Pic of the Day 2018-10-03: Sela and “The Rock”

A brief mention of “wondrous” landscapes in my graduate Geography seminar last night and tonight’s episode of a daring Bible study series at University Baptist Church have inspired me to return to my recently neglected blog with this Pic of the Day (actually several pics) installment; which also clearly rates cross-listing as a You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour post!   

Brett Harris, new co-pastor at UBC, is leading a study of “Overlooked and Avoided Scriptures,” with frank discussion on seeking the good news in neglected or troubling passages. Tonight was the whole (1 chapter) book of Obadiah, frequently described as a song of hatred against Edom. Edom was a brother nation to Israel/Judah (descended from Esau, older twin of Jacob/Israel) with which Judah had an ugly sibling rivalry. During the study I looked with interest at the translation of Obadiah 3 which makes reference to Edom living in the “clefts of the rock (from which the LORD will bring them down in v. 4). “Rock” renders the Hebrew Sela‘, which also designates a place by that name. I also grabbed a copy of The Good News Bible, a translation known for its line-drawing illustrations, curious to see how it handled Obadiah. It included this illustration:

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The Good News Bible got it right. The site of Sela is still called today (in Arabic) es-Sela. The place was rightly called “The Rock” by its inhabitants: 

Sela:
Sela, at left-center and center, is a deceptively large, rugged, and isolated massif in the mountains of Edom, today southern Jordan; for scale, the end of a paved road might be made out at right center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

The path up, from about two thirds of the way there (You definitely Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour):

Sela: Katy Bynum, Shane McInnis, Gabe May, Jana Barkley
Sela: the entrance path (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela:
Remains of the entry gate of the plateau at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

What passes for a plateau is a jumble of deep crevices, higher peaks, and dome-shaped rocks incised with hints of the structures once built onto, under, and atop them.

Sela: Shane McInnis
One of  Sela’s many rock-cut structures (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela: Katy Bynum
Sela: hints of former grandeur (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

It is truly a “wondrous” landscape, with no other human beings in sight, which practically forces you to contemplate what once was there and what happened.

Sela: Stacey Figueiredo
Wonder(ing) woman at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)
Sela: Shane McInnis
Wondering man at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

The site is unexcavated but surface finds indicate its most intense occupation was during the Iron II period, the time of the Israelite kingdoms and Obadiah. Sela also appears in 2 Kings 14:7 and 2 Chronicles 25:12 (often translated “a rock), where ten thousand Edomites were thrown from the top by the Judean king Amaziah.

Sela:
View from near the top of Sela; there is that road again, and just below the end of the road (at center) stands my lovely wife, wondering what possessed us to climb “The Rock” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

Did Obadiah’s prediction of doom for Edom and Sela literally occur? Ironically, it may have been by the hand of the same enemy that vanquished Judah and occasioned the prophet’s railing against the “brother” nation for not rendering aid. The enigmatic last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (555–539 BC), is known to have campaigned near Edom. An unreadable monumental inscription in Babylonian style, surely commemorating a conquest, can be seen on the lower slopes of the Sela massif. 

Sela: Nabonidus Inscription
An inscription, in the rectangular frame on the stone face at top center, features a Babylonian king (almost certainly Nabonidus), symbols of Babylonian deities, and an illegible cuneiform text (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

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The Lost Derelict Aircraft

As I noted in my last Derelict Warplanes I have Known post, some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. And some serendipitous ones have surprises.

It was 9 July 2004, during a family vacation to Hawai‘i. Earlier in the day we had climbed Diamond Head, the extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki Beach, and explored some World War II bunkers. Then we decided to go as far as possible around the North Shore of Oahu. No one else was around as we reached the end of the paved road at Mokule’ia Beach. Not far beyond, we topped a small rise and were shocked to see debris from an apparent plane crash—and no small plane; it was a major wide-body commercial jet! A large jet engine (most of it) was just out toward the beach from us, a few airliner seats were sitting about, and a pile of broken bits were collected as if for sorting.

