05 July 2010

Santa Claus lives by the beach

(hispic cafe)
If you grew up in a northern European cultural environment, Santa Claus definitely lives in a cold climate. Reindeer, fur suit, snow, sleigh, Coca Cola, et cetera. Something like the picture above. (Which was taken in July, in Japan, of course.)

So being confronted with the historical St. Nicholas is a bit bizarre. He was the bishop of Myra, today's Demre on Turkey's southern coast. Demre's a flat fairly unexciting agricultural town, one of those places you pass through on the way to somewhere else. But it does have a central attraction: the church of St. Nicholas (and his original burial spot), which got 395,000 visitors in 2009 according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Jenny and I stopped by last month on our way to somewhere with more beach and better scenery.

The church is mostly obscured by this hideous roof, presumably built for 'conservation' purposes.

The choir and altar.

There's been some controversy about the site lately. The Turkish government changed the name of the site from "St. Nicholas Church" to "Father Christmas Museum" (Noel Baba Müzesi) last year, in what some people see as a stab at Christianity. The new name is certainly stupid because what you see is a semi-ruined medieval church with some nice Byzantine frescos. No reindeer, fir trees, or jolly fat men with beards.

The new name of the church made me expect a nonstop Santa Claus kitsch explosion, but there is in fact a totally different kind of kitsch - a long chain of Russian icon shops! St. Nicholas is actively venerated year-round by devout Russian orthodox, and there were indeed women praying at the statue near the entrance to the Church.

A visitor prays to St. Nick.

Shops packed with icons and other goodies oriented to the Russian market.

There's also a statue of St. Nick set up by the Antalya Santa Claus foundation celebrating the "International Santa Claus Activities" of 1998. Sounds weird but I'm sure it was fun for the international crowd of youth participants. Am kinda curious what they did! 

This brings us to a less-known story about the Turkish med coast: it's now dominated by Russian tourists, who are famous for wandering around archaeological sites in absurdly scanty bikinis (yes, the men too) and sometimes high heels. It's amusing that Russia should finally get the warm water port the czars dreamed of for centuries - but in the form of Antalya's endless holiday villages.

St. Nicholas is no longer buried in Demre. Some sneaky Italians stole his bones in an undercover operation in 1087 and brought them to Bari, from where they may or may not have been stolen and brought to England, Germany, or Venice. Last Christmas Nezdat Çevik of Akdeniz University, who excavates at Demre, and Antalya Museum director Cumali Ayabakan teamed up to request repatriation of "Santa's Bones" from Bari:

Çevik reiterated St. Nicholas’s remarks in which he said, “I was born here, raised here and I will be buried here.” The professor added that “we should respect the wish of St. Nicholas. The bones should be brought back to his grave in Demre.”

Çevik has also urged state authorities to take steps to contact their Italian counterparts. “The ministries should work to move the bones back to Turkey.” The scholar also emphasized the significance of St. Nicholas’s grave in terms of tourism and said that the number of tourists visiting the church in Demre will drastically increase when the bones are returned.

It's interesting that here, repatriation is not tied to sentimental concerns about colonialism or the spirits of the ancestors, but rather to the chance to generate cash from tourists. As repatriation becomes more mainstream, it also seems to be attracting preposterous proposals like this.

Recently the Koç Foundation - run by Turkey's richest industrialist family - has taken over some aspects of site management at the church. Judging by this sign, the former funders - the World Monuments Fund and the Samuel H. Kress foundation - have suffered a damnatio memoriae. I'm dying to know the back story on this one.


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