Known locally as Qalaat Semaan (Simeon Citadel), these basilica ruins in the rocky mountains north of Aleppo are a testament to perhaps one of the most unique religious trends to pass through the region.
The ruins are named after a boy born to a shepherd family in a nearby village at the end of the fourth century CE. From a young age, Simeon showed an affinity for the monastic lifestyle, and legends of his ascetic tendencies as a teenager and young man abound. Some time after joining the monastery near his hometown, Simeon decided that life there was not sufficiently solitary; so he fled to the secluded mountains nearby. As word of his asceticism and holiness spread through the Christian world, pilgrims and visitors began traveling to these mountains, seeking words of wisdom or a blessing. Simeon, who resided in the mountains as a way of minimizing interactions with other people, suddenly found himself plagued by a steadily increasing stream of visitors.
To escape the crowds of pilgrims pressing in from all sides, Simeon built a pillar three meters tall (approximately 10 feet) with a small platform on top; he then took up permanent residence on this platform, neatly out of visitors’ reach. His plan proved counterproductive, however, as this new brand of asceticism only drew more curious tourists. As the crowds grew bigger, Simeon withdrew further by increasing the height of his pillar. And as he increased the height of his pillar, larger crowds traveled from greater distances to observe the curiosity. Histories report that his last pillar was 18 meters tall (about 60 feet). Simeon preached daily to the crowds from his platform atop the pillar; otherwise, he reportedly spent most of his time in prayer.
Following Simeon’s death in the mid-fifth century, forty years after he first took up residence on his pillar, others began to follow suit; and a handful of monastic figures on pillars began to appear throughout the region. They became known as stylites, named from the Greek word for pillar – stylos.
An ornate basilica was built around Simeon’s pillar; at the time of its completion in 491, it was the largest church in the world. The pillar itself, however, was gradually reduced to nothing but a stub as pilgrims from around the world took small pieces home as souvenirs.