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Parts of a jet engine on Mokule’ia Beach; Oahu, HawaiʻiHawaiʻi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Confused by the expected sight, it took me a few moments to realize something was not right. Not that I am an expert on crashes, but the debris field was too compact and too recognizable. There was no sign of fire. The wreckage was apparently that of a Lockheed L-1011. That didn’t make much sense because major air carriers had phased the L-1011 out by 2001, and it was only used by third-world airlines by 2004. A partial airline name and logo were visible on the aft fuselage (the forward part of the airframe was nowhere in sight).

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Aft fuselage with partial airline name and logo on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A crane was attached to the to the aft fuselage as though cleaning up the site. But I had heard nothing of a crash. Had we really been so absorbed in our Hawaii vacation not to have seen such news? Also, there were no NTSB people with clipboards around. In fact, no one seemed to be there . . . until we noticed a lone guy nearly asleep in a fold-up chair in the shade.

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Assorted plane crash debris, apparently collected, on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The man was a guard. Having disturbed him, our access to the debris was limited (darn it). But he also confirmed my growing suspicion: this was a film set. He said it was for a “movie” called Lost. I managed to get a few pictures seen here (they are not great—I had finally retired my old 35mm film camera and digital photography was still iffy).

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Inverted aft fuselage of Lockheed L-1011 on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

That fall, ABC debuted its hit TV series Lost. The whole family became fervent fans and reveled in our recognition of the early episode scenes. In the end (if you watched the whole series, you know what I mean), we had mixed feelings about Lost, but it was a great ride we might have missed if not for the derelict plane . . . that wasn’t really.

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As close as I got to the engine on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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The Aftereffects of Storms

Some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. This post’s subject is such a case. It was during a research trip in Turkey in late May of 2011. My former student and then colleague Mark Nicovich and I had been dogged by a nasty Anatolian spring thunderstorm all day. The storm caught us on the unprotected plateau of “Midas City” and, apparently making up for an earlier near miss, hit us with an unmerciful downpour and then pelted us with hail for about 20 minutes. The glories of the site (a future post, no doubt) made the assault quite worth it, even though the Canon SLR I borrowed from my daughter Rachel, was killed by the soaking.

Midas city:
With the assailant moving away to the Northeast; Mark Nicovich stands drenched and battered on the acropolis plateau of Midas City, a Phrygian site named for the most famous Phrygian king (late morning of 28 May 2011; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

We returned to our rental Skoda and headed along a parallel path with the storm, intent on beating it to Gordion, the ancient Phrygian capital, some distance away. After a brief stop at Amorium, we were driving rather speedily northward when I spied two planes off to the right, near a major interchange: an old biplane of some kind and an unmistakable F-4E Phantom jet. Despite the race with the storm, the unidentified biplane dictated a stop. We took the ramp of the interchange, pulled over on the side of the highway, got out, and crossed the access road by foot to what now was obviously a monument display. Thankfully, I had my small backup Sony camera in my pocket.

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Roadside Sivrihisar Uçağı monument in Eskişehir Province, Turkey, featuring a Breguet 14 (replica) and (incongruously) an F-4E Phantom; both Turkish Air Force veterans (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane of interest (nothing against the F-4E, but they are common) proved to be a Breguet 14, a World War I French bomber/scout plane mounted on concrete pedestals! A century-old largely wood and fabric airframe would never be appropriate to mount on an all-weather permanent display, so I was not surprised (but a little sad) to find that the Breguet 14 was a replica (but a well-done one, and thus deemed fit for this series). 

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument; and the edge of the lurking thunderstorm (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Breguet 14 was a French designed and built World War I workhorse, operating as a two-seat scout plane and bomber. Its incorporation of comparatively large amounts of metal in the airframe was innovative and made it one of the most durable planes of the war. Consequently, it continued in production after the war and was used in a number of airforces into the 1930s. That included Turkey. Which brings us to this particular memorialized plane.

