The boys and I love Christmas and I can think of few places I would rather spend the holidays than right here in Oludeniz, a beautiful Turkish bay that St. Nicholas himself once visited.
Oludeniz, on the South West coast of Turkey, is one of those places that can never be done justice in a travel mag. Its enticing mix of laid-back beach life, crazy mountain-leaping madness, contemporary restaurants, and astounding beauty are hard to resist. As a Brit that’s lived in the area for 12 years, you would think that the novelty of my new found home would have worn thin by now. But no, hardly a week goes past when I fail to be amazed by somewhere new or surprised by something different. It’s this element of mystery that makes this region of Turkey so very special. The areas unfathomable charm that keeps lovers of Fethiye returning, and those that live in the area happy to call it home.
One such ‘surprise’ happened last winter when I heard of Oludeniz’s link with St Nicholas. I sat talking to the Gurkan’s, owners of one of my favourite haunts, Buzz Bar. I listened to the history of the ruins that had for many years sat overgrown at the back of their restaurant. I came away fascinated. At that point they were building a hotel, Ecclesia, with the ruins as its centerpiece. I can’t deny it, I was skeptical. The site was a chaotic building site, all mud and machinery, the ruins sectioned off in the centre. Their plans were ambitious and the 3D images impressive, but could they really keep the essence of an old church at the rear of one of the trendiest and most popular bars in the area? Could they really mix modern with ancient and do history justice? Thankfully, they did just that. The new hotel opened early summer and is wonderful and quite unique. The ruins of St. Demetrius now proudly displayed in Ecclesia’s courtyard, tidied up with its columns and many mosaics on show – a world of difference from the overgrown rubble that had for decades lay untouched in their carpark.
So, on to St. Nicholas.
I knew St. Nicholas Island in the neighbouring bay was so called for a reason, that it was said to have homed St. Nicholas when he escaped persecution in the 4th century. I had no idea that it was possible that he had visited the church in Buzz’s backyard. Although I had lived in Oludeniz many years, I knew little about the area’s Christian importance or history, or that the saint who inspired such a magical and significant tradition had probably stood a few meters away from where people now enjoy their sundown mojitos.
Father Christmas may be fictional, but St. Nicholas was very real and came from nearby Patara.
You may be sat under the twinkles of your fairy lights now thinking Father Christmas is fictional, that the modern Christmas tale was simply a story about a jolly old fellow in a bright red suit made up by the brains at Coca-Cola. In many ways, the story does seem ludicrous. Few question the magic or where good old Santa comes from. Few know that the story dates back to the 3rd century and an orphaned boy called Nicholas, who at a young age in Patara, just 40 minutes drive from Fethiye, did some extraordinary deeds ultimately founding the basis of our wonderful Christmas tale.
The story of St. Nicholas.
Take a journey back to 280AD, a time when much of Southern Turkey was inhabited by Greeks and there was a devout Christian community along much of the coast. A young boy called Nicholas, raised by wealthy devout parents in Patara, was sadly left orphaned after his parents died in an epidemic. Little more than a child, he inherited his folk’s fortune. Having been raised Christian, Nicholas wanted to honour his parent’s faith by giving all he owned to those less fortunate. This he did in secret. Nicholas climbed on the rooftops of houses throwing coins down chimneys to help pay debts or buy food for needy families – sound familiar?
One night, Nicholas was caught by a local who questioned his acts. The man told the whole town of the young boys good deeds. The church soon became aware of his actions and, whilst still a young man, he was made Bishop of Myra, a town we now know as Demre.
Nicholas was well loved by the locals and continued his good-will actions in Myra helping young townswomen escape servitude by donating dowries in secret to their fathers, and helping those wrongly accused of crimes avoid severe penalties and even death. He was a local hero.
Nicholas – Protector of children and sailors
Nicholas died on December 6th 343AD. By that time his actions had spread far and wide. Europe, especially Holland, loved the story and Nicholas became known as the gift giver and protector of children and sailors. To the Dutch, Nicholas became known as ‘Sinter Klaas’ and, even today, they celebrate St. Nicholas Day each December 6th. It was actually the Dutch that introduced the story to the States back in the 1700’s, who then elaborated on his actions finally creating the magical Santa Claus character the world knows and loves today.
Back to Oludeniz – so much more than simply a beach resort.
Earlier in the year, I helped write copy for the new hotel website. I was lucky enough to read the history of St. Demetrius based on the findings of archaeologists and historians that had worked on the site. It was extremely interesting and shed light on how important Oludeniz once was. I had previously thought it was simply a beautiful bay, but it was so much more than that.
In brief; it is believed that Oludeniz, Gidrak (around Likya World) and Gemiler (the bay past Kayakoy) were all places of Christian pilgrimage and teaching most likely set up by St. Paul after he was left shipwrecked at Patara sometime around 50AD. The area offered boats good shelter on route from Jerusalem so communities sprung up across Symbola (Oludeniz) as a result. A synod was ordered by Constantine at Nova Roma (Istanbul) in 325AD. He wanted the beliefs of the established Christian communities to be assessed. The Bishops of Christendom were called to attend, including Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. Records show that Nicholas visited Symbola (Oludeniz) more than once visiting the church of the Archangel and St. Demetrius. Records also show there were six churches in the area, St. Demetrius the largest and most significant.
Today, although much of the site was destroyed during the 7th Century by North African pirates, archaeologists have unearthed significant mosaics, some thought to be extremely rare. The Gurkan’s have been careful to preserve the church under a protective roof which offers protection against the elements and allow historians to continue making discoveries during the winter months. The church certainly makes for a worthy nosey around if you happen to be in the area. More information on St. Demetrius can be found on Ecclesia’s website.
So there you have it…Oludeniz’s very own Christmas story. Yet another reason this region really is one of the most charming areas on the Turkish coast and undoubtedly one to visit any time of the year, especially at Christmas.
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