The ancient town of Myra in Lycia gives a unique insight into Turkey’s history and the many different civilisations which influenced the area.
Today a collection of mostly Roman ruins remain which give visitors the opportunity to envisage the bustling centre that is thought to have been established up to 2,500 years ago. Strolling through the Acropolis, the amphitheatre and the Roman baths, visitors can get a tangible feel for daily life in the ancient world.
According to Strabo, Myra was once a large city, making up one of the most influential parts of the Lycian League in the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. This League brought self-rule and semi-independence to Lycia under permission from Rome.
Among the most impressive structures of the ancient city are the two necropoli of Lycian rock-cut tombs carved into Myra’s vertical cliff faces. The most remarkable tomb is known as the ‘Lion’s Tomb’ or the ‘Painted Tomb’, which still has eleven life-size figures in relief on its wall. And these tombs are likely to have been even more extraordinary in the past; when the traveller Charles Fellows visited the site in 1840, all of the tombs on the cliff face were painted in the bright colours of yellow, red, and blue.
Myra’s history has also been marked by a number of notable visitors. In around 60 AD, Saint Paul stopped at the city’s port on his journey to Rome, where he was to face trial after having been arrested for inciting a riot in Jerusalem. In 131 AD, the Emperor Hadrian paid a visit to Myra and built a large granary at Andriace. This granary can still be seen today by driving along the D400 highway into Demre.
However, Myra is perhaps best known for its Byzantine-era Church of St Nicholas (often associated with Santa Claus), who was bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD. Placed on the outskirts of Demre, the church has been a popular site of pilgrimage since it was built in the 6th century and remains a fascinating place of historical and religious interest today. Such was the church’s popularity that it played a role in Myra becoming the leading city for religion and administration in Lycia. Unfortunately Myra’s notability wasn’t to last; in 808 AD Myra was besieged and captured by Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rashid, after which it fell into decline. In the 11th century, Myra was once again subjected to invasion, this time by the Seljuk Turks, at which time the relics of St Nicholas were also taken from the city.
The ancient features of the city thankfully survived these invasions, and now help to make Myra an unmissable destination for anyone with an interest in developments in the area from the Ancient Greek period right up to the Byzantine Empire.
Contributed by Siobhan Coskeran