Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Treasure beneath the Turkish Mud ; Buried Mediterranean City Yields a Pristine Chapel and Promises More Riches

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Treasure beneath the Turkish Mud ; Buried Mediterranean City Yields a Pristine Chapel and Promises More Riches

Article excerpt

Buried Mediterranean city yields a pristine 13th-century chapel and promises further riches.

In the fourth century A.D., a bishop named Nicholas transformed the ancient 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 a millennium as a seat of power for the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire it vanished -- buried under five-and-a-half meters, or 18 feet, of mud from the rampaging Myros River. All that remained was the Church of St. Nicholas, parts of a Roman amphitheater and rock-cut tombs high in the hills.

But 700 years later, Myra is reappearing. Archaeologists 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 the eastern 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."

Myra was one of the most powerful cities in Lycia, a region dating to the fourth century B.C. that was Hellenized by Greeks, invaded by Persians 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.) Built in the fifth century A.D. and reconstructed repeatedly, it was believed to house the saint's remains. The church 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 Nicholas's were stolen away to Bari in southern Italy. 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 the city's swift entombment. If the sediment had built up gradually, the upper portions should show more damage. Instead, except for the roof's apex, near the surface, its preservation is consistent from bottom to top. "It seems incredible," said Engin Akyurek, a Byzantine archaeologist at Istanbul University who is excavating the site. …

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