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Sealed Under Turkish Mud, a Well-Preserved Byzantine Chapel

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/08/science/under-turkish-mud-well-preserved-byzantine-chapel.html?ref=global-home&_r=1& Sealed Under Turkish Mud, a
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 8 7:50 AM

      Sealed Under Turkish Mud, a Well-Preserved Byzantine Chapel
      DISCOVERY A section of the 13th-century chapel at Myra.
      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
      Orthodox faithful.

      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
      scholarly debate.

      “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.
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