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Robert Ousterhout reviews Santa: A Life: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus by Jeremy Seal
Despite his popularity today, what is remarkable about the actual St Nicholas is how much we do not know about him.
Discounting the transformations of the past two centuries, he remains firmly grounded as the patron saint of Greece, Russia, children, prisoners, sailors and travellers. Every Greek port has a chapel dedicated to him; Greek ships carry his icon in the belief that “St Nicholas holds the tiller”. Since the Middle Ages he has held universal appeal as one who intervenes to right injustices against the common people.
Here is what we do know: he was born in Patara on the south coast of Turkey, around 300 AD. he became bishop of Myra (now Demre), died and was buried there around the middle of the fourth century. That’s all.
Over time his biography has been embellished, and embellished… Despite evidence to the contrary, he is said to have attended the Council of Nicea in 325 where, a staunch defender of Orthodoxy, he apparemtly slapped the heretic Arius and made his teeth rattle.
By the sixth century he has rescued three citizens of Myra from unjust execution, and appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine to save three imprisoned generals from false accusations. So says Praxis de Stratelatis, the first recorded version of his life.
Giving presents comes later: in the ninth century we hear how he secretly provided dowries for impoverished girls so their fathers would not be forced to sell them into prostitution.
Nicholas’s story has been fleshed out with borrowed incidents from the lives of others…
No day passes in Turkey when horses are not racing – and when it comes to prize money the country now leads the field. Donna Landry visits Karacabey, the national stud near Bursa, with the Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel and discovers an equestrian paradise
As Bursa lay in ruins after the earthquake of 1855, the man the Sultan sent to rescue the city was Ahmed Vefik Pasha. A brilliant man of letters, champion of Ottoman causes and very undiplomatic diplomat, he was to leave an indelible mark on Turkish culture. David Barchard reinstates a wayward hero.
Christian Tyler, author of Wild West China, The Taming of Xinjiang, assesses Ergun Çağatay’s extraordinary volume of photographs of the wider Turkic world
The çörek is full of symbolism, and its association with religious festivals reflects earlier pagan customs. All sorts of buns, loaves and çörek are eaten at Sabantoy, the colourful June festival celebrated by the Altay, Çuvaş, Tatar and Başkurt peoples of Central Asia.
More cookery features
Heath W Lowry, in the first of a series of articles this issue, pays tribute to the city that gave the Ottoman state its first capital.
John Carswell on the city that married the courtly arts of Asia to the princely aspirations of Renaissance Europe. Photographs by Jürgen Frank
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