The ancient Byzantine church sits behind a scruffy shopping square in the Turkish coastal town of Demre, which feels an unlikely place to find one of the great sites of early Christianity.
It is hard to track down amid the cafes and stores. But after passing a friendly shopkeeper trying to flog me cheap leather bags, I descend steps polished by the footsteps of devout worshippers over centuries and enter a splendid domed building.
It is empty of pilgrims and eerily spiritual, redolent of ancient rites dating back many centuries. For this is the church of St Nicholas, built in the 6th Century to house the tomb of one of Christianity’s most influential figures. I see a stone altar surrounded by four broken pillars, faded murals on the walls, a rough patchwork of marble mosaics on the floor. Through an arch, a solitary candle burns beside a broken-topped sarcophagus.
A new discovery has thrown up a sensational possibility: that beneath Ian Birrell’s feet in Demre, Turkey, still lies the body of the gift-giving man who was the model for Santa Claus
This was believed to have housed the saint’s body before it was stolen by Italian raiders. But a new discovery has thrown up a sensational possibility: that beneath my feet still lies the body of the gift-giving man who was the model for Santa Claus.
Using radar, Turkish archaeologists preparing for restoration work have detected an intact tomb in the centre of this celebrated church. They believe it may have shifted below the surface during an earthquake shortly after the edifice was built.
‘There is a grave and it seems more magnificent, more special, than the ones in the church,’ said Cemil Karabayram, director of surveying and monuments in Turkey’s Antalya region. ‘Other priests’ graves were at the corners but this holy one is in the middle. The walls still stand so we think it is intact. This is a mystery since, although there was an earthquake, these walls look undamaged.’
He said the shrine – 10ft high and beside a water cistern – is inaccessible from above owing to the need to preserve this ancient site. It sits 5ft beneath the marble slabs on which I stand, buried in soil and rubble. ‘We are not saying there definitely is a body but we have data indicating that it may be there,’ said Karabayram. ‘I would be the happiest person on Earth if we find St Nicholas’s remains here.’
It is thought the saint was born 270 years after Christ’s birth in what was then Greek Anatolia
Next year his team plans to start burrowing from a neighbouring garden towards the sacred site. If their hopes are confirmed, this would be the original Santa’s grotto – and an amazing discovery for Turkey, early Christian history and fans of Christmas.
Demre is built on the ruins of Myra, the city where Nicholas is believed to have lived – although details of his life are sketchy and unsupported by documentation.
It is thought the saint was born 270 years after Christ’s birth in what was then Greek Anatolia. His wealthy parents died when he was young and, inspired by the message of Jesus, he sold all his possessions and distributed cash to the poor.
The most famous story about him told how he saved three impoverished young girls from a life of prostitution by tossing bags of gold through their window so they could afford to pay dowries to potential husbands. The gifts were definitely not delivered down the chimney since these did not come into use in Europe for another seven centuries. It has, however, since been claimed – with minimal evidence – that the gold landed in stockings hung up to dry by the girls.
It was also said Nicholas resurrected some boys who had been beheaded and pickled in barrels by an innkeeper, then spirited back another child stolen by Arab pirates. Such tales reinforced his reputation as someone showing exceptional kindness to children.
Scholars believe the monkish figure was one of only three people selected to be a bishop without prior ordination, later enduring exile and imprisonment during persecutions by Roman emperors before his death on December 6, 343.
This great church was completed in 520 to honour his work and host his tomb at the place where he preached as a bishop. But the area was struck nine years later by a huge earthquake. Soon this humble figure was being venerated as a saint, with stories circulating of miracles and remarkable acts of kindness he had performed. He became a patron of sailors and students, even bankers and murderers, as well as children.
He was so popular that medieval artists painted his image more than any other saint after the Virgin Mary. By the late Middle Ages, there were at least 400 churches in his name across England alone.
So why do some claim his body is in the Italian port of Bari? And how did this feisty 4th Century bishop, a doughty defender of Christian doctrine, come to be reincarnated in festive myth as a jolly fat man in red costume giving away gifts on Christmas Day?
First, let’s examine the body. Legend holds that the saint’s remains were stolen by the crews of three ships sent from Bari as the Byzantine empire crumbled before Muslim incursions in the 11th Century.
The ancient Byzantine church sits behind a scruffy shopping square in the Turkish coastal town of Demre, which feels an unlikely place to find one of the great sites of early Christianity
‘There may have been a genuine desire to protect the precious relics or it could just have been an opportunistic excuse to grab them,’ said Dr Georges Kazan, co-director of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre.
‘They smashed their way into the coffin and basically grabbed what they could. They especially wanted the head.’
The smugglers took the saint’s skull, parts of the pelvis and an armful of other bones back to Bari, where they are held in a crypt and supposedly ooze a sacred oil that aids healing. Some other body parts ended up in Venice.
Dr Kazan’s team is keen to carbon-test the Bari relics. They want to see if the parts match a pelvis fragment recently found to be from the 4th Century that was sold from a closed French convent to a collector in the United States.
But the Turkish team of archaeologists believe – based on ceramics and documents discovered in the Antalya area – the stolen corpse could have belonged to another cleric. ‘There were graves of other priests there as well as St Nicholas,’ said Karabayram. ‘I see St Nicholas as a symbol of love and friendship. Although my religion is Islam, I respect the values held in other religions. We are all one big family and to sow the seeds of peace we have to protect the values found in the timeline of our lands.’
Although Santa Claus beams down from one restaurant sign and is familiar from Hollywood films, he seems to mean little to locals beyond a boost for tourism
Although Santa Claus beams down from one restaurant sign and is familiar from Hollywood films, he seems to mean little to locals beyond a boost for tourism.
‘Here we have a St Nicholas who was real,’ said Ali Arslan, owner of a shop selling gilded icons. ‘In your country you have Santa Claus, ho ho ho and all that. He is not real – but it is a nice idea with families coming together and presents for kids.’
One man I spoke with assumed Santa was some kind of strange Christian guru. So how did Noel Baba, as Turks call St Nicholas, turn into our portly festive pin-up with his reindeer, sledge and shower of gifts for well-behaved children? For hundreds of years, gifts were exchanged amid celebrations on his birthday at the start of December. Yet he was an austere figure, encouraging children to say prayers and display decent manners to win their annual reward. After the Protestant Reformation, focus of the festivities shifted to the birth of Christ – but he was accompanied by a scary sidekick, still based on Saint Nicholas, such as the Dutch Sinterklaas or Germanic Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas).
By the 19th Century, the celebrations had become raucous, alcohol-fuelled affairs with drunken gangs invading homes and hurling firecrackers. So Christmas was reclaimed as a season of family values by the likes of Charles Dickens.
The modern character – bearded, plump and jolly – began to evolve in drawings, magazines and poems such as Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St Nicholas, published in 1823 and more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas. He was also popularised by companies such as a Philadelphia shop that used a life-size model, then famously by Coca-Cola while newspapers began publishing Christmas supplements. This sparked familiar complaints about commercialisation.
Having moved to the North Pole and conquered the United States, Santa bounced back to Europe as a softer version of those cruel fairytale characters from medieval times, taking on a local guise such as Father Christmas in Britain.
But not everyone bought into the paternalistic myth. The Russians replaced St Nick with Grandfather Frost, then Josef Stalin cloaked yuletide events in Soviet insignia. The Nazis ditched Santa for a pagan deity. Fidel Castro simply banned Christmas in Cuba.
But Santa survived such callous assaults. Now the big question is whether the body of his saintly inspiration lies beneath a Turkish church or in an Italian crypt. Just don’t tell the children he died almost 17 centuries ago.