Turkey Claims It’s Found Saint Nicholas’ Crypt

Archaeologists say the body was not stolen by crusaders in the 11th century and is still located below a church in Demre

St. Nick Tomb
The sarcophagus at St. Nicholas church in Demre looted by crusaders, which archaeologists now believe did not contain the Saint's remains. Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists in Turkey believe they may have found the tomb of Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, aka Santa Claus, under a church in the Demre district of Turkey.

As Kareem Shaheen at The Guardian reports, researchers discovered an intact temple and burial grounds below the Church of St. Nicholas during radar scans and CT surveys of the site. But the researchers have yet to confirm the find. To access the tomb, they must first remove and preserve valuable mosaics from the church floor, a process that will take time.

“The temple on the ground of the church is in good condition,” Cemil Karabayram, Director of Surveying and Monuments for the Antalya province tells Salim Uzun at Hurriyet Daily News. “We believe that it has received no damage so far. But it is hard to enter it because there are stones with motifs on the ground. These stones should be scaled one by one and then removed.”

St. Nicholas was a Christian leader born in a Roman town in modern Turkey in 280 A.D. According to legend, both of his parents died when he was a young man and Nicholas used his inheritance to serve the poor and sick. He eventually became the bishop of a city called Myra, now called Demre. There are other stories of his generosity, such as secretly paying the dowries of three sisters so they could be married instead of being sold into servitude. He was also known for leaving coins in the shoes of the poor.

As a saint, he proved popular throughout Europe—"the unchallenged bringer of gifts and the toast of celebrations centered around his day, December 6," as Brian Handwerk​ writes in a National Geographic feature on the origins of Santa Claus. But after saints fell out of favor during the Protestant Reformation, gift giving transferred over from December 6 to Christmas. But St. Nicholas didn't go away. The saint continues to hold sway especially in places like the Netherlands, where his feast day continues to be celebrated and where he's earned the nickname Sinterklaas. When Dutch immigrants brought the tradition to the U.S. in the 18th century, the tradition was adapted, blended with the idea of Father Christmas and expanded into the character of Santa Claus.

The new tomb, if confirmed, adds a wrinkle to the curious case of Santa Claus’s body. Josie Ensor at The Telegraph reports that St. Nicholas was indeed buried in the church in Demre after his death in 343 A.D. But in 1087, so the story goes, traders from the Italian city of Bari stole the saint’s bones and transported them to their hometown, where a basilica was built to house them. In 2014, forensic experts reconstructed the face of the man in the crypt, revealing what they said was the true face of Santa.

But Venice also claims that its sailors stole the bones of St. Nicholas in 1099 during the first crusade, and that the bones are actually housed in the church of San Nicolò al Lido. Then there’s the claim that Santa Claus’s final resting place is in Ireland. According to that tale, a Norman family of crusaders called the de Frainets moved St. Nicholas’s remains to Bari in 1169 when that part of Italy was under Norman control. When the Normans were pushed out of Italy, the de Frainets moved the body to Nice. When the Norman’s lost France, the family supposedly took then took the remains with them to their estate in Jerpoint in Kilkenny, Ireland, and buried them at an abbey where a special ceremony is still held each year to honor the saint.

Uzun reports, however, that the archaeologists, citing documentary evidence, believe that the bones stolen in the 11th century likely came from the tomb of unidentified priest, and that St. Nicholas is still in his original tomb.

“We have obtained very good results but the real work starts now,” Karabayram says. “We will reach the ground and maybe we will find the untouched body of Saint Nicholas.”

Of course there’s one easy way to find out which tomb really holds the bones of the St. Nicholas. Just stake all of them out on December 24 and see which one the sleigh stops at.

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