Santa's tomb is found off Turkey: Academics claim to have found where St Nicholas was buried. David Keys reports

HISTORIANS believe they have found the original tomb of Santa Claus (Father Christmas) - on an island off the coast of Turkey.

A team of academics who were searching the Mediterranean island of Gemile near Fethiye for traces of ancient environmental damage stumbled instead upon the ruins of an early Christian pilgrimage centre.

Their research into the 1,600- year-old site now strongly suggests that the attraction for early pilgrims was the original tomb of Saint Nicholas - a fourth-century late Roman bishop, these days better known as Santa Claus.

On the island are the ruins of five churches dating from the fourth to sixth centuries, around 40 other ecclesiastical buildings from the same period, at least 50 Christian tombs, and a 350-metre long processional way.

Six key pieces of evidence suggest that Santa Claus died on the island and was buried there - inside a rock-cut church on the isle's highest point. Firstly, research by a team of American and European historians - attached to Earthwatch, the international science and environment organisation - have revealed that in medieval times, the place was called St Nicholas Island by seafarers.

The first church pilgrims would have seen appears to have been dedicated to St Nicholas. His name is painted on part of the ruined building. The island is only 20 miles from Patara where Santa Claus is believed to have been born in the third century.

The layout of the complex with its processional way, dominated by churches and tombs, is typical of what one would expect to find at a saint's shrine of this period. And St Nicholas is the only Christian saint traditionally associated with this part of Turkey.

The archaeological remains show that the site dates from the right period - the fourth century. St Nicholas is said to have died in 326. And finally, there is the traditional Turkish name for the island - Gemile Adasi, the Island of Sailors. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors.

The ruins of the church where the historians believe St Nicholas was buried are located on the highest point of the island at the western end of the great processional way. The site's rocky nature meant that part of it had to be hewn out of the rock. It is probable that the saint's body was interred underneath the altar now obscured under rubble at the church's east end.

Historians think the area was deserted when in the 650s an Arab fleet threatened it. They believe the bones of St Nicholas were then moved to the relative safety of a slightly more inland site - the town of Myra, 40kms (25 miles) to the east. The saint had made his name as a great worker of miracles while bishop of Myra, and academics had assumed that the town was his first burial place. His bones now rest in the Italian city of Bari, where they were taken in 1087 by a special expedition.

Santa Claus's saintly life began, according to early medieval writers, shortly after he was born. In his first day of life he is said to have stood up in his bath and praised God. Legend holds that he insisted on fasting every Wednesday and Friday, even as a baby - and that he started studying theology at the tender age of five.

After becoming Bishop of Myra he is said to have saved shipwrecked sailors and innocent prisoners from punishment.

But his most important act - from the Santa Claus perspective - was his anonymous gift of three bags of gold, thrown through a window, to help pay the dowries of three hapless maidens whose father would otherwise have forced them into prostitution. To commemorate this in medieval times a custom grew up of giving anonymous presents on St Nicholas's Eve (5 December).

As well as being the patron saint of sailors and travellers, St Nicholas also became the patron saint of children. In the Netherlands, St Nicholas was known as 'Sinterklaas'. But it was through the Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) that the Dutch Sinterklaas became the American Santa Claus, giver of Christmas gifts.

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