Pillar Sitting

Twelve miles from Antakya, Turkey, which was once known as ancient Antioch, up a winding road on top of a mountain, lay the remains of the monastery of St. Simeon the Stylite.

For 68 years, St. Simeon the Stylite, the Younger (521-597), lived atop a pillar, high on a hill in what is now southern Turkey. Pilgrims would come to hear his words of enlightenment when he wasn’t busy meditating.

Twelve miles from Antakya, which was once known as ancient Antioch, up a winding road on top of a mountain, lay the remains of his monastery.

Sometimes I’m a tourist. Sometimes I’m a traveler. But on this day, I was a pilgrim. I had no car, and so I boarded a bus in Antakya and was dropped off along the main road about 30 minutes later. Here I started the long journey uphill by foot, battered by the brutal Turkish sun. About halfway there, I got a lift from local folks who pulled over to pick me up.

They drove me five minutes, and at a deserted crossroads they left me to finish the final hour on my own. I had to see for myself where this ascetic chose to live his life deliberately for God.

At the top of the mountain, I experienced the peacefulness and solitude that Simeon had sought out for his meditation 15 centuries ago. There were no other visitors — just me and my imagination piecing these sixth-century ruins together. He certainly found his place!

I climbed onto what remains of the pillar and looked out to the Orontes Valley and the few towns sprawled out in front of the blue Mediterranean.

Immediately under me were the steps pilgrims ascended to hear the saint preach and to receive the Eucharist.

From a young age Simeon seemed destined for austerity. As a boy he became drawn to a community of ascetics, led by the pillar-sitter John. Simeon claimed to be sitting atop a pillar when he lost his first tooth, and he maintained this kind of life for nearly 70 years, moving to new and higher pillars.

Towards the close of his life he occupied this column upon the mountain where I now stood. As it became a popular pilgrimage site, the monastery was built. It was here that he died.

This idea for pillar sitting, however, didn’t start with Simeon the Younger, but with Simeon the Elder. Not too far away as the crow flies, across the border in Syria, where I had just traveled from, is Qala’at Sam’aan, the ruins of the incredible fifth-century Romanesque St. Simeon’s Basilica, where the pillar-sitting tradition began.

Basilica at Qala’at Sam’aan

St. Simeon the Elder was born to a shepherd near Nicopolis, in northern Syria in 390. At age 20, he entered the monastery at Telanissos and found that the daily regimen was not demanding enough.

He moved to a cave (the current location of the church ruins) for severe austerity and felt further called by God to sit upon a column 60 feet off the ground.

For 37 years he stayed atop his column, and pilgrims traveled from Western Europe to be in his presence.

His example made such an impact that after his death, in 459, pillar-sitting hermits all over the East started to copy him. The word Stylite, in fact, comes from the Greek word for pillar: stylos.

On the site of Qala’at Sam’aan, the ruins of the Romanesque church narthex (triple-arched entrance) remain. The basilica, with a central nave and two side aisles, took 14 years to build. When completed after his death in 490, it was the largest and most important church in the world until Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was rebuilt in 537.

In front of the main basilica is the base of Simeon’s pillar. It stands, fractured to a minute piece of its original size, surrounded by the ruins of three other smaller basilicas, making the shape of a cross.

On the other side of the complex, next to the former pilgrims’ lodgings, is the ruined baptistery, where mass baptisms once took place to convert pilgrims. In the 10th century, fortifications were added, and it became a qala (castle).

On top of this hill dotted with pine trees are fabulous unobstructed views. From here you can peer out in the direction where Simeon the Younger had found his mountain-top retreat in Turkey.

St. Simeon’s feast day is Jan. 5 in the Latin Church, Sept. 1 in the Eastern. Here is a hymn to him from the Orthodox tradition:

Thou becamest a pillar of patience and didst emulate the forefathers, O righteous one:

Job in his sufferings, Joseph in temptations, and the life of the bodiless while in the body,

O Symeon, our righteous father, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.

Thou soughtest the heights, though parted not from things below;

Thy pillar became a chariot of fire for thee.

Thou becamest thereby a true companion of the angelic host;

And together with them, O saint, thou ceaselessly prayest Christ God for us all.

Stephen Bugno writes from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Planning Your Visit

Basilica of St. Simeon

Qala’at Sam’aan, the basilica and ruins of St. Simeon the Elder are located about a 45-minute drive out of Aleppo, Syria; they are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (summer hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.).

Monastery of St. Simeon

St. Simeon the Younger’s monastery site is located in Turkey, about 5 miles from the village Karacay (12 miles past Antakya) on the road to Samandag.