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.
One wall of the chapel has a cross-shaped window that, when sunlit, beams its shape onto an altar table.
A vibrant fresco that is unusual for Turkey was perfectly preserved.
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.
The Bible records a number of ancient civilizations. Perhaps the most famous of these is ancient Rome.
By the time of the New Testament, Rome was the major world power, and it was in control of the Holy Land during the entire earthly life of Jesus and during the lives of his immediate followers.
Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus. He was crucified during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius. The book of Acts records the Roman emperor Claudius by name. And both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred at Rome by the Emperor Nero.
It is clear that the Romans were extraordinarily important to the world in which the New Testament was written.
All that makes it worth asking: Who were the Romans, and where did their civilization come from?
Exciting news in the Austrian press about what is likely to be the oldest traces of Christianity in Carinthia, in Virunum. A church dating to the 350s was found a couple of years ago, but further excavation suggests that there was a bishop’s palace there – in other words that it was a much significant centre of Christianity than first thought. From Kleine Zeitung:
“Vor sechs Jahren haben wir bereits eine Bischofskirche aus dem vierten Jahrhundert entdeckt.” Doch nach einer exakten Analyse der Daten könne man nicht mehr nur von einer Kirche ausgehen. Die Ausmaße auf dem spätantiken Areal nahe Maria Saal scheinen größer als bisher angenommen. “Wir haben eine weitere Kirche und sechs Klerikerwohnungen entdeckt.” Zudem vermuten die Archäologen eine dritte Kirche auf der anderen Seite der Hauptstraße. “Anhand des Grundrisses könnte es sich dort eine weitere Kirche befinden”, sagt Dolenz. Ob es so ist, wird sich Ende Oktober herausstellen. Denn dann sollen die neu gewonnenen Erkenntnisse durch geomagnetische Untersuchungen untermauert werden.
There is more at Orf.at with a good number of photographs.
Excavations on the Scottish island Eigg have uncovered a seventh century C.E. structure thought to be the monastery founded by St. Donnan, one of the first missionaries in Scotland. Also known as Donnan of Eigg, the priest traveled through northwest Scotland before settling on Eigg, where he was martyred in 617 C.E. The site features Pictish pottery in the graveyard as well as an oval enclosure and ditch, a characteristic of contemporary monasteries, which maintained a separation between sacred and exterior spaces. The Eigg History Society received funding from the Heritage Lottery to locate the monastery, and archaeologist John Hunter announced in The Scotsmanthat the findings surpassed his expectations. Donnan, the patron Saint of Eigg, evangelized the island and the Scottish archaeology discoveries memorialize and bear witness to a major figure in the dissemination of Christianity on the British Isles.
Scottish archaeology at Eigg has exposed a structure related to the seventh century C.E. St. Donnan, an evangelizing figure in early Scottish Christianity.
On Holy Saturday we meditate on one of the most obscure lines in the Apostles’ Creed: “he descended into hell.” What does this part of the Creed refer to? Is it biblical?
Moreover, what does it mean to say Christ “descended into hell”? Did he experience the torments of wicked?
Christ and the “Spirits in Prison”
In 1 Peter we read that Christ continued to save souls–even after his death.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18–21)
According to this passage, after he died, Christ went to those who died in the flood judgment.
Where were these figures? The “hell of the damned”? Well, not quite.
Let’s look at this passage in light of ancient Judaism…
To continue, click here. The download is available at the bottom of the post. Well worth a listen today.