Translation of the signage reveals that during the Turkish War of Independence the people of the Sivrihisar district of Eskişehir Province (where the monument is located) raised money and bought the plane for the nascent Turkish Air Force as a contribution to the war effort. In gratitude for the patriotic act, the Breguet was named Sivrihisar Uçağı, meaning “Sivrihisar aircraft.

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The replica Breguet 14 of the Sivrihisar Uçağı monument with explanatory signage . . . and our surprisingly fast and durable rental Skoda (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A little extra research revealed that the donation was raised by Sivrihisar residents after their occupation and then liberation in the Battle of Sakarya, one of the pivotal campaigns of the Turkish War of Independence. During that battle, a Greek Air Force Breguet was captured by forced landing, put into service by Turkey, and named Sakarya Uçağı (see here for that info in Turkish). I surmise that the utility of that plane was the inspiration for the purchase of the Sivrihisar Uçağı, and it provided the precedent for naming the latter. So the storm of conflict brought out Turkish resolve.

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The Sivrihisar Uçağı Breguet 14, captured from the Greeks (pic from www.HAVACIYIZ.com)

Speaking of Turkish resolve . . . immediately after our visit to the monument and pulling back on the highway, we were flagged down by a waiting Turkish policeman. Unlike many before him on our journey, he spoke excellent English and explained that we were speeding. As we had not even gotten up to speed when he pulled me over, I protested briefly. He calmly explained that he had detected our speed from the other side of the other highway before we had exited. He thought we had tried to avoid apprehension by doing so and was waiting for us, but I explained that we saw the biplane and turned to investigate. He understood and we had a nice talk about the history of the airplane. Then he issued my summons and gave friendly instructions on how to pay. We parted as friends, Mark and I admiring his Turkish sense of duty and patriotism, and the officer appreciative of our interest in his history.

In the end, we beat the storm (barely) to Gordion, where we had a nice visit and another reminder of the good things that can emerge from storms:

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Tumuli (tombs) and corn poppies (of a decidedly Turkish red) that emerge after spring rains at Gordion (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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Derelict Aircraft I have Known, number Zero

My piece on a derelict Soviet MiG 17 jet fighter aircraft in Texas was something of a departure from the usual Ancient Dan fare, to be sure. To continue that theme as a series of occasional posts will permit me to do several things: 1) indulge my interest in old historical aircraft; 2) share a bit of my own background; 3) conduct a little research on claims or appearances; and 4) show pictures of old ruined stuff. This entry attempts to do all four (not necessarily in that order).

I inherited a love of airplanes from my Dad, who—as confirmed by his own mother—apparently announced at the age of five that he wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. He did that, graduating in Aeronautical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology in 1955.

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My Dad, Daniel C Browning Jr (yes, we have EXACTLY the same name), checking the propeller of his first aircraft; about 1935

While in college Dad became aware of a WWII Japanese Zero sitting in the small back lot of the privately-owned Atlanta Museum on the edge of downtown, within walking distance from Georgia Tech. He would occasionally trot over there to see the derelict plane, a rare example of a famous type that made its appearance to U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor and outperformed all American aircraft at the beginning of the war (only a decade before Dad’s matriculation at The Institute). 

When I was quite young, Dad showed me the Zero during one of many trips to Atlanta to attend Tech football games. After I enrolled at The Institute in 1974 (as an Aerospace Engineering major) I would also go and visit the Zero from time to time. I will admit now that I never paid for admission to the museum itself, because one could simply drive to the street behind the building and access the ungated lot after hours! It was “Ground Zero” for my appreciation of derelict historical aircraft.

Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Remains of a WWII Japanese Naval fighter aircraft, Mitsubishi A6M Reisen, Allied codename “Zeke,” but popularly known as “Zero,” behind the Atlanta Museum in March 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note the sign in the background]
I showed the Zero to numerous friends, who may have appreciated the historical significance of the famed fighter aircraft but usually did not share my fascination with the sad remains. Most of the pictures here are from a visit in March 1978, with several Huntsville buddies in tow, made with a Kodak Instamatic 126-film camera I kept in my 1967 VW Beetle.

