Archaeologists have discovered the intact tomb of highly-revered Saint Nicholas — Santa Claus — appropriately enough, beneath St. Nicholas Church in Demre, in the southern province of Antalya, southern Turkey.
“The temple on the ground of the church is in good condition. We believe this shrine has not been damaged at all, but it is quite difficult to get to it as there are mosaics on the floor,” Antalya Director of Surveying and Monuments, Cemil Karabayram, told Hurriyet Daily News. “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.”
In fact, to thoroughly investigate their suspicions, specialists must first loosen the individual stones comprising larger mosaics, then apply material to create a mold, which allows the pieces to be lifted as a cohesive unit.
For centuries, the hunt for St. Nicholas’ grave labored on. Thus, years of accumulated research meant Karabayram and his team had access to a veritable wealth of documentation from which to draw clues. It was popularly surmised the saint’s 1,674-year-old remains had perhaps been laid to rest in Ireland — or in Bari, Italy.
“We studied all of the documents from between 1942 and 1966,” he continued. “There were some notes there. According to these notes, this church was demolished and rebuilt. During the reconstruction, traders in Bari took the bones. But it is said that these bones did not belong to St. Nicholas but to another priest. One of those to have said this was Professor Yıldız Ötüken, an academic of Hacettepe University’s history of art department. She says that St Nicholas is kept in a special section.”
Hurriyet explains, “Ötüken headed the archaeological excavations project in Demre for 20 years.”
Researchers most recently believed Italian merchants secreted the venerated saint’s bones to bring to Italy in 1087, when Seljuk Turks invaded Myra — the ruins upon which Demre grew — at the time, under rule of Greece.
“By then St Nicholas was already revered among Christians for his generosity, in particular to children, and his humility,” reports the BBC.
“The church of St Nicholas in Demre is a popular destination for pilgrims as the site of St Nicholas’s final resting place, and archaeological excavations have been taking place there for 20 years.”
BBC adds the bones taken to Italy were described in past notes as having belonged to another priest.
Now that archaeologists feel confident the saint’s intact tomb indeed sits just beneath the eponymous church, excavation has begun in earnest — but the imperative to preserve and catalogue myriad artifacts, such as the aforementioned mosaics, make the wait seem excruciatingly slow.
“We have obtained very good results but real works start now,” said Karabayram. “We will reach the ground and maybe we will find the untouched body of St. Nicholas. We appointed eight academics of different branches to work here. If our expectations are met, Demre will be at full capacity.”
Karabayram told Hurriyet the team has already employed a CT scan and georadar for the meticulous procedure and the academics begin when an end to the excavation is in sight. Although Karabayram cannot enter the church until specialists fully remove the mosaics, he is aware the eyes of the world are trained in the team’s direction — particularly since discovering the tomb appears to be intact — a rarer development by far, if proven true.
Nevertheless, the keen pressure to carry out the dig for Santa’s bones perfectly doesn’t appear to faze the scientists — rather, it seems to be Karabayram’s inspiration.
“The world’s eyes will be set on here,” Karabayram observed. “We claim that St. Nicholas has been kept in this temple without any damage. We are at the last stage. If we get the results, Antalya’s tourism will gain big momentum.”
According to Newsweek, most Catholics and Orthodox Christians have accepted the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, as the site of Saint Nicholas’s remains — so the team of workers and scientists certainly feel the public demand to produce results — one way or another.
After all, the chance to view Santa’s final resting place holds appeal to people of other religions, beliefs, or not; and the world may soon know if the saint who came to be known as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, and a host of other names indeed rested silently beneath Saint Nicholas Church — with none the wiser — for centuries.
(Featured image: Shuttershock, Editorial)