Demre, Turkey: Santa Claus Will not Be Coming to this Town

“The first thing you see is barbed wire; a fence has been put up to keep looters out, although the gate is wide open, and there is very little left to loot.  Within the barbed wire enclosure are a caretaker’s cottage and a small shed.  Down a steep incline, some 15 or 20 feet below ground level, stands Hagios Nikolaos, the Church of Saint Nicholas.  Part of the left side of the church of St. Nicholas is still buried under silt, and the original entrance is inaccessible.  Access now is down the incline, past fallen columns and other archeological rubble.  The mosaic tiles on the floor are broken, filthy or missing; the frescoes that remain on the walls are faded and decayed; interior columns and capitals lie where they have fallen.  After we had prowled around the church for a while, the caretaker or guide entered.  In three trips to Turkey we have found bilingual and multilingual Turks in the most remote areas, but at this major Christian shrine in Anatolia the guide speaks only Turkish.  Anxious to help, however, he took us to the sarcophagus which we had already recognized as the one usually identified as the original tomb of St. Nicholas.  The guide pointed to it and spoke the only English he knew, ‘Santa Claus’.”

Thus reads in part a 1975-report prepared for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the appalling conditions at the looted and neglected Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra, Asia Minor, or today’s Demre, Turkey.  Since this report was published, recognition of the enormous profit potential of exploiting this historic site as a tourist destination and as a public relations prop has led the Turkish authorities to steadily improve physical conditions at the Church of Saint Nicholas.  Yet, through the subsequent decades of tourist development at Demre, Turkey’s contemptuous disregard for the sacred character and cultural importance of the church at Myra and its saintly namesake has remained unchanged.

Nikolaos, or Nicholas, of Myra, was born in the city of Patara on the Lycian coast of Asia Minor around 275 AD, at a time when most of Asia Minor had been Greek for many centuries.  Born to a wealthy Christian family, Nicholas would become a beloved public figure during his lifetime and would be canonized as a saint after his death.  Revered among both his fellow Greek and other Christians for his dignified courage in the face of brutal persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian and renowned for his gift-giving and aid to children, the sick, and the poor, Nicholas became the immensely popular bishop of Myra, a port city near Patara.  According to most accounts of his life, Nicholas was present at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, where he was a staunch defender of Orthodox Christian beliefs.  Saint Nicholas, is, of course, universally regarded as the inspiration for the legendary character known as Santa Claus, who brings Christmas gifts to children around the world.      

Nicholas was buried in his church—a Byzantine basilica—in Myra, which by the sixth century had become a well-known shrine and destination for religious pilgrims from throughout the Byzantine Empire and beyond.  Since 1087, however, the remains of Saint Nicholas have reposed principally in Bari, Italy.  In the spring of 1087, three ships with sailors and merchants from Bari returning home from trading in Antioch, anchored in Myra’s harbor.  The sailors—likely Greeks themselves, given that Bari and its surrounding region of Apulia were still predominantly Greek-speaking at that time—disembarked from their vessels, proceeded to the well-known church and shrine of Saint Nicholas and, acting like lawless pirates, broke open the saint’s tomb and spirited most of Nicholas’ bones away to their ships, narrowly escaping ahead of the local townspeople who were in pursuit of the thieves.  When the remains were safely landed in Bari in May, a solemn promise was made by the city’s people to build a magnificent church to honor Saint Nicholas.  A crypt to shelter the relics of the saint was consecrated in 1089.  Almost a century later, in 1197, the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was completed as the resting place for most of Saint Nicholas’ remains.  The basilica has served for more than eight centuries as a beautiful, sacred, dignified, and safe pilgrimage destination for both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

Until recently, Turkey had little interest in historic Myra, Saint Nicholas, his church, and his popular legacy as the ancestor of Santa Claus.  For most Turks, Myra was little more than yet another place name in a seemingly endless list of villages, towns, and cities ethnically cleansed of their original Greek inhabitants in the early 1920s, an uncomfortable local reminder of a Greek and Christian past in Asia Minor better erased and forgotten in the face of the Turkish national project.  Some of that, however, has changed as Turkey has developed a burgeoning tourism industry. 

In the last two decades, the Turkish state has aggressively coopted and marketed ancient Greek ruins and medieval Byzantine churches as “Turkish national and cultural treasures.”  Indeed, virtually the whole of Turkish international tourism is built on the exploitation of the physical remains of Greek civilization, ancient and medieval, in Istanbul and Asia Minor.  Notwithstanding this fact, the Greek and Orthodox Christian character of these historic sites are, as a matter of policy, negated by the Turkish authorities, that typically present such antiquities to unknowing foreign visitors as Hittite, Roman, “native Anatolian,” or simply Turkish in origin. 

