25 December 2012

Stalking Turkish Santa Claus

This article appears in PORK #9, out now from Goblinko. Read it all here!

We drove out of the scrub-covered hills into a valley covered in greenhouses and dust. Everything was warped and bent in the July Mediterranean heat: the giant tan mountains to our left, the huge azure sea to our right, the palm trees and the battered red trucks and the squat concrete housing blocks. A week of 100 degrees and 90% humidity changes your brain chemistry, but not enough to explain what we saw next: a giant statue of Santa Claus in the middle of the roundabout.

We were in Demre, a sprawling farm town on the Turkish coast, with houses sprinkled amid a forest of greenhouses filled with vegetables and fruit. Except for the pictures of Santa Claus hanging everywhere, the 3-story concrete apartment blocks and shabby storefronts with blingy neon signs could be anywhere in Anatolia. But this town is special: a long time ago, when the town was called Myra, a young man named Nicholas was was appointed bishop of its Christian congregation. As bishop, Nicholas was known for giving secret gifts, saving the town from famine, and even getting tax breaks from the Emperor. He died on December 6, around 350 AD – and the legend of Saint Nicholas was born.

In Demre we parked and walked over to St. Nicholas’ church. It was ‘under restoration’ and covered in scaffolding. Built in the 9th century, it was part-ruined inside, with some nice Byzantine mosaics. For hundreds of years, the faithful came here to visit the Saint, whose bones oozed a magical healing liquid. Today Nicholas’ tomb is empty. It was smashed wide open in the year 1087, when passing Italian sailors took advantage of a recent Turkish invasion to break into the church, steal Nicholas’ skull and long bones, and bring them back to Bari, where he is now the patron saint. (Fortunately, the bones kept secreting the magical ‘manna’ in their new location. You can buy some today if you’re ever in Bari.) Batting cleanup, some Venetian sailors stopped by during one of the crusades a dozen years later and took the rest of the bones (mostly the small stuff) back to Venice.

We emerged from the coolness of the church into a stew of heat and humidity. Three Russian women were clustered around a statue of the saint, kissing its toes and muttering prayers while they nodded catatonically. In the square outside, the air of contemplation evaporated under an onslaught of souvenir shops covered in gaudy Cyrillic lettering: St. Nicholas is one of Russia’s most popular saints, Russian tourists have recently bought up big chunks of the Turkish coast, and so gift shop owners in Demre speak Russian now.

Across from the gift shops, of course, was another statue: this time a 12-foot high bronze Santa Claus, in his full fur suit and surrounded by children. The weathered inscription on the base commemorates the “International Santa Claus Activities of 1997”, with participants from 27 countries. It hurt my brain a little bit, imagining a gaggle of Japanese, Kazakh, and Finnish children running around this dusty Turkish farm town doing ‘Santa Claus activities’. (What were they doing? Giving presents? Sliding down chimneys? Deciding who’s naughty or nice?) 

Demre’s mayor, Süleyman Topcu, got into Santa in a big way about 10 years ago. The nearby coastline is gorgeous everywhere except Demre, so the northern European tourist hordes drove right through without stopping to spend their euros and rubles. (Demre does have some cool ancient cliff tombs, but those were nerds-only back then.) Topcu hit on Santa Claus as his town’s meal ticket. I imagine his internal dialogue was something like: “these tourists love Santa, and we have Santa’s motherfucking home town RIGHT HERE!!!” A few years later, the jolly fat man in the red fur suit stares down at you from lampposts and storefronts throughout the fierce Mediterranean summer. Even the city logo wasn’t spared.

Now keep in mind that Turks are Muslims (the drinking kind, but still), and have a pretty limited interest (like, none) in Christian holidays. This wasn’t going to get in the way of
Demre’s Santa boosters, however: the local Father Christmas foundation started a petition in 1997 to bring St. Nicholas’ bones back from Italy to their ‘rightful resting place.’ After all, Santa might have been from here, but having a (literal) piece of the guy would be much better marketing. The Turkish government did the locals one better in 2009. As part of its campaign to get some of Turkey’s more spectacular archaeological finds (like Priam’s treasure or the Pergamon Altar) back from the countries that looted them in the 19th century, the Minister of Culture demanded that Italy return the Saint’s bones to their original resting place. Archaeologist Professor Nevat Çevik said that everyone should respect St. Nick’s wishes: “he would have said ‘bury me in Bari’ if he wanted to… the remains should be back in his grave so that St. Nicholas can rest in peace.”

Of course, no law covers 900-year old cases of body snatching. The Turkish side also underestimates how crucial magical monastic mummies and saintly skeleton secretions are to Italian Catholicism. There is, in fact, a complete lack of mummies or skeletons on display in your typical mosque. So the repatriation request was always doomed to fail. But Demre has succeeded in roping in tourism: over 400,000 people visited the ‘Father Christmas ruins’ last year, and an endless parade of Russian girls in bikinis and heels mince around the once lonely cliff tombs striking dramatic poses. Local gift shop owners have become experts on sourcing St. Nicholas icons from Chinese factories, and are happy.

For our part, an hour in Demre was quite enough: we drove off into the heat haze, and quickly found some jungle ruins with a much better beach.

21 December 2012

Apocalypse blah

I know, I know. It’s December 21, 2012, this is a blog about archaeology and popular culture, and I’m supposed to say something witty about how the world hasn’t ended yet. But to tell you the truth I’ve always been bored to death by the nonexistent ‘Mayan’ ‘Apocalypse’, because it’s so stupid. The Maya Calendar is just… a calendar. The world doesn’t end on the New Year, or Chinese New Year, or the Age of Aquarius, or the millenium. And, as far as I can tell, no one really believed the ‘apocalypse 2012’ thing anyway (unlike the Y2K hysteria).

