St. Nicholas Church: A Museum for History Lovers with an Interest in Early Christianity

Guests joining us on our Kekova route cruises often take a land-tour to visit the St. Nicholas Church located in the heart of Demre in Antalya province. The ancient church site (now a museum) was added to the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1982 and welcomes over half a million pilgrims and visitors each year.

The Byzantine church was originally used as a house of worship for Orthodox Christians between the 5th and 12th centuries, and is most notable for being the church where Saint Nicholas of Myra was a consecrated bishop. Who exactly was St. Nicholas of Myra? He was an Eastern Orthodox bishop born in nearby Patara in the 4th century, but is more commonly known as Santa Claus.

The grey-stone building sits in a depression which is several meters deep, and is surrounded by well-tended gardens and several modern-day statues portraying the many faces of St. Nicholas – including his roles as priest and bishop, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus. Faded frescoes depicting various religious scenes and the story of St. Nicholas' life cover the interior walls. Marble columns and vaulted ceilings give the space an open and airy feeling, and intricate mosaic tiles (dating to the 11th century) line the floor. There are several sarcophagi in the church, including one believed to have been the Saint's tomb.

The present day building is not the original church on the site. The building we see today was built on the foundation of an older church after St. Nicholas died (December 6, 343) to protect his tomb and honour his memory.

Unfortunately, in 1087, tomb raiders from Bari desecrated the tomb believed to contain the remains of St. Nicholas and took the bones to Italy, leaving an empty sarcophagus in the church. (Interestingly, no one is sure where St. Nicholas was buried, so there is still a degree of uncertainty that the remains the grave robbers took were actually those of much beloved St. Nick!)

As with many ancient buildings in the Mediterranean, weather, earthquakes, floods and war took their toll. The basilica was destroyed and restored several times in 8th and 9th century, including major rebuilds by Constantine IX in 1043 and Tsar Nicholas I in 1862. Repeated flooding with silty water from the Demre River eventually buried church and surrounding area several meters underground. The church was most recently re-discovered in 1956 during excavation near the main square in Demre, and has drawn significant attention from archaeologists, historians, religious experts and the curious public ever since.

A small relic box containing a few bone fragments which are believed to have been left behind by the Bari grave-robbers is on display in the Antalya Archaeological Museum, but no laboratory testing has been performed to confirm their authenticity.

Relic box containing bone fragments and a small painting of St. Nicholas of Myra

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Great Sources of Additional Information about Turkey's St. Nicholas Church