Myra and Saint Nicholas have not escaped this state-coordinated policy.  The facilities around the Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre have been improved and expanded in order to profit from the rise in tourism to Turkey.  In its official publications, government website, and state-sponsored travel blogs, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism identifies the Greek city of Myra merely as a Lycian town.  Likewise, the Turkish Ministry sidesteps Saint Nicholas’ Greek and Orthodox Christian identity and distorts his image by labeling him, anachronistically, as a bishop from Turkey, using language sufficiently vague and misleading to leave uniformed readers with the imprecision that Saint Nicholas was a Turk.

Having declared Saint Nicholas Turkish national patrimony, the Turkish state has launched a campaign to take possession of the saint’s remains.  In a BBC piece, filed in December 2009, by Istanbul-based journalist, Jonathan Head, the writer noted that “even without the bones, the town of Demre has not been shy about cashing in on its most famous native son—today visitors to the Byzantine church there are greeted by a large, plastic Santa statue, complete with beard and red snow-suit.”  This vulgar, insulting statue was later removed from the grounds outside the Church of Saint Nicholas under pressure from the Russian government.  In January 2013, the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ertugul Gunay, told reporters about his government’s claims on the relics of Saint Nicholas and Ankara’s intention to build a “Santa Claus” museum in Demre: “When we build a museum in this town (Demre), naturally the first thing we will ask for are the remains of ‘Father Christmas.’  These bones should be exposed here and not in a city of pirates.”  The Turkish authorities’ casual assertion that holy relics can be transferred from a consecrated, sacred tomb and shrine to an entrance-fee secular museum, reveals either the cultural ignorance or the religious contempt for Christianity of Turkish officials—in either case, this fact makes clear why Turkey is unfit to take possession of the relics of Saint Nicholas.   

Since 2012, the Turkish government has enlisted the state scholar responsible for archeological research at Myra, Nezat Cevik, to lead the campaign for the “return” of Saint Nicholas’ relics to Turkey.  Cevik has, not surprisingly, urged Turkish state authorities to aggressively pressure both the Italian government and the Vatican, under the threat of financial retribution, to surrender Saint Nicholas’ relics to Turkey.  Curiously, Cevik, a professor at Akdeniz University, has ignored cultural or historical arguments to support Turkey’s demands.  Instead, Cevik has unabashedly emphasized the significance of Saint Nicholas’ relics in terms of tourism, commercialization, and profit, stating “the number of tourists visiting the church in Demre will drastically increase when the bones are returned.”                       

In principle, decent people everywhere may take umbrage with the way in which the Roman Catholic Church came into possession of most of the remains of Saint Nicholas.  In retrospect, however, decent people everywhere must also be grateful for the theft of those relics in 1087.  Had Bari’s sailors not made off with Saint Nicholas’ relics, where would those relics be today?  Perhaps we can answer that question by considering the fate of the tombs and remains of the hundreds of saints whose relics reposed amidst a vast thousand-year old Christian space filled by hundreds of monasteries and cathedrals, and tens of thousands of churches and parishes that covered Asia Minor before the arrival of the Turks.  We know where those tombs and relics, desecrated by Ottoman violence and intolerance or destroyed by Turkish nationalism, are—they have been cast into oblivion, as if they never existed.  Bari’s sailors justified their actions in Myra, and perhaps aimed to allay their possible latent guilt, by arguing that they stole the relics of Saint Nicholas in order to protect them from the advancing Turks.  We cannot know if such claims were sincere, but what is clear is that without such “piracy” we would have no relics of Saint Nicholas to revere today.                

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra remains in ruins, a casualty of Turkey’s longstanding, continuous campaign against Christianity.  “Secular” Turkey continues to seize historic Orthodox churches and turn them into mosques.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, its institutions, and the dwindling Orthodox Christian population remaining in Turkey continue to face religious persecution and harassment.  In occupied Cyprus, Turkey has conducted such a thorough and systematic campaign of religious and cultural cleansing against Christians and their historical patrimony that the Islamic State’s similar actions in Iraq and Syria almost pale in comparison. 

An unrepentant Turkey, which, only a century ago, murdered three million of its own citizens because they were Christians, is not a proper home for the sacred remains of the kind-hearted, selfless, giving man we, as Orthodox Christians, revere as Saint Nicholas, and the world loves as the jolly, sweet, joyous Santa Claus.  Given its history, and its unwillingness to come to terms with its own past and present, it is morally repugnant that Turkey would seek to profit from the bones of a yet another dead Christian.  Saint Nicholas may have lived and died in Myra, but Demre is a place to which he should never go, this Christmas, or any other time.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.