General Directorate of Monuments and Museums
Saint Nicholas, known throughout the world as Santa Claus, was born in the ancient Lycian city of Patara, an important city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
Around 300 A.D., 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 vows 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, 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 even to gather together dowries for his daughters. He felt so desperate that he even considered 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 to the find the gold which would save her from this desperate situation.
Later, Nicholas also decided to help the two younger daughters, but since 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 goes as follows:
Nicholas went on a pilgramage to Jerusalem. 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 town 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 clerical calling. 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 their 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 by the Emperors Diocletian and Licinius, on account of his faith. 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 has it 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 sainthood 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 currently rest at the Antalya Museum.
Church of St. Nicholas
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 restoration in 1042, under the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and his wife Zoë. 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.
During the 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 planned 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 consecrated to St. Nicholas, the patron 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 St. Nicholas.
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 outside.
In fact, the main entrance of the building is on the west side, but let’s keep going in the same 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 there is 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, figures of several saints are visible, their coloring is now faded. In the small niche below them there is a fresco of St. Nicholas. 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 Virgin Mary.
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 St. Nicholas fresco tell us that it was placed upside down.
The first Roman-style sarcophagus with acanthus leaves in the first niche belongs to St.Nicholas. 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 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 St. Nicholas. 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 St. Nicholas, but reliefs 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.
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.