Found: True Cross Fragments at a Basilica of St. Phocas of Sinope?

Archeologists in Turkey have made some intriguing discoveries at Balatlar Kilisesi in Sinop, Turkey. Apparently built as a Roman bath complex, it seems to have been converted into a basilica church by the Byzantines in the 600’s. There’s one wall of frescoes left, depicting Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles. There’s also a big cemetery. These things have been visited for years; my dad saw them back fifty years ago (when the frescoes were in better shape). Shamefully, the frescoes have also been defaced by paint and modern scratched graffiti.

But archeologists have recently discovered an intriguing reliquary that might contain another little piece of the True Cross. (And Sinope was an important, rich trading center in Byzantine times, so it’s very possible that the Emperors would give the city such a thing.)

Here’s a news video from Anadolu Agency showing the excavations outside and what it looks like inside the old church. Audio in Turkish. I don’t speak Turkish.

This Hurriyet Daily News article shows a good picture of the excavations.

Here’s Balatlar Kilisesi on wikimapia. It used to be called “the Palace of Mithradates”, (balat = palace) because Mithradates did have a fine palace somewhere in the Sinop area, and this is the traditional site. Nobody’s found anything archeological, though. Anyway, the church is up there on the extinct volcano (Boztepe) that overlooks the town. This cape is on the seaward end of the peninsula. (The town part is in the neck of the peninsula, with convenient sea harbors on both sides of the peninsula.) Extinct volcano plus natural springs may mean there were once hot springs there. The crater of the volcano used to be a shallow lake, when the guy who wrote Ancient Sinope visited in the early 1900’s, but it is now dry and has been since the Sixties at least. There also used to be Turkish and US military bases up there.

The story doesn’t talk about known history of the church or its dedication, and I don’t find any on the Internet. Apparently the ancient city boundaries are pretty darned lost under all the medieval and modern layers of Sinop. So I’ll speculate.

St. Phocas of Sinope (the bishop, not the gardener) was martyred by being drowned in a bath in AD 117, under Emperor Trajan. (Some say he was burned to death in the bathhouse furnace, instead.) So a basilica on the site of baths would sound like him, and may actually be on the site of his martyrdom. Byzantine towns frequently ended up building additional or bigger basilicas as pilgrim traffic grew more numerous.

The feastday of the translation of his relics to Constantinople (in AD 404) was July 22; it was the occasion of a sermon by St. John Chrysostom. His normal feastday is September 22.

There’s another St. Phocas of Sinope who was a gardener martyred under Diocletian; he’s the more famous saint in the East because he’s a patron saint of sailors. He lived as a hermit near Sinope’s city gate, providing hospitality and vegetables to Christians and others who needed it. Legend says that he took in the soldiers assigned to martyr him as lodgers for the night, digging his own grave overnight so as to be tidy. The church in Sinope that was built to honor him was praised by St. Asterius of Amasea as a hospital and center of alms distribution. (Homily IX, PG 40:308.)

So that’s another possibility for the basilica. But logically, a basilica and hospital complex for this saint would be closer to the old city gate of the ancient city, and the ancient city is the Acropolis on the neck of the peninsula where the Sinop fortress and prison are. Ancient Sinope says that they did find the buried ruins of an old Byzantine church down there, although the author doesn’t tell us if it was a martyrion or what. There also used to be a hospital by the fortress gate, for whatever that knowledge is worth.

Also, legend says that Christianity was brought to Sinope by St. Andrew, who got beat up, thrown out of the city, and left for dead in the fields, but then came back afterwards to preach successfully to the Jews and pagans of the city.

There’s also a 17th century Greek Orthodox saint, St. Helen of Sinope, virgin and martyr. Her relics (mostly her head) went to Thessalonika when the local Greek Orthodox community left in 1924. (Or rather, what was left of them after the Greek Genocide (1914-1923) that went along with the Armenian Genocide. Nothing like killing or getting rid of the Christian third of the population!)

Sinope is also famous for one thief (Autolycus), one philosopher (Diogenes the Cynic), one king (Mithradates the Great), and one heretic (Marcion the preacher’s kid, who thought most of the Bible could be dispensed with and that the Creator was evil). Pliny the Younger was stationed there as a Roman governor when he wrote his famous letter asking the emperor for advice on how to deal with these weird Christian people. Here’s Ancient Sinope, a really nice little dissertation on what was known about ancient Sinope/Sinop. Not really anything on Byzantine times in the book, though.

Here’s a good Sinop/Sinope history page with video of Sinop (subtitles in English, audio in Greek).

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