Archaeologists have discovered the burial place of Saint Nicholas, the inspiration behind the story of Santa Claus, under a church in Turkey’s Antalya province.
The St. Nicholas Church was built on top of another church in the 7th or 8th century, where the saint is believed to have served as bishop before it flooded in the Middle Ages, according to DHA.
Professor Dr. Osman Eravşar, president of the Antalya Cultural Heritage Preservation Regional Board, said the “extremely important discovery” is the first of its kind from that time period.
“We see this church as a discovery that will add a little more to the architectural history and iconographic value,” Eravşar told the outlet.
During the Roman Empire, the saint was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor. Many miracles have been attributed to Saint Nicholas’ intercession, but he is also known for his generous practice of gift-giving, which gave rise to the traditional concept of Santa Claus and Sinterklaas.
He was laid to rest in a church from the 4th century CE in Turkey’s Antalya province. Centuries after his death, Theodosius II, the Byzantine Emperor, ordered the construction of the St. Nicholas Church on the site where Saint Nicholas had served as bishop.
By the 11th century CE, his remains were removed and enshrined as sacred relics in the Basilica di San Nicola located in Bari, Southern Italy. During the First Crusade, Venetian sailors removed the most of his remains and transported them to Venice, where they were deposited in the San Nicolò al Lido monastery basilica.
An examination of bone fragments from Bari and Venice in 1953 determined that they belonged to the same person, though the authenticity to determine whether they belonged to Saint Nicholas is inconclusive.
William Caraher, an archaeologist at the University of North Dakota who specializes in early Christian architecture, told Live Science it’s “not unusual” for churches from that period to be built on top of each other.
The Demre burial site was located after a slab of floor laid in the 1970s was removed, Eravşar said, per DHA. A 4th century floor was discovered underneath following excavation.
The tomb and sarcophagus of Saint Nicholas were found at the base of a fresco depicting Jesus, where the team have excavated the original church foundations and period mosaic flooring from the 4th century CE, according to Osman Eravşar.
New evidence suggests that the ecclesiastical building’s similarity to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre strengthens their theory, as both share similar architectural features, such as an unfinished dome on top to link St. Nicholas with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension into the sky.
He told DHA that “his sarcophagus must have been placed in a special place, and that is the part with three apses covered with a dome. There we have discovered the fresco depicting the scene where Jesus is holding a Bible in his left hand and making the sign of blessing with his right hand.” The researchers also discovered a marble floor tile with the Greek words for “as grace,” which could have served as a marker indicating his exact burial location.
Eravşar told DHA that the site will now be “covered” and “ready for display.”