Monday, September 10, 2012

Kas trip: Finding Santa Claus in Demre

We took a long-awaited vacation (and as it turned out, honeymoon) to southern Turkey and Greece a couple of weeks ago. I may be down on Istanbul, but Turkey is amazing, and nowhere more so than Kas. It also happens to be where Cagatay and I first met. :)

On our first full afternoon, we took a little roadtrip to the city of Demre, which is about 45 minutes or so from Kas. Once upon a time, Demre was known as Myra, and Myra was where St. Nicholas (otherwise known as Santa Claus) was bishop in the late third/early fourth centuries. There are two St.Nick-related sites in the area: the Church of St. Nicholas, which was built in his memory about two centuries after his death, and the Lycian ruins of the ancient city of Myra.

We started with the Church of St. Nicholas, which is smack in the middle of the dusty modern town. According to the information sign in front of the church, the current building was constructed in the ninth or 10th centuries after being damaged by either earthquake or attackers, and the building was added onto in successive centuries. I've heard that the site can be overrun with Russian tourists (apparently he's a very popular saint with them), but I've been there twice now -- both times in the late afternoon -- and had it almost completely to myself. The building definitely feels like a ruin, but it's really lovely -- there are some gorgeous frescoes on the walls and ceilings, some of which detail the life of St. Nicholas, and here and there, stuffed between rocks or thrown into his broken tomb, you'll find little notes that people have left for the saint. [The tomb was broken in the 11th century when Italian sailors stole the remains of St. Nicholas -- they now lie in Bari and, apparently, Venice.]

The photo below is not of his tomb -- that's a different broken one. The frescoes above it are from the 12th century, I do believe.

After we explored the church, we got back in the car and drove the two kilometers or so, past all of the greenhouses that characterize this area of Turkey, to the ruins of ancient Myra. When I was here two years ago, I had taken the bus to Demre, and I decided to walk to the ruins from the church -- in the July heat. That was a mistake. (On the way back, a very kind family gave me a lift -- I suppose they could see I had totally wilted.)

The ancient ruins at Myra are some of the greatest in Turkey, and they're especially beautiful in the late afternoon light. There's actually not much to these ruins, just an amphitheater, Lycian tombs at eye level, and a bunch of carved theater masks lying around. But they really are amazing. Technically, they don't really have anything to do with St. Nicholas -- Lycia was annexed to the Roman Empire in 43 AD, but still, he was the bishop of Myra and this was a part of Myra.

After Myra and on the way back to Kas, we stopped at the ruins of Andriake, just outside of Demre -- we had seen them from the roads on the way in and stopped out of curiosity. These ruins are on a reedy little river, but this was once the site of Myra's successful port -- a lot of Turkey's ancient port cities were eventually reduced in importance when nature clogged up the waterways. According to a sign at Myra (and Internet sources), Paul, Luke and Aristarchus stopped here on their way from Caesarea to Rome, where Paul was to have a trial before Caesar.

Andriake is not formally open to tourists, from what I gathered -- at every archaeological site I've been to in Turkey, there's an entry point where you pay a fee (and you always have to pay a fee). At Andriake, there was nothing -- no info signs, no custodians, just some archaeologists working in one section. So we parked the car and just walked around, making our way among the goats who were also enjoying the site.

From what little I've been able to find online, the Andriake excavations first began in 2009; that year, a synagogue with more than 200 artifacts were discovered, an important find because of "a paucity of information regarding the Jews in the Roman province of Lycia and Pamphylia," according to an academic paper on Andriake's synagogue. (It starts on p.335 in the linked document, if you're interested). However, on our own, we weren't able to find the synagogue -- while we saw some columns indicating something like a temple, the only thing we could really figure out was the huge storehouse, the Horrea Hadriani or Granarium. It was apparently built in the second century BC.

Above and to the right is the Granarium. Up close, you can see the word Caesaris carved into the stone above one of the doorways, along with a bust of two people, apparently Emperor Hadrian and Empress Sabina.

And that was that. On the way back, we were treated to a stunning view of the sunset as we were just above Kas:

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