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A Look at the Past

There is not much historical evidence on Myra prior to the 1st century B.C. but rock inscriptions on the Lycian tombs date the city as far back as the 5th or 6th century B.C. We know that St. Paul visited Myra by sea on his way to Rome in A.D. 60, but Rome enters the picture officially in 42 B.C. when one of Brutus's Roman lieutenants demanded tributes for support of his civil war. The fertility of the delta and the natural protection of the river provided the city with the ingredients for thriving trade by sea, and the Romans eventually sailed past the defensive chain at the port of Andriake and, in typical style, settled into Myra permanently. The city flourished under the Pax Romana, and the fact that Emperor Germanicus and wife Agrippina paid a visit in A.D. 18 implies that this center was of major importance.

In 310, St. Nicholas was imprisoned by Diocletian for his efforts to spread Christianity but was released in 313 when Constantine ascended the throne and declared Christianity the official state religion. By the 4th century Myra had become an important Christian center for religious and administrative affairs, and with rumors spreading of the saintly Bishop Nicholas, the town gained in popularity.

Subsequent years tell a story of Arab pirates, envious Italians coveting the sacred bones of the saint, and hidden treasure. In 7th-century pirate raids, a precious collection of liturgical gifts presented to the church by Justinian a century earlier was stolen, but was promptly reburied when the pirates in turn were attacked. In 1963, a local shepherd woman found the hoard while out with her goats; local smugglers got hold of a few pieces, which were eventually sold to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum at Harvard University for $1 million. Efforts to reunite the collection have been discussed between Harvard University and the Antalya Museum, but so far, the objects remain in Boston.

In 1087, hoping to redirect the flow of pilgrims back to their home, Italian merchants from Bari raided St. Nicholas's sarcophagus and transported the remains back to Italy. In their haste to get out with the goods, apparently the Barians left a few bones behind, and in 1925 the Turkish authorities were presented with a reliquary containing what was claimed to be the missing parts. Although carbon dating of the remains has proven that the bones date to the correct century, nobody knows if these are actually the bones of St. Nicholas, or where the poor guy is buried for sure. The Russians claim to have a piece of him, as does the Antalya Museum.

They Kidnapped the Wrong Guy

In ancient times, up until the rule of Julius Caesar, pirates ran rampant in the Mediterranean and Aegean, costing empires huge sums by blocking trade routes and intercepting ships laden with riches. Even Julius Caesar had his own run-in with these sea bandits. He was captured off the coast of Miletus, on his way back from a trip to study rhetoric in Rhodes. When the pirates told Caesar that they planned on asking a ransom of 20 talents, Caesar balked and suggested 50 would be more appropriate to his stature.

In the 6 weeks that it took for the ransom to arrive from Miletus, Caesar cavorted with the pirates -- joining in their games, practicing his rhetoric, and promising to have them all crucified when the time came. When the ransom arrived, the pirates kept their promise to release him. Caesar kept his as well; upon arriving in Miletus he assembled a number of galleys and surprised the pirates in their own lair. He had them all crucified, but ordered their throats cut first to spare them any unnecessary and vindictive suffering.

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