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Bygone warbird and 70’s “Free Bird” hair: buddy Glenn Wills with remains of a Japanese Zero behind the Atlanta Museum in 1978 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Mitsubishi A6M5 type 52 "Zeke" ("Zero") fighter, behind Atlanta Museum
Wing of Mitsubishi Zero fighter, behind Atlanta Museum; note damage from removal of cannon armament and faintly visible U.S. white star insignia under repainted Japanese red sun marking (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Now for the nerdy and research stuff. Many sites provide good histories of warplanes, including the Japanese Zero, so I will not rehearse that here. But the now-defunct Atlanta Museum advertised its Zero, the one I frequently visited, as the first one captured by U.S. forces in WWII (a claim documented here). The story of the first recovery of an intact Zero (by U.S. Navy in the Aleutian Islands campaign of 1942; (see Wikipedia’s excellent review) is fascinating and the specific plane was significant for American intelligence and strategy for countering the superior-performing Japanese fighter.

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The “Akutan Zero,” recovered on Akutan Island in the Aleutians in 1942; the damaged plane was intentionally crash-landed with the intent of rescue by a Japanese submarine stationed for that purpose, but the landing gear stuck in the bog and flipped the Zero, killing the pilot (photo: U.S. Navy); Note the carburetor intake and exhaust ports under the nose of this A6M2 model 21 Zero

The specific Zero captured on Akutan Island in the Aleutians was an A6M2 model 21, the early type used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. But, already in the 1970s, I could see (as an obviously nerdy type) that the Zero I knew so well was a later A6M5 model 52. The giveaway was the later larger engine with carburetor intake at the top and exhaust manifolds distributed along the side of the (missing) cowling instead of a pair underneath the nose. The Atlanta Museum Zero could not be the same plane as the Akutan Zero! [I think I warned that this was the nerdy research part—but it does combine my loves of warplanes and historical research.] The relevant bits can be seen in my first Zero photo above and in this one: 

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Mitsubishi A6M5 model 52 Zero owned by the Atlanta Musuem in 1978; note late model carb intake on top of engine and side exhaust ports (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr) [Note to those who would appreciate it: the “Blue Thing with Teeth” was edited out.]
Some digging has revealed that despite the Atlanta Museum’s claim, their Zero was captured later in the war, apparently with several others on Saipan, and shipped to the U.S. for evaluation—according to the Warbirds Directory. That source, however, still identifies the former Atlanta Museum plane as an A6M2 model 21 (listing here in pdf form, [see third entry]), which it clearly is not. In any case, the Atlanta Museum closed in 1993 and the Zero was eventually procured by the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington, where it is displayed in unrestored condition.

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The Atlanta Museum Zero in the Flying Heritage & (photo courtesy Randy Malmstrom)

An excellent album of pictures of the Zero in its new home (source of the one above) can be seen here on Facebook, including a good history properly identifying it as an A6M5 type 52. 

I have not yet visited the Zero in the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum. Dad would have loved to see it.

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A Relic of the Forgotten and Cold Wars (that now seem less forgotten and cold)

A MiG 17! I had seen it in the 1980s and was immediately interested. But I never had time to stop and my usual route changed. But things changed again (as they often do), it was still there I noticed, and finally I recently stopped to take a gander.

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MiG 17 nose and cockpit (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The MiG (Mikoyan-Gurevich) 17 was a development of (and visually difficult to distinguish from) the MiG 15, which was the first Soviet-built operational swept-wing fighter jet. The MiG 15’s combat debut in the Korean War stunned the United States Air Force, brought American daytime bombing raids to a halt, and signalled increased Russian interference in the Korean War (see that very interesting story here). Seventy years on, we are still having angst over North Korean acquisition of advanced military technology and getting evidence of Russian nefarious interference . . .

