiest men fell into poverty to such an extent that he lacked the means to
even put together dowries for his daughters. He felt so desperate that he was
even considering selling his daughters when Nicholas decided to help them. One
night he entered the their house secretly in order to remain anonymous and also
to spare the family’s honor. While the family was asleep he dropped into the
open window of the eldest daughter a bag of gold, enough to cover her dowry. In
the morning, the daughter was overjoyed the find the gold which would save her
from this desperate situation.
also decided to help the two younger daughters but since as their windows were
closed, he dropped the money for them in a bag from the chimney. This started
the legend of Santa Claus distributing presents at Christmas time. This story
also explains why he is depicted in pictures and iconographic representations
bearing three balls made of gold.
Another story from St. Nicholas’ life is as follows:
Nicholas went to Jerusalem to become a pilgrim. On his way back, he saved a
ship from sinking. Miraculously, he also brought a drowned sailor back to life.
From that time on, St. Nicholas has been known as the patron saint of sailors.
After some years, Nicholas left his home of Patara and moved to the nearby
city of Myra. At that time, the bishop of Myra had passed away and no agreement
could be reached on his successor. Finally the city’s residents decided that the
next person to enter the local church would become their next bishop. The first
to enter was Nicholas, and so he took on the church post. His miracles continued
in Myra, including an incident in which he saved the lives of three generals.
Another story goes as follows:
One year Myra experienced a great famine. A fleet carrying corn from
Alexandria to Byzantium stopped off at Myra’s harbor of Andriake. Nicholas ran
to the harbor and demanded that each ship give him a certain share of corn. When
the sailors returned to Byzantium, they were shocked to discover that all the
corn that they had given unwillingly was right back where they had left it.
Like many Christians of his era, Nicholas was imprisoned for a time on
account of his faith by the Emperors Diocletian and Licinius. In 325, Nicholas
participated in a council meeting held to settle a number of theological
disputes within Christianity in his capacity as the bishop of Myra. A churchman
named Bonaventure claimed that on his way to the council, Nicholas brought back
to life three children who had been killed and were about to be eaten. Legend
says that Nicholas, who is also known as the patron saint of students, is
believed to have passed away at the age of 65 on December 6, 343. The Myrians
built a church to honor his saintly memory and interred him in a sarcophagus as
his final resting place.
On April 20, 1087, during the First Crusade, some parts of his skeleton were
stolen and taken away by merchants from Bari. The rest of his remains can
currently be found at the Antalya Museum.
Church of Santa Claus
A larger church
in the basilica style was built at the site of the first church after it was
ruined by an earthquake in 529. Peschlow assumes that two small residences on
the southern part of the large wall and some parts of the northern wall are
remnants of the original building. That church also suffered extensive damage
through either an earthquake or at the hands of Arabian raiders in the eighth
century and was subsequently rebuilt, but then in 1034 was completely destroyed
in the attacks of the Arabian navy. An inscription on the church tells us that
the building remained in ruins for a decade before being restored in 1042 under
the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and his wife Zöe. In the twelfth
century, the building was enlarged with some additions and rebuilt once again.
The Turks began to govern Myra in the 13th century and in that period people
worshipped freely at the church and the building was repaired. In 1738, the
chapel near the main building was also repaired. C. Texier, a traveler who
toured Anatolia in 1833-1837, visited Myra and mentioned the historical church
in his books. Then in March of 1842, a soldier named Lt. Spratt and a professor
named Forbes came to Myra and drew a sketch of the church. They were able to
discern that a monastery had once stood near it.
Crimean War in 1853, a group of Russians became interested in the church and
they purchased land in the name of Countess Golici, intending to found a Russian
colony there. The Ottoman state recognized the political dimension of this
initiative and took the land back, but they relented to demands that the church
be restored. In 1862, a Frenchman named August Salzmann was hired to do the
restoration. However, his work was badly thought out and it violated the
church’s original design. Under Salzmann’s watch a bell tower was added to
building in 1876, which has survived to our day.
Nearly 2,000 churches were ascribed to Santa Claus, the holy saint of many
cities. His life story and his miracles are recorded in many books, the earliest
written by a friar named Michael from the Byzantiumis Stadion Monastery in
750-800. Let’s take a stroll together through this beautiful site, the church of
After coming through the entrance, you walk along a path and can see a statue
of Santa Claus in the green area.
A cross-shaped chapel was built on the south of this church, which was the
only church with a dome that existed here in the fourth century. The church was
also enlarged towards the north. Additionally, in 1862-63, a narthex and some
adjacent structures were added to the building both inside and out.
In fact, the main entrance of the building is on the west side but let’s
continue with on our present direction. From the courtyard, of which two pillars
still remain, taking a few steps down will bring you to the southern section,
which was added to the main building during the Byzantine era. This part is
shaped like a cross, and here can be found an apse with three arches. You can
see the original stylobate, or column foundation, at the front and the alter
pedestal in the middle of the apse. In the apse’s niche can be seen figures of
several saints whose coloring is now faded. In the small niche below them there
is a fresco of Santa Claus. In this section and on the floor of the main
church’s southeastern chapel, there are mosaics in various styles. In the niche,
which stands against the western stairs, there are frescoes of Jesus and the
well-preserved door leads us to the long side of the cross-shaped chapel where
sarcophagi stand. This is the longer side of the cross in the chapel. The
frescoes of the niches which contain sarcophagi are decorated with many
illustrations of saints, but time has almost completely faded them away. Two
niches on the northern wall and the Virgin Mary fresco on the column are
interesting specimens. Inscriptions on the column which bears the Santa Claus
fresco tell us that it was placed upside down.
The first Roman-style sarcophagus with acanthus leaves in the first niche
belongs to Santa Claus. It is said that the decoration of the sarcophagus with
fish squamae designs symbolizes his protection over sailors. The sarcophagus was
broken by the pirates from Bari on April 20, 1087 when they stole some parts of
his skeleton and took it with them to Bari.
The other two sarcophagi are rather unadorned. Apart from the sarcophagi in
the niches, there are also two more tombs on the ground. From here, you can go
through the main courtyard furnished with big panels via a door. In the
courtyard, there are two empty tombs in a niche. The motifs of cross and hoe
must have been done in the memory of Santa Claus. On the left, there is a tomb
placed in the wall inscribed with the date 1118. Through the courtyard, you can
go first to the outer narthex, and then to the inner narthex which leads you to
the main area after passing through three doors. This place is full of bishops’
illustrations. This main area opens to side naves with three arches. There are
two naves on the southern part of the main building. Some say that the
sarcophagus of the second nave belongs to Santa Claus, but relieves of a man and
woman on the sarcophagus prove otherwise. There’s another tomb in the niche of
the side nave. On the dome of the northern nave there are frescoes of Jesus and
his 12 apostles. Excavations on the side nave are continuing. On the western
part of the excavation area, there are three chambers. There should be a dome
with windows and rims in the middle of the building but during Salzmann’s
restoration, the area was covered with a large skeletal stone rib.