Sealed Under Turkish Mud, a Well-Preserved Byzantine Chapel
DISCOVERY A section of the 13th-century chapel at Myra.
By JENNIFER PINKOWSKI
Published: January 7, 2013
DEMRE, Turkey — In the fourth century A.D., a bishop named Nicholas
transformed the city of Myra, on the Mediterranean coast of what is now
Turkey, into a Christian capital.
Nicholas was later canonized, becoming the St. Nicholas of Christmas
fame. Myra had a much unhappier fate.
After some 800 years as an important pilgrimage site in the Byzantine
Empire it vanished — buried under 18 feet of mud from the rampaging
Myros River. All that remained was the Church of St. Nicholas, parts of
a Roman amphitheater and tombs cut into the rocky hills.
But now, 700 years later, Myra is reappearing.
Archaeologists first detected the ancient city in 2009 using
ground-penetrating radar that revealed anomalies whose shape and size
suggested walls and buildings. Over the next two years they excavated a
small, stunning 13th-century chapel sealed in an uncanny state of
preservation. Carved out of one wall is a cross that, when sunlit, beams
its shape onto the altar. Inside is a vibrant fresco that is highly
unusual for Turkey.
The chapel’s structural integrity suggests that Myra may be largely
intact underground. “This means we can find the original city, like
Pompeii,” said Nevzat Cevik, an archaeologist at Akdeniz University who
is director of the excavations at Myra, beneath the modern town of Demre.
Mark Jackson, a Byzantine archaeologist at Newcastle University in
England, who was not involved in the research, called the site
“fantastic,” and added,“This level of preservation under such deep
layers of mud suggests an extremely well-preserved archive of information.”
Occupied since at least the fourth century B.C., Myra was one of the
most powerful cities in Lycia, with a native culture that had roots in
the Bronze Age. It was invaded by Persians, Hellenized by Greeks, and
eventually controlled by Romans.
Until the chapel was unearthed, the sole remnant of Myra’s Byzantine era
was the Church of St. Nicholas. (The bishop, also known as Nicholas the
Wondermaker, was a native Lycian of Greek descent.) First built in the
fifth century A.D. and reconstructed repeatedly, it was believed to
house his remains and drew pilgrims from across the Mediterranean.
Today, Cyrillic signs outside souvenir shops cater to the Russian
But Myra attracted invaders, too. Arabs attacked in the seventh and
ninth centuries. In the 11th, Seljuk Turks seized the city, and the
bones thought to be those of Nicholas were stolen away to Bari, in
southern Italy, by merchants who claimed to have been sent by the pope.
By the 13th century, Myra was largely abandoned. Yet someone built the
small chapel using stones recycled from buildings and tombs.
Decades later, several seasons of heavy rain appear to have sealed
Myra’s fate. The chapel provides evidence of Myra’s swift entombment. If
the sediment had built up gradually, the upper portions should show more
damage; instead, except for the roof’s dome, at the surface, its
preservation is consistent from bottom to top.
“It seems incredible,” said Engin Akyurek, a Byzantine archaeologist
with Istanbul University who is excavating the site. He and his team dug
down 18 feet to the base of chapel, where they discovered a few
artifacts from the early 14th century. (At the time, Turks were gaining
control of Anatolia, and after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 the
Ottomans ruled for nearly five centuries.)
In the layers of mud between the 14th-century ground level and the
late-Ottoman level — which is just shy of the modern surface — they
discovered nothing at all.
Ceramics unearthed at the chapel and at St. Nicholas Church indicate
that Myra remained unoccupied until the 18th century. And while a sunken
city “may sound romantic,” said Dr. Jackson, the British scholar, “this
mud promises to have preserved a treasure trove of information on the
city during an important period of change.”
How classical cities transformed into Byzantine cities during the
Christian era, especially between 650 and 1300, is a subject of much
“Each city was different,” Dr. Jackson said, “and so we need
high-quality, well-excavated evidence in order to contribute to the
debate about the nature of urban change in this period.”
The fresco in the excavated chapel is especially striking. Six feet
tall, it depicts the deesis (“prayer” or “supplication” in Greek). This
is a common theme in Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox iconography, but the
Myra fresco is different.
Where typically these depictions show Christ Pantocrator (Christ the
Almighty) enthroned, holding a book and flanked by his mother, Mary, and
John the Baptist, whose empty hands are held palms up in supplication,
at Myra both John and Mary hold scrolls with Greek text.
John’s scroll quotes from John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes
away the sin of the world.” Mary’s is a dialogue from a prayer for the
Virgin Mary in which she intercedes on behalf of humanity, asking Jesus
to forgive their sins. Dr. Akyurek said this scroll-in-hand version had
been seen in Cyprus and Egypt, but never in Turkey.
The chapel is part of a larger dig that includes the Roman amphitheater
— largely reconstructed in the second century after an earthquake
leveled much of Lycia — and Andriake, Myra’s harbor, about three miles
south. Long a major Mediterranean port, Andriake was where St. Paul
changed ships on his way to Antioch (now Antakya). Finds there include a
workshop that produced royal purple and blue dye from murex snails and a
fifth-century synagogue, the first archaeological evidence of Jewish
life in Christian Lycia.
Much of Myra is under modern buildings in Demre, so archaeologists are
unsure where they will dig next. They are buying property from local
residents to prevent illegal excavations, though judging from the
paucity of artifacts found so far, looters might be disappointed: the
last residents of Myra seem to have looked at the rising floodwaters and
packed their bags before they left.