Pilgrimage to St Nicholas
One of the most extraordinary sights we came across in Turkey was the pilgrimage church of St Nicholas in Demre (ancient Myra).
There is a long association of St Nicholas with the town. He was Bishop of Myra, and died there on 6 December 343. His church became a pilgrimage church, centred around his relics -- until in the eleventh century the relics were nicked (pardon pun) and taken to Bari, where they still are.
The saint was still a ghostly presence in Demre, but recently the touristic allure of the place, was as the birthplace of Father Christmas, rather than as the shrine of a more sober orthodox saint. In fact those in our party who had visited the place a few years ago remembered the Father Christmas side of it. That is still visible in some of the old adornments, such as this (right) Santa Claus plus three grateful children - though the bakelite version (on the left) that used to stand there has apparently been removed, or at least moved..
It's quite different. The whole place is literally heaving with pious Russian pilgrims, each of whom is shuffling past a coffin, protected by a glass screen, which does not contain the relics of St Nicholas anyway.
We arrived quite early in the morning, and by the time we left around 11.30, there must have been thousands of the faithful already passed through.
It has clearly completely changed the town, where now every shop is geared to Russians, the orthodox church and the Russian language.
What I could not help wondering was how to explain it. I dont think it is being too cynical to says that it can hardly be a spontaneous outpouring of modern Russian piety. Someone is driving it. Someone is providing the pilgrimage packages and making money out of the coaches in which the faithful arrive. But beyond some combination of Mr Putin and the local Chamber of Commerce, we didnt get far on the cui bono question.
What is clear is that others are hoping for a slice of the action. We went also went to visit Gemiler (St Nicholas) Island -- which certainly has a connection with the Saint (one of the churches in the place is dedicated to him), but how strong was a bit uncertain. One idea is that this is actually the place he died and was originally buried.
Be that as it may, there is more to this place that the late antique pilgrimage site that it is claimed to be. The archaeologists in the party thought it looked more like a little late antique town (and they rather felt that one of the so-called churches there wasnt actually a church at all).
The most impressive thing of all though was a long covered ramp leading up some from point unknown near the shore to very close to the church at the top. It's a massive piece of skilled building work (it reminded me a bit of the Palatine ramp in Rome), but what on earth was it for??
If you plan to go, I would make it soon. The fabric is in a very ropey state and looks like it will be very dangerous very soon. Try this vault. It will need more than St Nicholas to keep this in the air.