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Turkey's Ancient Town of Myra: the Home of Santa Claus

Demre, Turkey - South-west Turkey is home to the early Christian legend of St Nicholas. Nicholas is thought to have lived in the fourth century and was the Bishop of the ancient town of Myra. The town was part of the Lycian League and visitors to the nearby town of Demre can still find plenty of evidence of the region's ancient past. Myra was once located directly on the coast and according to legend St Paul set sail from here to Rome where he was martyred. The ruins of the early Middle Ages basilica on the edge of Demre are a reminder of the first burial place of Bishop Nicholas.

The remains of the saint have long since been removed and the sarcophagus in the basilica is empty. Nicholas's body was transferred to the basilica of San Nicola in Bari in southern Italy. When Muslim invaders occupied the region of Lycia the remains of Christian saints were spirited away.
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In the year 1087 a group of Italian seafarers and merchants formed an expedition and landed on the coast at Myra. They made their way into the almost completely deserted town, robbed St Nicholas' remains and took them to Bari.

"We get many Russian visitors here in Demre," says businessman Hassan Ocal. "They are here because of the saint and take home small sacks of earth in his memory." Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia and of the Orthodox church.

For Turks, on the other hand, he has no religious significance even though they are paying for restoration work on the basilica in Myra. Tourists who travel here from the seaside resorts of Antalya are shown the basilica and the other ancient sights the area has to offer.

Among them are the amphitheatre, remains of an acropolis and a large grain store. Of special interest are the tombs cut into the cliffs.

The German archaeologist Juergen Borchardt spent the years 1965 to 1968 carrying out excavations in Myra and did much towards uncovering the ancient basilica. Today, visitors can wonder at the floor mosaics and the restored frescos. The oldest church in Myra was built in the sixth century above the bishop's grave. The foundations of the present day building date back to the ninth century.

"Nicholas is actually a blend of two historical figures: the bishop of Myra who probably lived in the fourth century and the identically-named abbot of Sion who was also the bishop of Pinora and who died in Lycia on 10 December 564," explains the German Catholic theologian Manfred Becker-Huberti. "From these two historic clerics developed the invented figure of the powerful bishop of Myra from the sixth century onwards."

The initiator of the Protestant reformation Martin Luther forbid veneration of St Nicholas and transferred his function as present bringer to the figure of the Christ child. Catholics, on the other hand, have maintained St Nicholas's role.

"The Dutch Protestant reformers stayed loyal to their St Nicholas," explains Berker-Huberti. When Dutch settlers travelled to the Americas and founded New Amsterdam (today's New York) they celebrated the figure of "Sinterklass." It is from this person that we have our modern day Father Christmas, Santa Claus, who is known all over the world.
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