From antiquity, the unique geography and natural richness of Lycia has been shaped by the settlements of independent-minded people. In their funeral architecture and co-operative governance, which provides an early lesson for present-day democracy, we can see how their daily surroundings reflected their belief in life after death. In the 4th C AD, the most famous Orthodox Christian Saint Nicholas was born at Patara and died at Myra; later, in the 6th C, Saint Nicholas of Sion, well-known as the founder of a monastery, was born at Pharroa, in the mountains above Myra, and was interred at his monastery at Tragalassos. The miracles of these saints give a universal significance to this region.
The first encounter of the Lycians with Christianity was when St Paul, on his 3rd missionary journey, visited Myra and Patara. During the 2nd and 3rd century, Christianity was lightly dispersed but, by the 5th and 6th centuries, the most prosperous period of the Byzantine Empire, it had developed much further. As the Byzantines followed the Classic period, large churches were added to existing settlements.
During the Christian period, Myra and its diocese was the most important region of Lycia. The main reason was the fame throughout the Christian world of two important people – Bishop Nicholas and Nicholas, Abbot of the Monastery of Sion.
For nearly every religion, pilgrimage has a special significance in the life of an individual. For anyone that can perform it, pilgrimage functions as a spiritually cleansing experience, a way to form ties with fellow believers and spiritual guides, and a ceremony of worship. To meet this universal need, within a short time the 4th C Saint Nicholas, protector of children and sailors, and the 6th C Saint Nicholas of Sion, founder of the monastery, had transformed Myra into a centre of pilgrimage.
The Byzantine period saw a further dramatic change – the establishment of monasteries, especially in the mountainous areas around Myra. These high hills and deep valleys have always offered more protection than the coast from such disasters as piracy, invasions, or epidemics. The area is well suited to those who want to retreat from the world, cultivate their own garden in seclusion and search for God through prayer and worship. Additionally, at the beginning of the 4th C, Christians, who were expelled on the orders of the emperor from nearby cities such as Arycanda, found a refuge where they could practise their religion.
Therefore, ease of defence, fertile land and a position on the pilgrimage routes contributed to the development of monastic life. In several centres such as Karabel/Asarcık, Alacahisar, Devekuyusu, Dikmen, Yılanbaşı and Danabaşı, monumental churches and surrounding monastery buildings were erected. These monasteries became power centres important enough to affect economic and social life.
Alongside the monasteries, rather than large scale settlements, thickly scattered small villages, farmhouses and manorhouses were founded on agriculturally productive land. Churches formed part of these rural settlements. Historical and architectural data shows us that around the middle of the 6th C the rural population of Myra’s mountains peaked. We can see this population density clearly from the fact that settlements were so closely packed together.
As the monastic settlements were in the countryside, the priests performed the manual labour or directed the work of agricultural production to provide for all their basic needs. Like the monks, families generally built their homes on sheltered hills and surrounded them with terraced fields where, as well as producing grapes, olives and cereals, they could keep animals and manage the forest to meet the daily requirements of life. Around homes and churches, cut into the bedrock, are wine workshops which, due to the hardness of the rock, have been well preserved from these early days to the present time. Due to a limited natural water supply, the needs of each home and church were provided from its own cisterns. To meet common needs and the requirements of travellers, cisterns were also made at regular intervals along the ancient roads.
The region was so special that its own artists and craftsmen developed in its workshops. The monasteries and houses built here were constructed with locally produced materials and employed local motifs, compositions, patterns and styles of decoration.
Today, except for some modern buildings constructed in the centres of villages, the slopes of Masikytos, Myra’s mountain district, still support traditional agricultural production set in a natural landscape dissected by traces of roads and cisterns used since ancient times in a pattern of mystery, mysticism and magic. The main character in this mystery is undoubtedly Nicholas of Sion. Present-day researchers are still puzzled by the issue of which of the surviving settlements and churches can be identified with the settlements and churches described in the story of his life, known as the Vita, written immediately after his death. The chief mystery is the location of the Monastery of Sion which Nicholas founded.
Until now, the scientific community has not acknowledged the cultural richness of Masikytos, where Nicholas of Sion lived. Under the scope of the project known as “Demre and Beymelek Culture and Faith Tourism Development of Saint Nicholas’s Travels”, as this sacred region is developed for tourism, both believers and curious explorers will gather to rediscover the ways of Saint Nicholas.
Visitors to the region will encourage local people to make investments to meet tourism demand and thus provide economic development. Also, with increasing recognition, more scientists will show an interest in researching the area and conducting excavations at the holy places mentioned in the Vita of Saint Nicholas. The result will be the identifcation of the location of Sion Monastery.
Beymelek, selected as the centre of the project, was inhabited in Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine times. But two facts distinguish this small town from its neighbours: firstly, according to the evidence of 16th C Ottoman records from Demre, the tribe known as the Beg-Melik settled here, on land granted for the Selçuk Sultan’s son; and secondly, in 1880 Nabiba Nazim wrote the first realistic village novel of Turkish literature, ‘Karabibik’, in and about Beymelek.
The first houses built by the Turkish nomads who long ago settled in this area have been brought to life in the “Future Heritage – Beymelek Stone Houses’’ project, under which village houses with distinctive features have been restored for the use of visitors. The chance to explore religious history as well as the Lycian Way, plus an introduction to the region’s unique architecture, culture and people will give visitors pleasant daydreams, warm feelings, mental peace and fond memories which will last when they return home until their next visit…..