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MiG 17 alongside US 80 In Forney, TX (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
Produced in the U.S.S.R., and by contract in China and Poland, the MiG 17 (and variant designations) was a mainstay of Soviet Bloc and other communist countries’ air forces for much of the Cold War period. It did not achieve operational status during the Korean War, but was used in large numbers by the North Korean air force for years and is still in service there. The MiG 17 was operated by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and scored several stunning victories over technically superior USAF fighters.

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MiG 17 on an antique row in Forney, TX; note the square painted-over emblems under the red star insignia (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Back to the specific plane that occasioned this piece. It has greeted observant drivers since at least the mid-1980s alongside US 80 east of Dallas, among a stretch of antique dealers in Forney, Texas. The Mig is parked in front of De Ridder Antiques, which I found in June of 2018 with signs proclaiming “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.”

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MiG 17 in front of De Ridder Antiques, which has other oddities, including the “South Park” schoolbus with characters in the windows, a giant gorilla, and (inside) a very large architectural model of the Ulm Cathedral (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The plane sports the red star insignia of the U.S.S.R., visible from the highway. But on closer inspection, I saw that the red stars were painted over square patches of silver paint, covering other symbols. I surmised that the MiG 17 had once belonged to the Polish air force, which used a square insignia. My suspicion was heightened by a Polish word on one of the service covers under the fuselage and then confirmed by the proprietress of the adjacent store, who I take to have been Willie de Ridder. Sadly, my inquiry as to whether the MiG 17 was for sale was met with word that it was already sold. Whether the MiG stays alongside US 80 remains to be seen. I do hope it remains to be seen, as a reminder of past conflict and a warning against going there again.
While something of a departure from my usual musings, I may do more with “derelict warplanes I have known” if there is sufficient interest.
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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui, part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu

Fulfilling a promise in my first post of this series, this bit takes up the well-known “heads”—more accurately, statues—of Easter Island. Properly called moai, they are the iconic images of the island, recognized my almost everyone, but generally without context.

The moai were indeed made as nearly full statues, complete with torsos but no legs. Nearly 1,000 examples are known on the 164 square-kilometer island. The famous images everyone recognizes of the “heads” are the better-preserved and more photogenic examples that remained upright in the quarry where they were produced. These were buried by scree and soil to various levels and present an eerie scene. Some 397 moai remain in the Rano Raraku quarry where almost all moai were carved. The map below shows the concentration of known moai in and around the quarry.

Rano Raraku
Moai buried to different extents on the outer slope of Rano Raraku quarry (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Moai were made for display on large megalithic platforms called ahu.1 Ahu were constructed for ritual/ceremonial use and are similar to religious platforms on other Polynesian islands, the most familiar examples being the heiau of Hawai’i. Easter Island is literally ringed by over 300 ahu along its rocky coast, about half of those once featuring moai.

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Ahu and Moai of Easter Island, with physical features and inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Today, a number of ahu are restored with their toppled moai re-erected. Modern cranes were used for the restorations, which naturally begs the question of how the prehistoric period Rapanui (natives of the island) managed to do it. Thus we have one of the so-called “mysteries” of Easter Island. Another is how they were moved (as much as 9 miles). More on these things later, but . . .  << SPOILER ALERT >> . . . it was not Ancient Aliens!

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Ahu Akivi, with its seven restored moai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

While the focus for observers is naturally the moai, the ahu themselves were impressive undertakings involving moving hundreds of tons of volcanic rock. Many “image ahu” (the ones with moai) featured “wings” extending the platform area significantly beyond the statues (perhaps for rituals displaced by the moai?).

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Ahu Akivi, from the side, showing the wing extensions and platform construction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

One more quick fact: the moai are often erroneously said to be looking out to sea. In fact, on coastal ahu they always look inland; embodying the mana (divine power) of deceased chiefs as sentinels over the adjacent settlements. One of the most photographed ahu and moai is at Tahai, on the edge of Hanga Roa, the lone town on Rapa Nui:

Tahai: Ahu Ko Te Riku
Ahu Ko Te Riku, with its lone moai at Tahai (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Are those eyes and a headdress? In a future installment, we’ll look at details and embellishments of moai . . . , but next in Part 3: how were they made?

