Pillars To Heaven: Stylites in the Levant

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CIS:E.445-1965

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St. Symeon Stylites

By Lord Alfred Tennyson

 

Altho’ I be the basest of mankind,

From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,

Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet

For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,

I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold

Of saintdom, and to clamour, morn and sob,

Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer,

Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin.

Let this avail, just, dreadful, mighty God,

This not be all in vain that thrice ten years,

Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,

In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold,

In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,

A sign betwixt the meadow and the cloud,

Patient on this tall pillar I have borne

Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow…(1)

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Interview About Stylites (2)

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Qala’at Si’man. Ruins of the Basilica of St. Simeon the Elder, Deir Sim’an, Syria (3)

 

RTE: Lukas, will you describe your archeological work, and how you became interested in the stylites?

LUKAS: … My interest in monasticism in general has led me to a very particular interest in stylitism (stylos, in Greek, meaning “column”), the ascetics who stood on pillars. Although we often think of stylitism as a very unique and lonely calling, in its developed form it cannot be separated from monasticism. The stylite withdrew from the world, but in doing so in such a spectacular way, he attracted the world. And as soon as people began coming for advice or counsel, he needed dedicated friends or disciples to organize his life – to make sure he was protected, that he would be given the hours of silence he needed, and that the people coming to see him were taken care of.

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The stylite himself is generally seen as a Syrian-Mesopotamian phenomenon, a very severe attempt to follow Christ not only through self-mortification and fasting, but through standing on a tiny platform at the top of an exposed column or pillar – never coming down, and only rarely sitting or lying down. By exposing themselves to the harshest conditions any human can, they strove to be spiritually cleansed and to elevate their souls.

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What we know about the stylites comes from Greek and Syriac texts, some written when the stylites were still alive, and many of which relate the history of the most famous pillar saint, St. Simeon the Stylite (the Elder), who died in 459. Within twenty years after his death, the famous pilgrim- age sanctuary and later medieval fortress of Qal’at Si’man was built. As Christians, we would call it “The Martyrium of St. Simeon the Stylite.”

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St. Simeon the Elder is the prototype, he was the one who was imitated. Of his life we have very specific evidence in both Greek and Syriac sources, although it is the Syriac which give the best descriptions. They tell us that he was a very ascetic man, and that at a certain point in his life he joined a monastic community. At a very early stage, however, it became clear that he was much more rigorous than the other brothers and finally had to leave to pursue his calling.

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St. Simeon moved north of the mountain of Gebel Sheikh Barakat, to a village called Telanissos (now Deir Sim’an), at the foot of the mountain where his sanctuary was later built. (Gebel is “mountain” in Arabic, and it is now known as Gebel Sim’an.) The Syriac sources say that he lived a very basic life. We read of him taking a camel laden with goods up and down the road, and that wherever he went people were impressed by this humble, modest man. At a certain point he decided to go up the mountain to expose himself to the harshness of the wilderness.

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Don’t forget, we are in northern Syria where winters may be very, very cold and summers extremely hot with strong winds. Simeon was very aware that this place was exposed to harsh weather conditions year round. However, it is also a very beautiful place, with a 270o view in several direc- tions, and not far from the village and the Roman road. If you take the old north-south Roman road from Cyrrhus, forty or fifty kilometers north, down towards Telanissos (now Deir Sim’an) to the junction that links you to Antioch in the west, you’ve passed between Telanissos and Gebel Sim’an.

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So, we know that he was here not far from the main road, that he stood on the column without a break, summer and winter, for almost fifty years; that he was famous for his asceticism, for his suffering endurance, but also for the very social role he played in giving advice and counsel to the local population, to those who passed on the roads, to distant nomadic Arab tribes that came for his judgement and help, and even to the Byzantine emperor. We know he was constantly asked for personal, moral, and even legal advice (and this is important because legal matters in those days were very linked to religion, as in modern Islam.) So, St. Simeon was a man for everyone and everything.

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But he soon found himself in the dilemma of having withdrawn from the world, but now being too close to the world. Pilgrims, as we know from the sources, came from far and wide. They came from all over the Mediterranean: by boat to Antioch, then crossing the rough country to Simeon’s column. They came from Seleukia, from Asia Minor, from the Arabian peninsula, from Europe. As time went on, he decided to add anoth- er ten cubits to his column, and then another, until finally according to the Syriac text, he was standing at a height of forty cubits. (40 cubits = 60 feet or 18 meters)

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RTE: I remember from his Life that he didn’t begin with a pillar – perhaps he had gone up the mountain simply because it was isolated and he knew that other people couldn’t conveniently live there. But the moment they understood that he was a holy man they came anyway, as people do, until the crowds were trying to touch him, to grab pieces of his clothing. I’ve wondered if perhaps he had even taken a vow to remain there and the pillar was simply a necessary measure to get out of their reach.

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LUKAS: Yes. I think it was the universal dilemma of an isolated holy man. Once you are holy you often become known and can’t avoid people seeking bless- ings. The holy man is like a magnet. But permanent exposure to the world puts your monastic ideals at risk because you don’t have the time of reclusion, of absolute silence, of being alone with God. So, adding to the column’s height was perhaps an attempt to maintain his original ideal of a life of prayer.

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RTE: Also, the noise of a constant crowd – in St. Simeon’s case it was not a handful, but hundreds of people a day from different countries with horses, pack animals, campfires. Some stayed for weeks. It must have been overwhelming.

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(1) For the full poem go to http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/728/

(2) For the full two-day traveling interview through the Syrian desert, where Lukas’ command of archeological detail and his fascinating insights (both Christian and academic) into the daily lives of these great ascetics make the era come alive, its saints immediate, and their presence inescapable, go to http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_22/PILLARS_OF_HEAVEN.pdf

(3) The church of Saint Simeon Stylites dates back to the 5th century. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it a World Heritage Site in 2011.

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* Austrian archeologist Lukas Schrachner’s extensive fieldwork centers on early Christian monasteries and stylite sites in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. The Levant in the present context is the region occupied by Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and south-eastern Turkey.

 

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