Monday, March 07, 2016

Myra - Modern Demre in Turkey - The home of Nicholas

I have been asked to post a few more pictures of Demre in Turkey I visited there with a tour group I led in 2010. 1700 years ago it was the Greek-Roman town of Myra, in ancient Lycia and the place where a young Christian Bishop named Nicholas would shepherd this flock and gain a kind of fame after his death he could never have imagined.

Like most tours it was a hurried visit and my pictures are limited. I hope to return and spend a day there when next I visit Turkey.

While not in Myra proper, these rock cut tombs are just outside the ancient city and are fascinating The are carved from rock and often have the facades carved to resemble a house. These come from about the 4C B.C.

The entry to Demre's town square is an interesting story. It is a microcosmic of the modern struggle of how a Turkish Muslim state comes to grips with a Christian hero and the money tourism brings.  For many years this statue, a gift from Russia, stood in the town center (it now sits outside the church)

However, when my daughter visited Demre in 2005, it had been replaced by the town council with a less religious one...universally decried as tacky and hideous.

That statue is, thankfully, gone and this one sits in it's place is another that downplays Nicholas' religious role.

Far and away, my favorite is this 1981 statue than now sits in front of the church.

The St. Nicholas Church (now renamed a museum) is the main focus of tourism in the town. It is not from Nicholas's time (~310-350 A.D.), but built in 520 A.D. to commemorate Nicholas (who was a Christian rock star by then)  and probably house his remains in a sarcophagus.  
The church has been covered to protect it from the elements and is in relatively good shape for it's age.  In 1862 it was restored by Russian Tzar Nicholas I.

This is probably a good place to mention that there is one thing Demre has a lot of: Russian tourists. The place is overrun with them. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia. With a growing Russian middle class who can travel and the resurgence of Orthodox Christianity, many Russian pilgrims want to visit the church and the day of our visit it was packed with them.

Like most churches of that era, it was covered with frescoes and many are reasonably well preserved.

This fresco in the dome seems to be a history of Nicholas' life.

Including this one, who some take to be Nicholas next to the Emperor.

Let me say the the Orthodox view these sites with great reverence, but in some odd ways (at least to me). Many young Russian women (IMHO) tend to dress like their out clubbing while on tours. Apparently, no one told then that high, pointed heels are not needed when touring sacred, archaeological sites. Many of the Russians has a short ritual when they stood before the altar, said a short prayer, and laid some money on the altar. Some seems under-dressed for the occasion.

One more note about the church. This is almost certainly the church that Nicholas' remains were housed in. During a time when the Byzantine empire was faltering and expansionist Islam was on the rise, sailors from the Italian town of Bari stormed the town (1087 A.D.), broke into the sarcophagus, swiped the bones, and took them to Bari, where they remain today. There is s sarcophagus in the church that many venerate was the place Nicholas was buried. Russian tourists surrounded it, touched it, wiped clothes in it through a small opening. The bottom is broken open. I couldn't get a good picture of it.

However, if you look closely, you can see that on the top of the sarcophagus is the figure of a man AND women. Perhaps the original lid was replaced, but most doubt this was Nicholas' burial sarcophagus.

If Nicholas' sarcophagus remains in the church, it would be this ignored one:

One final location. Just west of Myra was the port of Andriace. Now silted in and marshy, Paul changed ships there on this way to Rome (Acts 27:5). The Emperor Hadrian had built a large grain storage facility there, for storage of grain from both Egypt and Asia Minor that could be used as the empire needed.

The port and the granaries would fit into several stories involving Nicholas and give a bit of a historical basis for at least a couple of the legends that sprung up around him.

And while the town center was filled with Russians and shops stuffed with icons...

...I could find only one lone German tourist at the port.