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[Updated 2 July 2018: better map!]


1Moai and ahu are both singular and plural.

The Places and Faces of St. Nicholas: St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place? Part 3 (Pic of the Day 2017-12-26)

“Santa is dead; I have been to all three of his tombs!” That tongue-in-cheek potential presentation title is the idea of beloved former student, now-former colleague, and fine scholar, J Mark Nicovich. The conundrum of three tombs (plus many other claimed relics) arises from the traditions that St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now Demre in Turkey), was buried in that city but his remains were stolen on two different occasions and taken (ahem, . . . “translated”) to Bari in southern Italy in 1087 and Venice, in northern Italy in 1101. Thus, there are Churches of St. Nicholas in all three locations, each claiming to enshrine the resting place for the inspiration and namesake of Santa Claus. See Part 1 of this Trilogy on “St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place?” here (and Part 2 here).

So, which church/city possesses the real relics of St. Nicholas? As it happens, recent months have seen some significant developments in this question.

In early October of 2017 Cemil Karabayram, Director of Surveying and Monuments for the region in which Myra/Demre is located (Antalya), claimed in an interview that CT and radar scans had revealed an intact “temple” beneath the St. Nicholas Church. The exact location is not revealed by the article, but he indicated that the find is currently inaccessible “because experts have to first work on the mosaics.”1

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Interior of St. Nicholas Church, from the choir apse (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Karabayram speculated, “maybe we will find the untouched body of St. Nicholas.” How can this be, given the two accounts of the “translation” of the Saint’s relics to Bari and Venice? “Traders in Bari took the bones. But it is said that these bones did not belong to St. Nicholas but to another priest,” he said, adding. “Professor Yıldız Ötüken . . . says that St Nicholas is kept in a special section.” “We claim that St. Nicholas has been kept in this temple without any damage. . . . If we get the results, Antalya’s tourism will gain big momentum.”2

Myra: Church of St Nicolaus
Choir apse of St. Nicholas Church, Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The claim that Nicholas’ body has remained in Myra/Demre is significant; and the note that tourism would be boosted if it is found is telling. Are city status and tourist revenues a motivation? Bari and Venice surely took note . . .

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Dome fresco in St Nicholas Church of Myra/Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)
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Decorated apse in St Nicholas Church, Myra/Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

On 6 December (significantly, the date of St. Nicholas’ death and Feast Day), articles announced that relics of St. Nicholas subjected to Carbon 14 analysis by the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre dated to the fourth century; i.e., consistent with the AD 343 death of the historical bishop. Careful sifting of the published info reveals that the single bone tested is owned by an American priest in Morton Grove Illinois, who says he obtained the relic from Lyon in France.3 By inference, the Oxford University news release suggests that the bones in Bari and Venice therefore could date to the fourth century as well. There is no solid connection between the American relic and those in the Italian churches. But the Bari relics of St. Nicholas are missing part of the pelvis, of which the tested bone apparently comes.

During restorations at Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola in the early 1950s, the tomb of St. Nicholas was opened for the first time since it was sealed by Pope Urban II in 1089. The bones were examined by Luigi Martino, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bari, who found the skeleton was incomplete. A complete skull, however, allowed reconstruction of the ancient face—that of Nicholas, if the bones are authentic.4 In 1992, Martino was asked to examine the relics in Venice. The latter were all broken into smaller pieces, but he concluded that the Venice fragments were complementary to the bones in Bari and they are from the skeleton of the same man. A narrative that the Bari sailors in 1087 hurriedly absconded with the skeleton and left pieces behind to be found in 1099 by the Venetian raiders is thus possible.5  So, in a spirit of ecumenical peace, the Bari and Venice claims can coexist and they can share the reconstructed image of the Saint adored in both places. The logical—but unlikely—next step is to use DNA analysis to connect the bones of Bari and Venice, and either radiocarbon date them or include the Illinois fragment in the DNA analysis. This, however, would spoil the remaining mystery.

