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Qalaat Simaan - The Grandest Monument of Syria's Christian History

posted on: Jan 10, 2018

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

The bustling city of Aleppo with its historic sites and 21st century exuberance was behind us as we made our way to Qalaat Simaan (Fortress of Saint Simeon) – one of the most monumental religious spots during the first 1,000 years of Christianity.  The dry, cool morning air invigorated our spirits as we drove by newly constructed palatial buildings into a rolling plain of brilliant red earth dotted with outcrops of rocks.  The villages we passed were once constructed like beehives out of mud, but today they have been almost totally rebuilt into modern bungalows.

We made our way towards Qalaat Simaan passed through a hilly and rocky landscape.  Stones were everywhere, but the red earth of the valleys and the patches of soil between rocks on the hillsides gave life to small fields of fruit trees and grape vines.  However, it had not always been so.  In Byzantine times, the now austere countryside had been fertile and supported a prosperous population.  Now all that remains from that era are ghost towns, better known as ‘Dead Cities’ dotting the landscape, the epitome of which is Qalaat Simaan.

Almost 60 km (37 mi) northwest of Aleppo, on a 564 m (1,850 ft) high bare and rocky hillside, we caught our first sight of the ruins of the Fortress of Saint Simeon – one of the grandest Syrian monuments of the country’s early Christian centuries.

It was built in the memory of Saint Simeon, the first of the Stylites who spent most of his life living, preaching and praying atop a stone pillar.  The most extraordinary of Syria’s early Christians, Simeon the Stylite as he became known, was a sublime expression of fervour, aroused by the early Christian faith.  To the devout in that era, such extremes of asceticism were sure signs of spiritual strength and closeness to God.

Simeon was born in 392 A.D. and spent his boyhood years looking after the family herds.  As a result of a vision he had seen in a dream, he joined a monastery at the age of 16.  Nevertheless, he found that monastic life was not sufficiently ascetic and left to become a hermit.  Chaining himself to boulders and dressing in a coat of spikes, he sought through these ingenious methods to overcome his physical being and become like an angel.  Yet he was not satisfied.

In 423 A.D., to get away from crowds, this legendary saint mounted a 6 m (20 ft) high pole to meditate and pray.  As the years passed, his followers added to the pillar until it grew to 15 m (50 ft).  He spent 42 years of his life on top of this column almost retired from the world under the blazing summer sun and the uncompromising biting icy winter cold.

Only a railing and an iron collar around his neck fastened by a chain prevented him from plunging to his death.  His platform was so small that he could not lie down, only sit or kneel.  He subsisted on the little food carried up the ladder by fellow monks.  Yet, for his remaining years, his fervour maintained him, it is said, suspended between heaven and earth.  Saint Simeon’s impressive iron will and the severe mortification he imposed on himself made him a legend in his time.

Every day he preached and gave advice to the faithful, and twice a week he celebrated mass atop his pillar.  The pilgrims, who were always gathered at the base of the column, would shout up their questions and he would answer at the top of his voice.  At times, he even pronounced on questions of religious policy and often volunteered advice to the emperor of the day.

It is believed that Saint Simeon had a dislike for women.  He scorned to enter into conversation with the many females who came as pilgrims. Not even his own mother was allowed to approach within the circle of stones that surrounded the pillar.

He became famous throughout Europe and many pilgrims came from as far away as Britain.  His devotees were so numerous that a good number of inns sprang up to accommodate the visitors and a large monastery was built for the town’s clergy.

The most renowned holy man of his time, he gave birth to the Stylite movement.  Called an angel in mortal flesh, his life was imitated by hundreds of ascetics and mortifiers.  He inspired a great number of holy men who, like him, lived atop poles, defying the elements and leading almost extra-terrestrial lives.

When Saint Simeon died in 459 A.D., there was built, in his memory, around the column one of the finest and largest Christian religious centres in the East.  This cathedral-complex, erected on a high terrace overlooking the broad valley of the Afrin River, was composed of four basilicas arranged in the shape of a cross, opening into an octagon covered by a dome, in the centre of which stood the sacred post.  Covering 5,000 m (6,400 ft) area, it was deemed to be the second largest church in the world of that era.  Only Aya Sofia in Istanbul, which today contains the body of Saint Simeon, was larger.

With its unique capitals and columns unique to Syrian architecture, this most renowned masterpiece of pre-Islamic Syrian-Byzantine architecture became a place of pilgrimage and, as happens with all religious unprotected relics, pilgrims from all over wanted to take a piece of the pillar.

Today, all that is left of Saint Simeon’s perch is an oblong stump of weathered boulder set on an eroded pedestal some 2 m (6 ft) high.  The cathedral-complex, along with its inns, market stalls, tombs, baptistery and other extensive monastic buildings are in ruins.  Only some arches, apses, capitals, columns and octagons bear witness to this once much sought after Christian mecca.

A short distance from the site, we watched the bright sunlight reflecting on the stones of the ruins, which have faded to subtle shades of sandy pink and gold.  On the other side, there was a great view of the moon-like landscape.  It was a far cry from the time when this part of northern Syria was a populous region.  Now, like Qalaat Simaan, all its Byzantine ghost towns are the domain of the wind and the traces of history.