Myra ("Myrrh") was a leading city of the Lycian Union and surpassed Xanthos in early Byzantine times to become the capital city of Lycia.
The date of Myra's foundation is unknown. There is no literary mention of it before the 1st century BC, when it is said to be one of the six leading cities of the Lycian Union (the other five were Xanthos, Tlos, Pinara, Patara and Olympos). It is believed to date back much further however, as an outer defensive wall has been dated to the 5th century BC.
In Roman times Myra was on the sea and was the port where St. Paul changed ships on his way to Rome in about 60 AD. The city is well known for its amphitheatre (the largest in Lycia) and the plethora of rock-cut tombs carved in the cliff above the theatre.
Constantine made Myra the capitol of Lycia as well as a bishopric. St. Nicholas was one of Myra's early bishops in the 4th century AD, famous for his miracles and known for his kindness. He later became the patron saint of Greece and Russia as well as of children, sailors, merchants, scholars, those unjustly imprisoned and travelers. Legend has it that St. Nicholas threw bags of gold down a chimney to three sisters as dowries to save them from a life of prostitution. This legend led to the development of Santa Claus. After the death of St. Nicholas, Myra became a rich pilgrimage centre with many new churches built.
Because of Arab raids, flooding and earthquakes, Myra was mostly abandoned by the early 11th century. When the Turks arrived they found a much-shrunken Myra. Today most of Myra is buried underground because its port eventually silted up. However, what remains is very impressive - a large theatre with the backdrop of Myra’s famous rock-cut tombs. The sight of these is quite striking.
Some of the many carved masks at Myra's amphitheatre.
Features of Myra include:
Amphitheatre - Myra's Greco-Roman theatre is the largest theatre in Lycia and one of the main attractions of Myra. Its double-vaulted corridors are still preserved and an inscription in a stall space reads "place of the vendor Gelasius" - the location of an ancient concessions stand.
Rock-Cut Tombs - To the west of the theatre the steep cliff is pock-marked with a huge number of closely-packed rock-cut tombs in an asymmetric pattern, all temple type rock-cut tombs. Most of them are from the 4th century BC, and many contain funeral scenes in relief, some scenes portraying the daily life of the deceased. Although most of the tombs are plain today, Charles Fellows tells that upon his discovery of the city in 1840 he found the tombs colorfully painted red, yellow and blue. The entire cliff face must have been a bright riot of color once upon a time.
Church of St. Nicholas - This church can be visited a short distance from the site of Myra and is well-worth the trip. Inside the church is the sarcophagus of St. Nicholas although his remains were taken to Italy during the Latin Crusades of the 11th century. It is said that upon smashing the lid of the tomb the thieves were almost overcome by the powerful smell of myrrh. However, the Venetians and Russians also claim to have the bones of the saint.