Simon Jacob reporting from Myra in Turkey

For quite some time the picture I had carried in my head whenever I thought of Saint Nicholas was shaped by Coca Cola commercials.

However sugary-sweet this association, it transports an image of the holy man from Myra (which today is called Demre and lies in Turkey) that has little to nothing in common with the historic figure.

It is here, in the region of Lyia, that the bishop lived and worked. Back then Myra was part of the Roman Empire, and would remain as such for a long time after the fall of Rome itself, when the empire’s seat had been transferred to Constantinople. Of the many legends revolving around the miracles Saint Nicholas performed during his lifetime, the one that fascinated me the most is about an impoverished father of three daughters who contemplated selling his children into prostitution. Unable to afford the dowry that would allow them to get married, he didn’t see any other way. Enters Saint Nicholas, not yet a bishop at the time, and the heir of a sizeable fortune. The holy man decided to secretly help the desperate family and thereby saved the women from their horrible fate. It is an ordeal that many young women, caught in the stream of refugees that is flowing out of a war torn Middle East, are still facing today. On my travels I have learned, that scores are being kidnapped and sold as sex slaves for as little as $1000 while trying to reach the shores of Europe.

I have heard this story many times over the past years, but now I try to shake the thoughts of little girls ripped from their families in Iraq by Sunni Extremists and try to concentrate on the spiritual atmosphere of the wonderful place in which I’m standing. It used to be a church but is now a museum. As I view marvelous frescoes on the old sturdy walls, sunlight shines sparsely into the room’s interior.

And yet, despite the dim lighting, there appears to be a kind of brightly radiating silence in these sacred halls. Approaching the central nave I’m surprised to find a young man kneeling on the cold stone floor praying in deep humility. He is so lost in his meditation that he does not hear me enter, and still, I feel caught as suddenly the thought of the old man in his red suit and white beard suddenly pops back into my head.

What have we done with the memory of the holy man from Myra? The picture of Saint Nicholas that our modern world, driven by commerce and commercials, has painted bears no resemblance to the one represented by the prayers of this devout young man before me. Devotion to those who worked miracles, who helped people who had nothing. Surely his legacy can’t be to stand for a yearly ritual of piling on ever more worldly goods onto the stack of those who already have plenty.

As I leave the museum I encounter a little girl standing next to a statue of Saint Nicholas. She smiles and I ask her mother for permission to take a photo of her. Touched by the spirituality of the place she agrees and gifts me with a smile that is worth more to me than any material possession I have ever held in this consumption driven world of ours.


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