Meanwhile, back at Demre/Myra, we await further archaeological explorations in the Church of St. Nicholas. As for the image of St. Nicholas there, there is already some controversy, as the city has displayed four different images of the Saint in the last 35 years.6 From 1981 to 2000, the only public image was a statue of a Father Christmas-like figure with a bag over his shoulder and children huddled around him, as if seeking protection. It still stands in the courtyard in front of St. Nicholas Church. In my mind, this is the most appropriate one, given the controversy that followed (it might be noted that moving/replacing statues is not a new thing):

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“Father Christmas” statue near St. Nicholas Church in Demre/Myra (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

In 2000, a Russian sculptor and the mayor of Moscow presented Demre with a bronze statue of St. Nicholas in Orthodox style, which was placed atop a large globe on a pedestal in the town square, a block or so in front of the church.

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The bronze “Orthodox St. Nicholas” statue, now in a courtyard outside the entrance to St. Nicholas Church (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

In 2005, however, the Orthodox Christian St. Nicholas was replaced by the town council with a red-suited Santa Claus statue made of Bakelite (as I never saw the Santa statue in place, you can view a pic here). Demre’s mayor, explained “this is the one everyone knows;” plus, it was also less offensive to the city’s Muslim population.7 Nevertheless, complains were made, primarily by Russian interests, as St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia. Finally (for now), and perhaps in response to protests, a compromised was reached on Christmas Day 2008, when the current statue atop the pedestal was unveiled:

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The “Turkish Santa” now in the town square at Demre (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

It is a fiberglass “Turkish Santa” with a heroic stance and victorious mien, holding a small child on his shoulder and another by the hand, each raising a wrapped gift. Controversy aside; I like it.

Actually, I like them all. The changing images (and names) of St. Nicholas are a commentary on social roles of hero figures, cultural appropriation, tribalism . . . and really on human nature. Most Americans of recent generations experienced an evolution (or revolution) in their own concepts of Santa Claus while maturing, not so unlike the changes of statues in Demre. And as for the question of the travels (or not) of Nicholas’ bones; I am taken back to the catalyst for this series of posts: the NORAD tracking of Santa on Christmas Eve, mentioned in Part 1. While the notion that government technology could track his sleigh is exciting, and the website is visually impressive (and educational), I cant help feeling that it robs something from that childhood wonder at the mysterious how and unknown when of Santa’s anticipated arrival. Then I realized the technology and presentation didn’t really answer anything—there is always more mystery and wonder. So, that is why I rather suspect (and perhaps secretly hope) that the true fate of Nicholas’ remains will remain similarly unknown. Life is just more interesting that way.

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Notes

1 Salim Uzun, “Body of St Nicholas buried in Demre, claim officials,” Hürriyet Daily News, 4 October 2017. 
2 ibid; from what I can determine, all other news items giving this information cite/depend on this original English article.
3 “Could Ancient Bones Suggest Santa was Real?” http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-12-05-could-ancient-bones-suggest-santa-was-real, 5 December 2017. Note also the unwarranted sensationalism of the news release title; and from Oxford! Really?
4 See the concise and excellent overview at “Anatomical Examination of the Bari Relics, St. Nicholas Centerhttp://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/anatomical-examination/; including reconstructions of the face!
5Is St. Nicholas in Venice, too?,” St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/relics-in-the-lido-of-venice/.
6 Again, the best summary of this is found at the St. Nicholas Center site: “Four Faces of Nicholas—Who is He in His Hometown?,” St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/demre-statues/.
7 Karl Vick, “Turkish Town Exchanges St. Nick for Santa: Local Hero’s Statue Moved From Square,” Washington Post, 24 March 2005, p. A01.