„Icons and Souvenirs,“ proclaims a signboard in Russian at the small shop in Demre / Myra. Beside it is a handwritten cardboard sign in German: „6 postcards 1 Euro“. At the next stall someone tries to sell us a wacky St Nicholas fridge magnet for 1 Dollar. Myra, a small town in southern Turkey, gives a cosmopolitan impression. And indeed during the summer season every day up to 3000 tourists from all over the world visit Myra to see the place where St Nicholas spent his life.
Myra was one of the biggest early Christian communities in Asia Minor. The historical St Nicholas is said to be born in the nearby city of Patara around the end of the 3rd century AD and after his ordination became bishop of Myra.
His kindness and generosity, but especially his miracles, won him the admiration of his contemporaries. Among other things he rescued local sailors from a dangerous tempest, but his most famous deed did not require any supernatural skills: Secretly he gave enough gold to three poor girls to finance their dowry, thus saving them from prostitution. After his death, Myra quickly became a pilgrimage destination and Nicholas himself one of the most popular saints. He is the patron saint of children and sailors, but also of New York and Moscow. During the upheavals of the crusades, Italian merchants brought the relics from Myra to Bari, where they are still revered today.
The rise of Santa Claus, and why he doesn’t visit Myra anymore
St Nicholas meanwhile merged with the northern European Father Christmas to an American-style Santa Claus. But Santa’s padded suit would definitely be to warm for Myra, where temperatures now, at the beginning of December, still reach 20 degrees Celsius during the day.
No less than three different statues of St Nicholas compete for the visitors’ attention. On a pedestal in the centre of town, a red and corpulent Santa Claus swings his bell. Until last year a bronze figure showing St Nicholas as an orthodox bishop had occupied his space. He was ousted by the American because of Santa’s higher “international recognition”. The orthodox St Nicholas, donated by the mayor of Moscow, has now found asylum inside the St Nicholas Basilica itself. Not far from it, the oldest statue in Myra looks like a 19th century German Father Christmas surrounded by a band of happy children.
Five times a day, the muezzin’s call can be heard in the orange plantations and between the tomato greenhouses. There is no Christian community in Myra any more, but the locals are proud of “their” saint. And anyway, we have found on our travels that a formal adherence to Christianity does not always regulate the depiction of saints, either. In Mexico, we were rather thrilled at the grisly depiction of both Mexican gods and Christian saints…
Visiting the church of St Nicholas in Myra
“Of course he was a holy man”, Turgut argues: “He lived before Mohammed, and after all, religion is a question of the heart.”
Turgut has wound a purple bandana round his head and is wearing a waistcoat with too many pockets. He and his workmen are just building the new entrance structure at the Southern side of the church. On this side, the roof is missing.
In the past five years, the Byzantine frescoes in this part have been restored. The walls around are provisionally canopied with plastic sheets. Due to the construction work, the area is still off limits.
Luckily, the street level has risen considerably since the 7th century when the church was built. Thus, we bend over from the pavement trying to catch some glimpses of the frescoes between the plastic plane and the walls. Turgut is balancing towards us on the top of the 2m high wall while talking about Santa Claus. “Give me your camera”, he offers. And then drops it carelessly in one of his waistcoat pockets before crawling back to the frescoes.
Still watching him anxiously – Turgut is well over fifty, stout, and doesn’t appear overly fit – we notice someone else beckoning us around the “no entrance” sign. He belongs to the museum staff and is proud to show us the newly restored frescoes. Many of them of course show scenes from the life of St Nicholas. Meanwhile, Turgut has also reappeared with our camera and some close-up photos from the upper frescoes. ホッと。