Patek Philippe, Vol III, Number 2, May 2010
The ruins of the shrine to Saint Simeon stand on a hill in northern Syria. At dusk the still-brilliant details of its ancient carvings turn to golden lace. It is an unforgettable place, commemorating an exceptional man. But above and beyond its intrinsic beauty and its romantic isolation, it is also a unique and extraordinary building - at one and the same time the last temple of the classical world and the first Cathedral of Christendom.
It was built at the end of the 5th century AD, when Europe had already been plunged into a Dark Age. For the next three hundred years western Europe was empty of any discernible achievement in literature, architecture or craftsmanship, except for hoards of bullion and barbaric jewelry. The Roman legions had evacuated Britain, the Rhine frontier had been breached and barbarian tribes had poured out of the forests of Eurasia to overwhelm first France, then Spain and Italy before turning to fighting amongst themselves. The last Roman Emperor had been deposed, schools were silent, libraries burnt and the vast arcaded marketplaces and lofty courthouses of the western Roman empire lay empty. Owls haunted the palaces of the Caesars and spiders spun their webs across the blade-hacked gates of our abandoned cities.
Fortunately the Levant, in the south-eastern corner of the Mediterranean, remained a glittering outpost of civilization, virtually untouched by this devastation. At its centre was the great city of Antioch, a metropolitan hub, bustling with traders, craftsmen and thinkers drawn from all over the Near East: Greeks, Syrians, Persians, Armenians and Arabs. Of all the great urban centres in the world at this time, Antioch literally glowed in the dark, for it was the only city rich enough to be able to light its streets with olive oil lamps. A network of roads led out into a hinterland of undulating limestone hills where generations of patient husbandry were reflected in a mosaic of orchards and productive olive groves. These villages were prosperous is testified today by the substantial ruins of stone-built houses, embellished with neat porticoes and upstairs balconies. Some measure of the self-confidence of these communities of landowning farmers comes from a survey which counted around 1,200 stone-built village churches in the region, at a time when Britain probably had only one comparable structure, St Ninians humble chapel at Whithorn.
A three day’s walk to the east of the city, far enough away from the city to acquire its own silence and identity, but near enough to be accessible by determined visitors, rose the low mountain made famous by Saint Simeon the Stylite, who had prayed for many years on top of a column.
Simeon had been born in 388 AD in one of the hill villages at the foot of the Taurus mountains, probably in the village now know as Samandag just across the frontier in modern Turkey. He was already possessed of a startlingly clear vocation to seek the ‘face of God’ as a 13-year-old shepherd boy. Three years later he was given permission to join one of the communities of God-loving hermits. But the intensity of his discipline alarmed the community – which was constantly on its guard lest madness, exhibitionism or self-serving masochism undermined a hermit in his spiritual search. This came to a head when Simeon took the fast, during the 40 days of Lent, to mean total abstinence, which brought him to the brink of death. He was asked to leave the community, but did not in fact move far from Deir Semaan. He merely abandoned the protection of his monastic hut for a new prayer station on the nearby hilltop, his arms outstretched in the traditional attitude of prayer for as long as he could endure, day by day, year by year. This heroic dedication, combined with absolute poverty and total indifference to the things of this world, increasingly attracted attention from those in need of help from God. He was a holy man, and was begged to assist by praying, giving advice and blessings. He also attracted the attention of a council of local abbots, who instead of finding the proud egotist they suspected him to be, found Simeon to be meekly obedient and touched with a compassionate concern for his neighbours.
He was permitted to keep to his station - which now attracted an ever increasing number of pilgrims anxious to see for themselves this ‘living saint.’ Rather than escape from the pilgrims to a more distant mountain or desert, Simeon simply distanced himself by climbing up an old standing column. There, living on a small platform, he was free to devote himself to his life of prayer, but could also minister to the needs of his visitors, who would climb up a ladder to bring their troubles to the hermit. As the distraction of his following increased, so too did the height of his column and the eminence of his visitors and correspondents, who included the Emperor Theodosius himself. By the time he died, on Friday 2nd September 459 AD, he had spent the last 36 years in prayer on top of a column. He was the first and the most remarkable of the saints to be called ‘Stylite’ (from the Greek word for a pillar – ‘style’) and even at the time of his death his personality cult had already spread beyond the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire.
His emaciated body became a treasured relic, and was escorted to the patriarchate of Antioch in a triumphal procession, guarded by six hundred soldiers. Saint Simeon was initially buried in Antioch but was later moved to the Imperial capital of Constantinople. Around his column, like an architectural reliquary, was raised a shrine worthy of the age and the man.
First the summit of his mountain (known locally as Jebel Shaikh Barakat) was minutely surveyed and then terraced to create a level space, a wall-enclosed sanctuary. A sacred way was then constructed to replace the old track that lead directly down the hillside to Deir Semaan, below. There a sea of pilgrims thronged the hospices, lodging-houses and shop-lined arcades which had gradually subsumed the original village with its humble monastery.
The shrine of St Simeon built on the mountain may have been revolutionary in plan, but like most successful innovations this came about from a new combination of traditional forms. Four vast churches were simultaneously erected, not side by side, nor around the sides of a courtyard, but as if their apses (their bow-shaped ends) would meet in an architectural kiss. At this meeting point a spacious octagonal hall was raised, an eight-sided, choraic, dance of praise made stone. This is the power point of the building, the octagonal frame upon which a high dome to enclose St Simeon’s original column was suspended. The stump of this column, chipped away by tens of thousands of devoted pilgrims, is still there to be seen. Whether by happy accident or mystical intention, the overall plan of this new building formed the shape of a cross – a living blueprint for all the future cathedrals of the medieval era. From its example grew that long and distinguished line of romanesque, gothic, renaissance and baroque cathedrals and abbeys by which the cities of Europe hereafter measured their eminence, status and creativity.
At the entrance into the sanctuary enclosure another imposing edifice was created, a solid self-contained hall with a dome that once rose above a basin of water. This building, its octagonal vault echoing the main shrine, was the mystical gateway into the community, a sacred place where sins were forgiven and where naked pagans were converted into Christians after being thrice immersed in the holy water by the bishop. They were then symbolically clothed in white clothe and given a first taste of paradise, honey-sweetened milk, before their being admitted in the community and the shared mystery of the communion.
One of the abiding wonders of St Simeon is that the golden stone is carved with all the detail, restrained exuberance and precision of the classical tradition. It feels like a true brood sister to the awesome pagan sanctuaries that can still be found in the Levant, most noticeably at Palmyra and Baalbek. It was also created with decisive speed. While a typical medieval Cathedral building programme might take centuries to build, Saint Simeon arose almost overnight. The complex was built as one coherent piece in just 15 years (between 474 and 491) during the reign of the Emperor Zeno.
The fusion of cultures that can so tangibly be felt at the shrine of Saint Simeon is no accident. It was built at the time when Christianity was being transformed from a personal redemption into an Imperial orthodoxy, from a mystical brotherhood into a pillar of state. For some three generations after the accession of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, in 313 AD, the Christian faith continued to coexist with all the ancient pantheon of Gods, philosophies, seasonal rituals, traditions and with the magical practices of fertility cults. It was not until 391 AD that the last great pagan temples – such hallowed shrines as that of Isis at Philae on the Nile or that of Tanit at Carthage – were closed down by order of the Emperor. In their place, the tombs of the Christian martyrs and the apostles were ornamented with all the skills, craft and art once reserved for the shrines of the Gods. At Saint Simeon, the worlds of Christ and Ceasar meet.
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by Barnaby Rogerson