The Original Santa Claus is Under Threat from the Turkish Construction Industry. So is Much of Turkey's Unique Heritage


Ceiling Fresco, St Nikolaos’ church, Demre by Jiuguang Wang

Fictional Christmas mascot Santa Claus may have wrapped up his annual festive mission for the season, but the 1,700-year-old Saint on which he is based may be about to fall victim to the Turkish government’s quest for economic development at any price.

Anatolia, the heartland of the Turkish Republic, has been part of numerous empires. The Akkadians, Trojans, Hittites, Assyrians, Phrygians, Cimmerians, Scythians, Greeks, Persians, more Greeks, Romans, Armenians, Byzantines, Mongols and Ottomans have all occupied parts of Asia Minor at various times, and their cultural legacy is strewn about the landscape. The Turkish government is now trying to capitalise on this rich legacy to drive its booming tourism industry.

Turkey’s economy has expanded rapidly in the past decade, with construction and tourism at the forefront of growth. Istanbul's population is now more than 15 million, and the city was voted Trip Advisor's most popular travel destination for 2014. The government wants to capitalise on the revenue from tourism, and is seeking to repackage Anatolia’s ancient cultural heritage as a modern tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the rapid and obsessive drive for development has often come at the cost of preserving that same heritage.

The rock cave houses of Demre. Photo by Caleb MacLennan (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Saint Nikolaos, the inspiration for Santa Claus (via Norse mythology and Coca-Cola), was a 4th century Greek Bishop of the Turkish town of Myra, now called Demre, on the Mediterranean coast. In his lifetime, Nikolaos attended the Council of Nicea, was a strong backer of religious orthodoxy and had a reputation for secret gift-giving.

Most of the physical remains of the Saint were plundered from the church in 1087 by pirates, who transported them to Italy as the Seljuk Turks advanced on the declining Byzantine Empire. In 2012, the government enlisted the help of the head archaeologist of Myra to support its case for the repatriation of St Nikolaos’ bones to Demre.

The Greek Orthodox Church, which, naturally, wants to preserve the Greek character of the Saint, is particularly unhappy about the Turkish government’s attempt to expropriate Nikolaos as a part of Turkish history.

As well as ancient sites such as the Hellenic and Roman amphitheatre and necropolis cut into the rock cliffs, the area is famous for its orange and pomegranate cultivation. Now, local authorities are preparing to give permission for construction companies to build hotels and other buildings up to 6 stories tall, and to make exceptions to rules that usually restrict construction within 200m of the sea.

President Erdoğan and his AKP party, for their part, have denied accusations of over-development and government corruption in the construction industry. However, AKP's support for huge and controversial infrastructure projects like the Third Airport and Third Bridge in Istanbul, and the activities of the state housing body, TOKI, have alarmed Turkish civil society. 


Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Side, Turkey. Photo by Heribert Pohl (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Hotel development in Side, Turkey. Photo by Samuel Schultzberg (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Hotel development in Side, Turkey. Photo by Samuel Schultzberg (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Erdoğan's government is not the first to prioritise economic development over cultural heritage. Successive Turkish administrations have looked to downplay the role of other cultures in contributing to that heritage. However, an overt policy of Turkification has receded in the past decade, as the AKP has sought to build a political base around religious identification rather than ethnicity. Until the 1950s, approximately 30% of Istanbul’s population was not Turkish, and there are numerous examples of historical churches which have since been repurposed as mosques. Apart from the well-known Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, there are two other churches of the same name in Trabzon and Iznik which have recently been converted into mosques. Even the name “Istanbul” comes from the Greek phrase for “in the city”.

During the construction of one high profile development project, the Marmaray tunnel, historical artefacts dating back thousands of years were unearthed, leading to long delays so the findings could be conserved. President Erdoğan said at the time that construction should not be delayed for the sake of some “archeological stuff”. The Istanbul metro has also expanded considerably, and UNESCO criticised local authorities for failing to take into account the effects of construction on the local area.

Many other construction projects like the Halfeti Dam have come under criticism for their impact on the environment and cultural heritage. Anatolia has thousands of native plant and animal species which are also threatened by these huge projects. Another dam on the Tigris river at Ilisu threatens to flood the entire town of Hasankeyf, destroying hundreds of archeological sites and displacing 25,000 people. Then there is Göreme in Cappadocia, with its famous cave houses, Sümela monastery on the Black Sea coast and Phaselis on the Mediterranean—all under threat from new tourism-related development.

The documentary below argues that the town of Hasankeyf should be a UNESCO world heritage site, and explains the archeological and environmental damage done by the creation of dams on the Tigris river.

There is also the ancient site of Side, which has already been rapidly developed with hotels, and the ancient temple at Gobeklitepe, which heritage groups want to designate a UNESCO world heritage site. How long will it be before sites like this, Çatalhöyük or Hattusa are surrounded by hotels, becoming a Disneyland of history like the area surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca?


Excavations of the ancient city of Çatalhöyük. Photo by Scott Haddow

The current evidence suggests that any value the Turkish government has placed on the ancient history of the Anatolian region is underpinned by the desire for short-term profits. They are abetted by mainstream media's indifference to the costs of over-development. A recent BBC report on Demre’s Santa Claus industry failed to raise any concerns about the possible negative environmental and social impacts of exploiting the legacy of St Nikolaos.

Sülüklü beach, for example is one of the last sandy beaches in the town of Demre, where St Nikolaos’ church is located. The beach was recently given by the Culture and Tourism ministry to Andriake Beachclub, who began constructing a 5-star hotel in 2013. Local residents, who were initially happy about the prospect of employment opportunities in the area are now angry at the way large companies have acquired land at the expense of local residents. Six more hotels are due for construction in the same area.

The paradoxical nature of the Turkish government’s commitment to developing a tourist industry based around its largely non-Turkish cultural legacy reveals much about the modern Turkish state. Society supports  conservatism, nationalism and religiosity; but above all, it is committed to a form of state-directed capitalism that has brought significant economic progress. Nowhere is this paradoxical marriage of religious conservatism and capitalism better exemplified than in the thousands of new mosques which contain shops. 

Erdoğan and the AKP have now been in power for 12 years, and even columnists from pro-government newspapers are beginning to ask how a transition to any future government will be handled. At this year’s general election, the party will seek a big enough majority to pass constitutional reforms that would introduce a Presidential system, giving Erdoğan extensive powers over the judiciary and legislature, two of the last remaining checks on his power. For those that oppose the madcap development that has become the AKP's trademark on environmental and heritage grounds, 2015 could prove a very significant year. 


Mosque with shops in Kaş – photo by John Lubbock



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