I’ve heard second-hand that there’s a lot of hippy freaks running around the pyramids in the Yucatán this last week, and there's lots of amusing tidbits out there if you care to look:

A Mexican Indian seer who calls himself Ac Tah, and who has traveled around Mexico erecting small pyramids he calls "neurological circuits," said he holds high hopes for Dec. 21. "We are preparing ourselves to receive a huge magnetic field straight from the center of the galaxy," he said.
There's also some action at a pyramid in Serbia (!)
In Serbia, the place to be is the southeastern, pyramid-shaped Rtanj mountain, rumored to be spared when the rest of the world turns to rubble.

Local residents are cashing in, with hotels being booked out by visitors.

Darko, a 28-year-old designer visiting from Belgrade, told the AFP news agency: "I do not really believe that the end of the world is coming, but it is nice to be here in case something unusual happens."
The Huffington Post liveblog has much more like this:

Stay classy, New York Post
All this seems like a good way to fill up a slow news day (and a slow hotel season): the HuffPo has it right when they described it as a ‘worldwide frenzy of advertisers and new agers'. An unholy alliance if there ever was one.

The only people handling this thing with any dignity are actual Maya communities. Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú has declared that Maya communities will speak tomorrow with their take on the new calendrical era and what it means for humanity. Stay tuned. In the meantime enjoy those magnetic fields.

10 December 2012

Berlusconi: the Mummy Returns

"Return of the Mummy": French daily Libération's snide comment on Silvio Berlusconi's return to Italian politics (after announcing his retirement at least 1000000 times). Not that he will win, but maybe there'll be some undead bunga-bunga.

Stolen from Luca Pareschi's Facebook feed (Grazie, caro!)

09 December 2012

Pharaoh Morsi

Revolutions always spawn great graffiti. Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian prime minister, was mocked as 'pharaoh' for his seizure of dictatorial emergency powers (now, apparently, cancelled - or maybe not?)
I love this stencil.
Via the Guardian
Here's a couple more caricatures in the same vein from around the webs:

This one is from the US Republican Party! Their newfound dislike of Egyptian dictators is charming, let's hope it keeps up.

And another from the Temple of Mut blog.

02 December 2012

Hard truths about North Korea's unicorn lair

I SO wish (Gawker)
"North Korean archaeologists discover unicorn lair" is maybe the best lede ever. Yesterday this amazing press release from North Korea got splattered all over the interwebs: 
Pyongyang, November 29 (KCNA) -- Archaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences have recently reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo Kingdom (B.C. 277-A.D. 668). The lair is located 200 meters from the Yongmyong Temple in Moran Hill in Pyongyang City. A rectangular rock carved with words "Unicorn Lair" stands in front of the lair. The carved words are believed to date back to the period of Koryo Kingdom (918-1392).
The 'unicorn' in this case is a Kirin, a chimera-like beast common to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean mythologies. The Kirin is right up therein the power rankings with dragons and phoenixes, and has a very decent beer named after it.
Maltier than your average unicorn
Like everything in North Korea, bad translation + opaque political posturing = wackiness. But as Sixiang Wang notes at sci-fi blog IO9:
The English release poorly translated the name of a historical location, Kiringul, as "Unicorn Lair," a very evocative name for Westerners. But in Korean history, the name Kiringul has a rather different significance. Kiringul is one of the sites associated with King Tongmyŏng, the founder of Koguryŏ, an ancient Korean kingdom. The thrust of the North Korean government's announcement is that it claims to have discovered Kiringul, and thus to have proven that Pyongyang is the modern site of the ancient capital of Koguryŏ.
The mausoleum of Tyongmong (Japan Focus
Koguryo is one of these kingdoms, like Troy, Camelot, or Israel, that is kind of legendary, kind of historical, and also key to national identity. The kingdom left archaeological traces from Manchuria (in China) through the Korean peninsula and has been claimed by all three countries. There are over 10,000 Koguryo tombs, many with cool wall paintings. In 2002, South Korea and China traded accusations about the theft of two of these murals from a tomb in North Korea. China and North Korea competed to claim Koguryo on the World Heritage List first, giving UNESCO a giant headache which it solved by putting the Chinese and North Korean sites on the list at the same time in 2004. Adding to the complication, some people think the (long extinct) Koguryo language might have been related to Japanese. The political machinations remind me a little of the struggle over Philip of Macedon's tomb at Vergina (Greece), which has variously been claimed as Greek, Macedonian, Albanian, or Bulgarian heritage.

The Kiringul 'Unicorn Lair' (via IO9)
North Korea, mind you, has a history of weirdo nationalist archaeology (which also suits South Korean nationalists) and of associating its rulers with magical powers. The fact that the 'lair' happens to be in Pyongyang strengthens North Korea's claims to be the inheritor of Korean history, and as Wang speculates in that IO9 article, its claims that Kim Jong Un is the latest in a line of superhuman rulers.
Moon and Sun dieties from a Koguryo tomb (Japan Focus)
The hard truth about the unicorn lair: it's more politics than cheerful insanity. I wish it was the other way around.

Read MOAR:

No, the North Korean government did not claim it found evidence of unicorns [IO9]
The contested heritage of Koguryo [Japan Focus]
North Korean archaeology of convenience [Far Outliers]

Post scriptum: I love that a science fiction blog has the web's best coverage of an archaeology story. For more on the connections between the two, read: Archaeology is Science Fiction. And don't miss:  more unicorn coverage on Archaeopop.