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Saint Simeon – Qal’at Sim’an

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Saint Simeon from Outside

Saint Simeon from Outside

Some 30 kilometres northwest of Aleppo, and some 10 to 15 kilometres to the South-West of Afrin, on a ledge and at the centre of olive groves stretching 1.5 to 2 kilometres along the road

The pedestal with the vaguely egg-shaped rock on it at the centre in the background is supposed to be what remained from Saint Simeon the Stylite's pillar.

The pedestal with the vaguely egg-shaped rock on it at the centre in the background is supposed to be what remained from Saint Simeon the Stylite's 50-feet high pillar.

62, but mostly only some 200 metres wide, 564 m above sea-level, you’ll find the Church – and monestary – of Saint Simeon. It was built as a pilgrimage site in the 5th century. During the Byzantine era, the inhabitants of the surrounding villages grew grapes, common figs, and olives. The fields are small, as the area is full of rocks. Winters are cold, and summers mild. Most people who still live around here are now commutors, their places of work are usually Aleppo or Afrin.

The site of Saint Simeon used to consist of four basilicas, which shaped the site of some 5,000 square metres like a cross. From a bird’s perspective, this is still clearly visible. Just enter Qal’at Sim’an, Syria at Google Maps, and zoom in.

Saint Simeon lived here. At the site’s centre, he is said to have lived on a pillar, as a pillar saint or stylite. Stylo is the Greek word for pillar (and, maybe not coincidentally, the French word for pen).

Simeon was born from a family of shepherds, in 392. When he was 13 years old, he joined the monks, lived in several religious orders, but apparently fell out with them. In his mid-twenties, he became a hermit, with the usual accessory cave. The more lonely he lived, the more renowned he became. His fans wouldn’t leave him alone with his cave, therefore, he took refuge to a pillar and became a superstar for good.

View from Saint Simeon across the Groves

View from Saint Simeon across the Groves

His healing sessions and prayers were great successes – legend has it that he once healed a princess of leprosy.

He spent the rest of his life on several pillars which allegedly continued to grow into the skies, as he wished to be as remote as possible from his fans. He died on July 26, 459. Not only in Aleppo, but also in other Byzantine regions, he was very influential. Pilgrims came from France, England, Spain, and Italy.

Saint Simeon’s business seems to have been correspondingly successful. Between 476 and 490, under the reign of emperor Zenon, a church was built on the site, dedicated to Saint Simeon’s glory. His remains were taken to Antakia. After continuous enlargements, the site was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 528.

The somewhat more recent history of the site may be contested. Kamal Hammoud and Dr. Shawqi Sha’ath (curator of the Aleppo National Museum) for example, emphasise the Arabs’ religious tolerance which left churches and cathedrals to the Christians in Aleppo, al-Rasafa, Damascus, Jerusalem, etc. (P. 29). When the Islamic Arab state was weak and disrupted, the Byzantines were in a position to take the Church of Sim’an and to fortify it. (…) In 986, al-Hamadani Sa’ed al-Daula reconquered the fortress after a blockade of three days. (Source: Kamal Hasheem Hammoud / Dr. Shawqi Sha’ath: Kal’at Sim’an und andere Stätten, Aleppo, 1999, pages 29; 30.)

A former entrance to Saint Simeon, at the foot of the ledge, towards the road.

A former entrance to Saint Simeon, at the foot of the ledge, towards the road.

I’m not sure how pilgrims hungry for souvenirs could chip pieces of a 50-feet pillar away until there was not much more left than a large piece of stone, roughly the shape of an egg, but this is true: Saint Simeon is in ruins, but a place which time has treated with reverence.

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Written by taide

April 8, 2009 at 9:28 am

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