Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

TURKEY: Move to bring Santa's bones back 'home' from Italy

January 1, 2010 |  6:28 am


Near the Byzantine church in the Turkish town of Demre, a giant, plastic statue of Santa Claus decked out in the legendary Christmas figure’s trademark red suit and beard welcomes visitors to the town, a popular tourist destination, which prides itself as the original resting place of St. Nicholas, the 3rd century saint more popularly known as Santa Claus.

But the “real” Santa is buried many miles away in the Italian port city of Bari, where his remains were taken by Italian sailors in the Middle Ages.

This has irked Turkish archaeologists such as Nevzat Cevik, who has called on the government to demand that Italy give Santa's bones back to Turkey.

“This is not a sculpture or a door we are talking about here; we are talking about the body of a saint,” he reportedly told Turkey’s Anatolia news agency. “St. Nicholas said, ‘I was born here, I have lived here, and I will be buried here,’ before his death in Demre. He was buried here and should be kept here too.”

The head of archaeological research in Demre, Cevik says the saint put forth his wish to be buried in his hometown before his death.

News reports suggest Turkey is considering formally asking Rome to return St. Nicholas' bones to his original resting place.

The push to repatriate Santa’s remains appears to come as part of a larger campaign by Turkey to reclaim relics and historical assets that have been taken abroad.

“Some of our richest historical assets are on display at different museums all around the world,” Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay was quoted as saying by the Dogan news agency. “We want all of them back, because every piece should be displayed where it belongs.”

St. Nicholas lived his life in the Greek city of Myra, now Demre. 

He was appointed the local bishop and became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker for his reputation of performing miracles and secret gift-giving, including putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him at night. After his death he was sanctified as St. Nicholas.


But when Myra came under Arab occupation in the 11th century, Italian sailors took his remains and reinterred them at a church in Bari, where they've been ever since.

Belgian tourist Cogu Jean Claude thinks it's about time Santa's bones are returned to where they belong, saying it's pointless with an empty grave at the church he visited in Demre.

“I, like any civilized person, would like to see the remains of St. Nicholas where it belongs. ... They are all part of the world’s cultural heritage and they should be where they belong,” he was quoted as saying by the Turkish English-language newspaper Hurriyet.

Mehmet Arici, a shop owner in Demre, told the newspaper that the remains should be returned to the original grave in order for Santa "to find peace."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Top photo: A statue of St. Nicholas in Demre. Credit: AFP.

Bottom photo: Nicholas is the saint on whom Santa Claus was modeled. Credit: Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty.