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Meet the Stylites: Byzantine Era’s Most Extreme Hermits

St. Simeon Stylites
St. Simeon Stylites, depicted here in a 16th century icon, was the first Christian saint to spend years atop a pillar as a form of discipline that enabled him to be closer to God. Many saints followed his example throughout the years with one even staying in a small building atop the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. Credit: Historical Museum of Sanok, Poland/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Stylites, the men who practiced the most stringent form of asceticism in the early days of Christianity, took the urge to leave the world behind and become hermits to an extreme that few others could match.

Living atop pillars or columns—even sometimes natural stone pillars, such as in Meteora, Greece—these men became symbolic of the ultimate form of devotion to God during the Byzantine era. Several other stylites (the Greek word style meaning “pillar”) later followed him.

The practice of separating oneself from humanity didn’t begin with Christianity. Indeed, practitioners of the Hindu faith have been doing so for many centuries as well, undergoing extreme deprivations in order to attain a higher consciousness that is gained by strict physical discipline.

And contrary to popular belief, this ancient practice didn’t die out until quite recently. A photo taken in Athens in 1861 at the Temple of Olympian Zeus shows a small building atop it that had recently been inhabited by a Stylite.

St. Simeon Stylites was the first of the early Christians to take himself off and live in this extremely solitary way, but he certainly wasn’t the last with St. Simeon Stylites the Younger of Lesvos imitating his practice; later on, many monks retreated to the area of Meteora with its natural stone pillars and lived atop them there later building entire monasteries at the summits with only removable ladders for access.

Born around the year 390 in Sis, in what was the capital of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, the saint made his life there, later moving to Syria. The Greek version of his city’s older name, Sysion (Σίσιον), was in use during the Byzantine period.

Saint Simeon Stylites
A 6th century gold-on-silver plaque depicting Saint Simeon Stylites, an early Christian hermit who became renowned for sitting atop a pillar as part of his religious zeal. Now at the Louvre Museum, the plaque depicts temptation in the form of a snake that threatens St. Simeon, who is shown with a scallop shell above him as a symbol of purity. Credit: Musee de Louvre/ Tangopaso/ Public Domain

Today, ruins of churches, convents, castles, and palaces may be seen on all sides of the ancient city. The lofty castle and the monastery and church built by Leo II, containing the coronation chair of the kings of Cilician Armenia, were still noteworthy up until the Armenian genocide.

At the turn of the twentieth century, about 5,600 of its population of 8,000 were Armenians; however, they were all deported or killed during the course of the Armenian genocide.

St. Simeon died on September 2, 459 at age 68 or 69 as a renowned ascetic who made his mark in Christian history with no less than three biographical literary works on his life penned during his lifetime.

Pillar of St. Simeon Stylites
The base of the column of St. Simeon Stylite, topped with a boulder, still remains, amongst the ruins of a church built around the column, in Syria. Credit: Xvlun~commonswiki /CC BY-SA 2.5

And he died as he had lived for 37 years—atop his pillar, located in Qalaat Semaan in Byzantine Syria between the cities of Aleppo and Antioch.

There are three major early biographies of Simeon that still exist, including the first of these, by Theodoret, the bishop of Cyrrhus, a city founded by Seleucus Nicator shortly after 300 BC. The biography is included within his work “Religious History.”

Incredibly, this biography of the first Stylite was written during Simeon’s lifetime, and Theodoret relates several events to which he claims to be an eyewitness himself.

The narrator of a second biography names himself as Antonius, a disciple of Simeon’s. This work is of unknown date and provenance, however. The third is a Syriac source, which dates to the year 473. This is the longest of the three, and the most effusive in its praise of Simeon; placing Simeon on a par with the Old Testament prophets, it portrays him as a founder of the early Christian church.

Stylites
The Temple of Olympian Zeus as it was photographed in 1861 by Dimitrios Constantinou, with the Acropolis in the background. A Stylite lived in the small building atop the Temple at the time the photograph was taken. Credit: D. Constantinou/GoogleArt Project/Public Domain

All three sources have been translated into English by Robert Doran. The Syriac life of St. Simeon has also been translated by Frederick Lent.

Simeon was known to have been the son of a shepherd. After the division of the Roman Empire in 395 A.D., Cilicia, the region where the saint was born, became part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Christianity took hold quickly there.

Simeon is venerated as a saint by the Coptic Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches. He is known formally as Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger, Simeon Stylites III, and Symeon Stylites of Lesvos.

St. Simeon Stylites the Younger
St. Simeon Stylites the Younger was one of the first ascetics to take up the practice of extreme asceticism. Credit: Unknown icon writer/Public Domain

According to Theodoret, St. Simeon developed a zeal for Christianity at the age of thirteen, following a reading of the Beatitudes. He entered a monastery before the age of sixteen. From the very beginning of his monastic life, he gave himself up to the practice of an austerity so extreme that his brethren judged him to be unsuited to any form of community life.

They therefore asked Simeon to leave the monastery.

Accordingly, he shut himself up in a hut for one and a half years, where he passed the entirety of one Lent without eating or drinking. When he emerged from the hut, this achievement was hailed as a miracle. He later took to standing continually upright, so long as his limbs would sustain him, as a form of self-mortification.

St. Simeon of Lesvos
St. Simeon Stylites of Lesvos sat for a time atop a pillar like his hero, the original St. Simeon; however, after leaving his pillar and taking part in many intrigues with the Byzantine court, he became a trusted friend of the Empress. Credit: Demetrios Andrianis /CC BY-SA 4.0

From a hut to a mountain cave to a pillar in search of peace

After this period, Simeon sought out a new place to live further away from people on a rocky promontory on the slopes of what is now Sheik Barakat Mountain part of the Mount Simeon range that was named after the saint.

He chose to live within a narrow cave there. However, by that time, his reputation had grown to the point that crowds of pilgrims began to throng to the area to seek him out, asking his counsel or his prayers, leaving him insufficient time for his own devotions.

This eventually led him to adopt yet another new way of life in order to achieve the peace and serenity he so deeply desired.

Simeon finds his pillar in Taladah, Syria

Simeon finally came upon a pillar, or column, which had survived among ruins in nearby Telanissa (modern-day Taladah, Syria), which had a small platform at the top. It was there that Simeon finally found the peace he had been so desperately seeking.

For sustenance, small boys from the nearby village would climb up the pillar and pass him parcels of flat bread and goats’ milk. He may also have pulled up food in buckets via a pulley, or windlass.

When another group of monastics living in the desert nearby heard about Simeon, they wanted to test him to determine whether his extreme feats were founded in humility or pride—one of the greatest of sins, according to Christianity.

They decided to order Simeon, under monastic obedience, to come down from his pillar. If he disobeyed, they were planning on forcibly dragging him to the ground, but, if he was willing to obey their orders, they were to leave him on his pillar. Simeon displayed complete obedience and humility, and the monks told him to stay where he was.

The first pillar that Simeon occupied was little more than three meters (ten feet) tall. He later moved his platform to other even higher pillars in an effort to get even further away from people and their influence as he pursued a theosis with God.

St. Simeon Stylites
St. Simeon Stylites shown on an icon by an unknown writer. Institut de Monde Arabe, France. Public Domain

“The heat of thirty Summers and the cold of as many Winters”

The last pillar he occupied was reportedly more than fifteen meters (fifty feet) tall. At the top of the pillar was a platform, which is believed to have measured about one square meter and was surrounded by a baluster.

The great historian Edward Gibbon, in his great work “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” describes Simeon’s life:

In this last and lofty station, the Syrian Anachoret resisted the heat of thirty summers, and the cold of as many winters. Habit and exercise instructed him to maintain his dangerous situation without fear or giddiness, and successively to assume the different postures of devotion.

He sometimes prayed in an erect attitude, with his outstretched arms in the figure of a cross, but his most familiar practice was that of bending his meager skeleton from the forehead to the feet; and a curious spectator, after numbering twelve hundred and forty-four repetitions, at length desisted from the endless account…the patient Hermit expired, without descending from his column.

As so often happens during life, however, just what we are trying to avoid eventually caught up with Simeon. If anything, the new pillar attracted even more people, both pilgrims who had earlier visited him and newer sightseers as well. Simeon, ever agreeable despite his need to commune with God, made himself available to talk with visitors each afternoon.

Using a ladder, those who wanted to communicate with the saint were able to ascend within speaking distance of him.

It is known that St. Simeon wrote letters, the text of some of which has even survived to this day, in which he instructed disciples, and he also gave lectures to those assembled beneath his pillar.

Quite surprisingly, in the greatest contrast possible to the extreme austerity that he practiced, his preaching conveyed temperance and compassion and was marked with common sense and freedom from fanaticism, historians note.

Byzantine Emperor Theodosius listened to St. Simeon’s counsels

Naturally, reports of Simeon’s great piety soon reached the church hierarchy and the imperial Byzantine court. The Emperor Theodosius II and his wife Aelia Eudocia greatly respected Simeon and listened to his counsels while the Emperor Leo I paid respectful attention to a letter he sent in favor of the Council of Chalcedon.

Simeon is also said to have corresponded with Genevieve of Paris, who went on to become the patron saint of France’s capital city.

Patriarch Domninos II of Antioch visited the monk even celebrating the Divine Liturgy on the saint’s pillar sometime between the years of 441 to 448.

Once, when Simeon was ill, Theodosius sent three bishops to beg him to come down and allow himself to be attended by physicians. However, true to form, Simeon preferred to leave his health in the hands of God, and, before long, he was recovered.

A double wall was soon built around the base of the pillar to keep the crowds of people from coming too close and disturbing his prayerful concentration. No women were permitted beyond the wall—not even his own mother; he reportedly told her, “If we are worthy, we shall see one another in the life to come.”

She submitted to his wishes, remaining in the area and embracing the monastic life of silence and prayer herself ever after. When she died, Simeon asked that her coffin be brought to him; this scene is depicted in several icons of St. Simeon.

Life of St. Simeon inspires many followers

St. Simeon died on September 2, 459. A disciple discovered his body, which was stooped over in prayer still stop his pillar. The Patriarch of Antioch, Martyrios, performed the funeral of the monk before a huge crowd. He was buried not far from the pillar. The saint is commemorated on September 1st by the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches.

Many ascetics followed St. Simeon Stylites’ example of monastic devotion. During the next century, stylites were a common sight throughout the Christian Levant.

Saint Symeon Stylites of Lesbos, who lived from 765/66 to 844 AD was a monk who survived two attempts on his life during the second period of Byzantine Iconoclasm, which lasted from 814 to 842.

In order to isolate himself from the troubles of the world and the turmoil of the period of Iconoclasm, he climbed up a pillar-like structure similar to a tower and isolated himself, fasted, worshipped, and studied.

After becoming embroiled in the Iconoclasm struggle, he was exiled to an island off Lesvos. He later traveled to Constantinople, where he eventually became a trusted counselor to Empress Theodora. He is known as St. Simeon Stylites the Younger to differentiate him from the first such named saint.

Remains of St. Simeon Stylite in Antioch

As often happens with popular saints, a contest arose between Antioch and Constantinople for the possession of St. Simeon Stylite’s remains. The preference was given to Antioch, and the greater part of his relics were left there as a protection to the unwalled city.

The ruins of the vast edifice erected in his honor, known in Arabic as the Qalaat Semaan or “The Fortress of Simeon,” can still be seen and visited today. Located about thirty kilometers northwest of Aleppo, they consist of four basilicas built out from an octagonal court towards the four points of the compass to form a large cross.

In the center of the court stands the base of the pillar on which Simeon stood. On May 12, 2016, the pillar reportedly took a hit from a missile, fired from what appeared to be Russian jets backing the Syrian government in the unrest in that country.

The life of Simeon inspired an 1842 poem by Alfred Tennyson, “St. Simeon Stylites.” Modern works based upon the life of the saint include Luis Buñuel’s 1965 film Simón del desierto, Hans Zender’s 1986 opera Stephen Climax, and the 1998 film At Sachem Farm, as well as The Stylite: A Matter of Faith, a documentary by Maboroshi Productions.

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