The transformation of the Metropolis of Myra into an Ottoman village

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By: Ebru Fatma Fındık
Research Assistant Hacettepe University, Faculty of Letters, Department of Art History, Beytepe, Ankara / TURKEY

Fig. 1: The house of a Turkish villager

The ancient city of Myra (mod. Demre) is situated in a plain of Lycia, surrounded by the Taurus Mountains to the north and by the Myros River (mod. Demra Çayı) to the east. Located to the south-west, on the banks of the Andrakos River, is its ancient harbour Andriake (mod. Çayağzı). The city has a large rural territory and during the Byzantine period the city had close religious, social, and economic ties with its territory (Foss 1996: 315).

Since 1989, the excavation and restoration work of the most important ecclesiastical building of the ancient city, the Church of St. Nicholas, has been carried out by the Art History Department of Hacettepe University. On the other hand, the excavations in the ancient city have been carried out by the Archaeology Department of Akdeniz University since 2009.

Myra, which was the metropolis of ancient Lycia, lost its importance and in the 16th century became an Ottoman village. This project investigates the process and the reasons for this transformation. The subject matter of the project is to shed light on the recent history of the region with the help of archaeological evidence unearthed during the excavation of the Church of St. Nicholas and other sources. In the first place we aim to document and to study the communities in the rural area based on their cultural and economic activities. The everyday objects used by the rural population, which differ from the material culture of the Ottoman elite, have the potential to reveal the everyday life in the villages and the transformation that the rural population went through. This is a work in progress and we aim to give a brief summary here.

The increasing interest in the Ottoman rural archaeology after 1980 has caused an increase in the number of works undertaken in this field (Baram and Carroll 2004). The generally overlooked life and social activities of the peasantry can very rarely be based on historical sources. Yet “archaeology is a way of ‘documenting’ the economic behaviour of the common people in the Ottoman period.” (Carroll 2004: 164). However in many archaeological sites the evidence pertaining to the recent past have either been ignored, or destroyed.

To understand this vast empire, which controlled three continents from the 14th century until the beginning of the 20th century, also means to reveal the history of the lands that it controlled. Historical sources are usually silent about the everyday life of the people of this empire who were spread in different geographical regions and formed many different ethnic groups. The study of everyday life based on archaeological evidence presents an opportunity to understand the social dynamics and the changes that took place. In this study the evidence for the material culture is presented as evidence of everyday life. Archaeological evidence allows us to have a glimpse about the Ottoman society. Moreover, the methods used in rural archaeology follow an inductive path which leads us to understand other parts of the same culture.

This is a multi disciplinary project involving archaeology, art history, architecture, cultural-social anthropology, ethno-archaeology, history, geography, literature, and art. The methodology is to interpret the archaeological evidence with ethnographic observations and support the results with historical sources, works of literature, and oral history.

The transformation of the metropolis of Myra into a village can be explained by historical and political events and natural catastrophes. Let us examine them in more detail.

Since the Early Byzantine period Myra owed its importance to the fact that St. Nicholas served as a bishop there and that a church was built over his tomb after his death. 6th century sources indicate that the tomb of the saint had become an important cult centre and was visited by pilgrims (Sevcenko 1984). Myra was declared as the metropolis of Lycia by Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) and its city walls were extended by Emperor Marcian (450-457). According to Malalas, Emperor Justinian (527-565) re-built the city which had been destroyed by an earthquake in 529 (Foss 1996: 23). Scholars believe that the Church of St. Nicholas was also built after this earthquake. Another earthquake which probably took place in 601-2 is accepted as the beginning of the decline of its harbour Andriake. Another reason for the decline of the harbour could be the plague epidemics that occurred between 542 and 748. (Duggan ve Aygün 2010:161).

The coastal areas of Lycia, situated on the maritime route from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to Constantinople were exposed to naval attacks. Starting from the 7th century, the Arab naval raids and sieges extending as far as the capital of the Byzantine Empire also affected Lycia. From the 7th century, until the sack of the city by Zirids of North Africa in 1034, Myra was directly or indirectly affected (Hellenkemper-Hild 2004: 121; Ötüken 2006b: 525).

Shortly afterwards the Turks arrived in the region. Even though it is generally accepted that the Turks started settling in Asia Minor after the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, C. Bayburtluoğlu indicated that Turkish troops serving in the Umayyad army  and “some nomadic Turkish tribes might have reached Lycia during the Arab naval raids aiming to capture Constantinople” (Bayburtluoğlu 2004 : 45). C. Foss states that the local Christians left the city after the arrival of the Turks in the aftermath of the battle of Manzikert and hence in 1087, the pirates from Bari could snatch and remove the relics of the saint to Bari without any difficulty (Foss 1996: 34). R. J. Lilie, states that Myra was in Turkish hands at the beginning of the 12th century and that there were more than 500 Turks in the city (Lilie 1984: 159-160).

A manar (tower/light house) believed to be built by Alaeddin Keykubat I (1221-1273) in Stamira, the medieval harbour of the city and Seljuk pottery and tile fragments found around the tower indicate that the region had been Turkified. (Duggan and Aygün 2010:163). Archaeological evidence indicating the presence of the Turks in the region is the coin of Izzeddin Keykavus II (1246-1262) found during the excavations of the church. Moreover, pottery fragments dated to the 12th-13th centuries indicate trade with Seljuks or other Islamic countries during the same period. (Fındık 2007: 521-528). A massive flood, which probably took place during the later Middle Ages caused serious damage in the church and the region.

