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On a hill overlooking a small valley past the town of Deir el-Tizzeh is the complex known as St. Simeon, or Qal’at Semaan (Arabic for “Simeon’s Castle”), a large shrine containing the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites, churches, a cloister, a hostel and a baptistery, among other buildings.

Simeon was born in 386, the son of a farmer in Cilicia in south-central Turkey He embarked on the monastic life at the age of 16 and wound up after 10 years in a monastic community at Telanisos, present day Deir Semaan. After a few years he was grudgingly granted permission by his superiors to express his ascetic devotion by living on top of a pillar, the height of which is believed to have been 60 feet.

Simeon’s widespread fame attracted pilgrims from as far away as England, Gaul and Italy, though his form of asceticism was almost exclusively an Eastern phenomenon. It never found much favor in the West.

Non-Christian Persians and Arabs also held Simeon in high esteem. For 27 years he preached and provided theological counsel, literally from on high. Wrapped in sheepskins, he slept briefly, ate little and stood for most of the day on a six-foot wide capital. After his death in 459, a cruciform shrine was built around his pillar, the eastern wing serving as a church for pilgrims.

Other ascetics followed St. Simeon, and the cult of Syrian Stylites (“of a pillar” in Greek) developed. There is documentation of a hermit in Palestine who dwelt in a cave on top of a mountain and who, for 25 years, never turned his face to the west, it being the direction of the setting sun; the west was a symbol of death and of Satan. In opposition to the west, the rising of the sun in the east was considered symbolic of the resurrection of Christ.

Another historian wrote of a hermit who had passed 10 years in a tub suspended in mid-air from poles. St. Alypius is said to have stood upright for 53 years, When his feet were no longer able to support him, he descended from his pillar, lay down on his side, and spent the remaining 14 years of his life in that position.

Probably the best justification of these excesses of austerity was that, in an age of corruption and social decadence, they impressed the need of penance more than anything else could have upon the minds and imagination of Eastern Christians.

Several other sites among the Dead Cities contain remnants of pillars and stone carvings that depict the stylites and their pillars. Mementos sold to pilgrims visiting St. Simeon portray the monk on top of his pillar and are part of the Syrian National Museum’s collection.

The pilgrim shrine is the center of attention at St. Simeon, with its stately entrance porch, wonderfully carved, and, of course, the remains of the famous pillar. It is now about the size of a bulging phone booth after centuries of relic seekers chipping away at it.

From the shrine there is a commanding view of the surrounding valleys and the adjacent village of Deir Semaan, whose modern buildings mingle haphazardly with Byzantine pilgrim hostels, cloisters, churches and monasteries. East of St. Simeon and Deir Semaan is Burjke, a village with several Byzantine ruins, including a lovely church. Further along is the Kurdish village of Fafertine, its principal claim to fame the ruins of a church believed to be the oldest in northern Syria. The edifice dates to 372, but only the apse remains.

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Tags: Syria Pilgrimage/pilgrims Architecture