Get immediate info for our deals and offers
Saint Nicholas was born in Greco-Roman Lycia, an area now part of modern-day Turkey. During his life, Constantine became Emperor, following Diocletian who had persecuted Christians, including Nicholas. Explore now.
Thousands of tourists from all over the world flock
to Demre (formerly Myra) searching for the roots of Saint Nicholas. They come as pilgrims, especially from Russia—up to sixty bus loads a day during the peak season—where Saint Nicholas is revered as patron and a father of Orthodox faith. The beautiful beaches and warm weather along the Mediterranean coast also draw visitors from both Eastern and Western Europe. They may come to Demre as pilgrims, or, out of curiosity, wondering about the origin of Santa Claus, who is called Noel Baba or Father Christmas in Turkey.
Vendors’ stalls and shops are jam-packed with a vast array of St.
Nicholas icon images offered in stone, weavings, wax, and metal. They are found as medals, bookmarks, plates, figurines, and icons. Rug dealers hawk his image in several sizes and many colors. Icon images greatly outnumber Santa-types, giving silent testimony to the numbers of Christian, particularly Orthodox, pilgrims.
Saint Nicholas was born in Greco-Roman Lycia, an area now part of modern-day Turkey. During his life, Constantine became Emperor, following Diocletian who had persecuted Christians, including Nicholas. Christianity then flourished, replacing Greek and Roman Pagan deities, becoming the primary religion. However, after the Seljuk Turks’ conquest
(11th–13th centuries) and with the Ottoman Empire’s long reign (14th–20th centuries), the dominant religion in this land, evangelized by the Apostle Paul, became Islam. Today, after the expulsion of Greek Christians in 1922, 99.8%*of Turkish people are Muslim, though Turkey is officially a secular state.
In the early 1950s Turks realized that the Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, was none other than the western world’s Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Just as the good saint had brought pilgrims to Myra, and later to Bari, Italy, it was hoped he would again attract tourists and pilgrims with their lira, euros, and dollars.
Turkey issued a Santa Claus stamp in 1955, drawing further attention to St. Nicholas’ relationship to this place. Since 1981 regular events somewhat related to the good saint have been held under the sponsorship of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Anatalyan governor’s office. The first Father Christmas Symposium, held in 1983, has become an annual event, lasting about a week over the 6th of December, St. Nicholas Day. Religious and scientific people come from many countries for the Activities for World Peace with Santa Claus, including the Santa Claus Peace Award. This led to the establishment in 1991 of the Santa Claus Foundation to promote peace, friendship and brotherhood.
For many years an Orthodox liturgy was held in the Church of St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, St. Nicholas Day. This was the only service held in the church and it was not allowed from 2002-2006. Government permission was again granted in 2007. However, in January 2008 the name of the St. Nicholas Church (Aziz Nicholas Kilisesi) was officially changed to Father Christmas Museum (Noel Baba Müzesi). The 2016 service was celebrated by Metropolitan Hristomos Kalayci.
A first ever Easter ritual was held in the museum (church) in 2011. The ritual, led by a priest of the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, was attended by around 600 people from various countries, including Greece.
Beginning in 2009 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has encouraged tourism companies to partner with a destination wedding company to promote Demre as a wedding site. The International St. Nicholas in Demre, Antalya, Wedding Festival offers a week-long schedule of activities, including Turkish traditions, culminating with a joint group (10-25 couples) civil, not religious, wedding ceremony in the Demre St. Nicholas “museum” on December 6th.
In today’s predominantly Muslim Turkey, commercial interests promote Santa Claus to encourage gift giving at New Year’s. So Western Santa, Noel Baba, is sometimes seen in shopping areas, on the streets, or in schools. Saint Nicholas is remembered in the land of his birth as a person who cared for all people, especially children. He is appreciated for his caring, humanitarian values, and also because he gives a boost to tourism and the economy.
St. Nicholas Church
The church to honor Saint Nicholas and contain his tomb was built in AD 520 on the foundations of the older Christian church where Saint Nicholas served as bishop. Over time the river changed course and the church filled with silt and was buried (the pictures show it is fifteen-to-twenty feet below ground level). In 1862 Russian Tsar Nicholas I restored the church, adding the tower and making other changes to its Byzantine architecture. The church is regarded as the 3rd most important Byzantine structure
in Anatolia. It is noted for the remarkable wall frescos, its architectural and its religious significance. The northeast annex arcade contains the only example of the Nicholas cycle in Turkey. These photos are from 2005 and 2009, taken by J. Rosenthal, M. Porter and C. Myers. Click for larger views.
Several tombs have been alleged to have been St. Nicholas’ original tomb. The one on the left is often identified as the original tomb, as the side is smashed, however, the cover shows two figures, neither a clergy person. The middle one is also damaged, with a broken top, and sometimes identified as the correct tomb.
The tomb below is also named as St. Nicholas’ original tomb.
Tsar Nicholas I, who restored the church in 1862, had the Troparion to St. Nicholas carved into stone and placed over this tomb.
The northeast aisle arcade was opened to the public in 2009 (it wasn’t open when we visited in May 2009—a boy helped by taking photos with my camera through the space underneath the locked doors at each end). The aisle has many frescos from the 12th century, including some of the life cycle of Saint Nicholas—the earliest and only such cycle to have survived in Antalya.
The restoration of the church, and particularly the wall paintings, has been carried out with support from the Antalya Administration (2002),
the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (2001), the World Monuments Fund—Samuel H. Kress Foundation (2000), and most recently by the Aristotle S. Onassis and Vehbi Koç foundations (2003–2006). The site was included in the World Heritage List in 1982. The work of inventorying the murals and architectural spaces is carried out by the Conservation of Historic Buildings and Architecture under the direction of architect Cengiz Kabaonlu. Preservation and restoration is under the direction of T. Ridvan Isler. Historian Nilay Karakaya, Erciyes University, analyzes and interprets the wall paintings that have been recorded and restored. Professor Yildiz Otüken, Hacettepe University, Ankara, is Director of the excavations and publishes the reports.