The mention of a certain Beg-melik tribe in 16th century Ottoman records is also accepted as an evidence of Seljuk settlement in the region (Güçlü 2010: 308). The village of Beymelek near Demre is one of the oldest Turkish settlements in the region and has preserved its name up until today. Another piece of evidence indicating Turkish presence in the region is a base fragment of a Miletus-ware vessel dated to the 14th–15th centuries and found during the excavations in the church (Fındık 2007: 728-748).

The last bishop of Myra, whose name is attested in the historical sources is a certain Matthew (1383-1394). It is known that Myra was destroyed after 1350. In 1362, the king of Cyprus, Pierre de Lusignan, occupied and burnt it. In 1397 the anonymous last bishop was deposed and in the 15th century Myra was removed from the list of bishoprics. (Peshlow 1975; 1990).

The name of the city re-appears in the 16th century Ottoman tax registers which indicate that Myra was the name of the ancient city. The settlement named Temre/Demre has been recorded as a Christian village. These indicate that the settlement has preserved its demographic structure (Fındık 2007: 728-748). Turks were settled in villages within walking distance of Demre. During the Ottoman period Demre was a village of the sandjak of Kaş, in the Province of Teke Eli (Güçlü 2010: 307-308).

According to the 16th century records, the oldest mosque in Demre was Cami-i Salih Kethuda which is attested in the sources from 1530 onwards (Karaca 2002: 362; Güçlü 2010: 308). In the 17th century, upon intelligence from the residents of Tekyeşinler village concerning the security situation of the Kaş district, the traveller Katip Celebi diverted his route and hence does not provide any information about this region (Güçlü 2010: 309). In the 18th century, according to the records of the local mufti office, there was a mosque dated to 1718 with a cemetery behind it in the village of Köyiçi (mod. Alakent).

Documentary and archaeological evidence dating from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century present much more information in order to re-construct the settlement history. The subject matter of this project is the archaeological evidence from this period. The main reason for the study of the archaeological material is to detect the differences in the lifestyles of the Turkish and Greek communities. How were the social and cultural relations between the two communities? Were there any differences in their material cultures? How was cultural difference reflected in daily life and habits? How were the economics behaviours of both communities? Various similar questions can be produced.

In the quest for answers to those questions in addition to archaeological evidence, the notes, diaries, drawings, photos, maps and plans produced by tourists, travellers, archaeologists and architects who visited this region from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, form an important source of information. Another important source is the novel Karabibik written by Nabizade Nazim and presented in 2007 by myself as a source to be used in archaeological and art historical research (Fındık 2007, 2008, 2010). This novel, written by Nabizade who visited the region in 1890s on a military mission, is known as the first realistic rural novel of Turkish literature. The examination of the novel and its observations about the region has been completed and presented in various papers between 2007 and 2010. Its accuracy has been confirmed by personal observation. The novel is a unique source enabling us to understand the daily lives of Turkish and Greek communities and their social, cultural and economic relations during the Ottoman period.

It is generally thought that the Ottoman peasantry was more resistant to change and was not greatly affected by the economic movements in the Ottoman world. However this work could indicate differences in places like Demre which was on the Mediterranean coast and had a mixed demographic structure. The changes in the trade networks of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century and the increasing penetration of European products into the Ottoman realm are considered to be the reflections of industrial capitalism. Demre presents a good model to investigate the effects of these changes on a rural settlement and consequently the economic and political history of the empire.

This project also detects the reflections of the “modernisation” movement which gained pace after Tanzimat (1839), on Ottoman rural settlements. Traditional houses were covered by tiles imported from Marseille, Livorno, and Thessalonica. Porcelain dishes and other items imported from Europe started to be used in houses. All these were seen as the “modernisation” of daily life. Ottoman archaeology clearly determines the difference between local and imported products. It also allows us to study the global economy and the mechanism by which imported products penetrated the countryside and their effects. Local and European products present their own stories within this commercial and economic dynamic. Imported products could be investigated in terms of a larger framework of international archaeology as well as on their own. Archaeological evidence not only helps us in understanding rural life but also in determining its relations with the imperial administration.

Fig. 2: Yusuf Aga Konağı

Yusuf Aga Konağı, in Demre which survived from the late 19th century reveals clues about domestic consumption and the daily life of the Turks in the region. On the other hand the descriptions of Nabizade Nazim shed light on the life of a poor Turkish peasant in his relations with the Greeks in the 19th century. The archaeological material excavated in the cemetery located to the north of the Church of St. Nicholas provide interesting details about the consumption patterns, traditions, and culture of the Greek community. The Greek population of the region had been deported to the island of Meis in 1920s during the Turkish-Greek population exchange programme. Our investigations in the island during the summer of 2012, and the comparison of the archaeological evidence from the church indicated that the two communities had close economic and cultural ties even before the deportation thanks to the presence of the holy church. Once the similarities and differences between the Turkish and Greek communities are determined, we can then get a better understanding of the 19th century Ottoman rural population.

All the archaeological evidence, reinforced by the descriptions Nabizade Nazim presented to us in his novel and by the historical, literary, and oral historical sources present to us the archaeological story and documentary of the village of Demre.


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