St. Nicholas Church, Demre, Turkey

When visiting Demre in Turkey, a recommended stop is St. Nicholas Church (now Santa Claus Museum), where you can visit the original resting place of St Nicholas of Myra.

Who exactly is St. Nicholas and why is he celebrated? Well, who hasn’t heard of jolly old Saint Nick? You may be surprised to hear that St. Nicholas is the real face behind the legend of Santa Claus (Sinterklaas in Dutch). Many people are unaware that this influential patron saint resided in this region, and most notably served as the Greek bishop of Myra, the former ancient city that is known as Demre in modern-day Turkey.

Initially a priest, Nicholas was appointed bishop following the death of the former, having been the first to pray in the church where he subsequently served. St. Nicholas was exceptionally loved and well-regarded due to his generosity, goodwill, and concern for others. He was an influential man, who understood early on in his life that he had a higher duty to fulfil. Although not a lot is known about his early life, his reputation has led to many stories and legends about the so-called miracles he performed.

The Miracle of the Grain:

Legend has it that St. Nicholas once saved the city from hunger when crop failure threatened the welfare of the Lycian people. Hearing that ships bound for Egypt had docked at the harbour of Myra, Nicholas negotiated with the captain to obtain grain from each of the ships. Initially hesitant because the loads had been measured, the captain was reassured by Nicholas that he would not encounter any issues, leading to the captain agreeing to his request. Miraculously upon arriving in Alexandria, the captain found that the weight of the ships’ cargo remained the same, whilst in the meantime, Nicholas had used the offloaded grain to defeat the famine.

A church was built in memory of St. Nicholas around 200 years after he died in the 4th century A.D. The place has a remarkable history; once a Christian church where he served as a bishop, the foundations were used to build St. Nicholas Church which housed his tomb. The church survived several attacks by the Muslim Saracens (a nomadic group of raiders from the Arabian deserts), almost destroying the building in 1034. In 1087, it is thought that Italian merchants raided the church and removed his bones, transporting them to Bari in Italy. In the 19th century, the church was restored by Russian Tsar Nicholas I, by adding a tower and making moderations to the architecture. Numerous other restorations in the 21st century have also helped to retain important aspects of the church, such as the wall paintings.

Nowadays, the church is a popular attraction for tourists and pilgrims, who wish to pay homage to the former bishop of Myra. Over the centuries, many churches around the world have been named after St. Nicholas, but the original church still stands here in Demre. During a visit, look out for its beautiful walls, ceiling frescos, and floor mosaics, whilst immersing yourself in the church’s surroundings to commemorate the life of the real St. Nicholas many centuries ago.