*The featured pic: Church of St. Nicholas – Frescoes (photo by Dosseman/wikimedia.org)
Demre, archaically known as Myra, is a historic town in Turkey’s Mediterranean resort town of Antalya, a tourist paradise. Mainly known in the world as the place “Santa Claus” (St. Nicholas) lived and died, Demre is a town of great importance in Christian history.
Located 140 km to the west of downtown Antalya, this mid-sized town is one of the most stunning sites in the area with its rich history, marvelously well-preserved ancient ruins and prominent Christian heritage sites.
With a population of 25,000, this town boasts around a dozen ancient sites and numerous natural wonders. Although Demre is spread over a relatively small area, you would need at least 2 days to see the attractions in this settlement.
Let’s see what there is to do in Demre!
The Ancient City of Myra
Undoubtedly, the most popular attraction in Demre is the ancient city of Myra, one of the most important and largest settlements in the Lycian League. Unfortunately, it is not known when the city was founded. However, findings acquired during archeological excavations attest that Myra had been inhabited as early as the 5th century BC.
Myra’s fame lived well into the medieval ages on account of St. Nicholas being the archbishop of the settlement.
The city lived its golden age during the period in which the Byzantine emperor, Theodosius II, made Myra the capital city of the Byzantine Lycia.
After resisting Arab raids which went on for about 2 centuries, Myra was captured by the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid.
Today, Myra is one of the most popular tourist spots in Turkey. In addition to hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the site annually, the site is also a sacred spot for Christians who go there for pilgrimage to pay their respects to St. Nicholas.
Two of the most notable sites in the ancient city of Myra are the rock-carved tombs and the ancient theatre, which stand adjacent to each other.
The Church of St. Nicholas
The Church of St. Nicholas, or St. Nicholas Monumental Museum, is a Byzantine church devoted to St. Nicholas. With the bestowal of the emperor Justinian I, the church was built in 520 AD on the base of the religious complex where St. Nicholas served as the archbishop.
Restoration works in the church were funded in the year of 1892 by the Russian emperor, Nicholas I. The church was used well into 1923 by the Ottoman Greeks in Demre until they were obligated to leave for Greece following the Population Exchange Agreement, signed by the Greek and Turkish states.
The Church of St. Nicholas was world-renowned in previous centuries, with its stunningly artistic frescoes and unique architectural features.
The sarcophagus you’ll see inside the church is presumed to have belonged to St. Nicholas. It is believed that the bones of St. Nicholas were in this sarcophagus before they were seized and taken to Italy by a group of Italian sailors in the 11th century. Today the remains of St. Nicholas (apart from the few bones displayed in Antalya Museum) are buried in Basilica di San Nicola in the Italian city of Bari.
Included to UNESCO’s Tentative Heritage list in 2000, the church is flocked to by thousands daily.
Andriake Ancient City
This ancient port city was the harbor of Myra, and, after the ancient Lycian cities of Patara and Phaselis, Andriake was the third most important port in the region. The amphoras of foreign origin that were discovered in the area proved that Andriake was also a spot where merchants and foreigners from different countries engaged with commerce.
It is known that St. Paul the Apostle stopped by Andriake to change ships during his trip from Jerusalem to Rome. Another important religious fact is that Andriake is the first place where the earliest proof regarding the existence of the Jews in Lycia was discovered. During excavations, a synagogue was unearthed dating back to the 5th century BC.
Another notable spot in Andriake is the Murex Dye Workshop. The color purple was the sign of nobility and, therefore, it was only used by the ruling and upper classes in the old centuries. Due to the abundance of the Murex snails in the area, which were used to produce the color purple, Andriake was an important dye production center in Lycia.
Apart from the ancient ruins mentioned above, the other important spots you should see in Andriake include an agora, water wells, aqueducts, bathhouses, churches, towers and monumental fountains.
The ancient settlement also boasts a very remarkable site – the Lycian Civilizations Museum. The museum was opened inside a 2nd-century-AD granary after it was restored. Here, you can find numerous artifacts displayed, which were recovered from the nearby Lycian cities.
The Ancient City of Soura
Although not much is known about the history of the ancient city of Soura, it is thought this small settlement is dated to the 4th century BC. Located 6km away, to the north of Demre, Soura was an important center for its oracle and fortunetelling.
Today, the site is quite dilapidated due to its state of neglect. The temple of Apollo, ruins of a Byzantine church and Lycian rock graves are the structures you should visit in Soura.
The site can be visited 24/7 free of charge.
The Ancient City of Istlada
Located 27km away to the east of Demre, the ancient city of Istlada is a small but impressive Lycian settlement. Despite the paucity of information regarding the foundation of Istlada, the inscriptions on the graves allude that this settlement (like many other Lycian cities) was built around the 4th century BC.
Make sure you stop by the village of Kapaklı, which is near the Istlada ruins, to see the Hoyran Monumental Tomb, with its well-preserved carvings depicting the family of the deceased person and the burial ceremony of the owner of the grave.
Additionally, you should see the acropolis, fortification walls, and necropolis which comprises of dozens of Lycian sarcophagi and the grave steles.
Istlada is open to visitors 24/7 and the site can be visited for free.
The Ancient City of Trysa (Heroon)
The ruins of Trysa are scattered over the peak of a rocky hill in the mountainous outskirts of northern Demre.
Like many small Lycian cities, it is not known exactly when Trysa was founded. The earliest structure discovered in the area is the defense walls that are dated to the 5th century BC.
The most notable remain in Trysa is Heroon, a walled tomb belonging to an influential Lycian royal. A heroon is a shrine dedicated to an ancient Greek or Roman hero, built to honor the deceased person’s deeds. Intact reliefs depicting Greek mythological scenes, and legendary Lycian heros and battles show the importance of the person for whom the tomb was built.
Trysa can be visited anytime for free.
The Ancient City of Simena
Better known today as Kaleköy among the Turkish locals, Simena was founded as a small port city in the 4th century.
The most important structure in the area is the Simena Castle, which was also used during Medieval Ages. Once you reach the castle, other ruins you should visit are a small theatre with the capacity of 300 seats, rock graves, water wells and religious structures.
Simena is located on a small peninsula which is located about 15km away from Demre. In addition to the castle ruins, the rocky coast of the peninsula is covered with ancient ruins such as a Roman bath, various Lycian graves and bases of ancient structures submerged under the water.
Beymelek Lagoon is an easily overlooked natural wonder in Demre. Situated 10km from central Demre, it is a vast lagoon and one of the best spots to eat crab on the Mediterranean coast.
You can stop by one of the few restaurants on the side of the lagoon and have delicious seafood for reasonable prices.