Simeon the Stylite

Simeon the Stylite
Simeon the Stylite

St. Simeon Stylites was a famous Byzantine ascetic. Many devout Christians in Byzantine society were convinced that the way to higher religious experience and demonstration of faith came through the mortification of the flesh or by depriving themselves of all earthly pleasures. These ascetics often entered monasteries or became cave dwellers, devoting their lives to fasting and praying in their search for god through privation.

As a means of demonstrating his religious devotion Simeon began sitting on top of a 10-foot pillar in a remote area outside the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. Over the next 30-plus years he increased the pillar’s height to almost 50 feet.

He added to his suffering by wearing an iron collar; he was tied to the pillar, and food was brought up by a basket on a rope. Simeon preached to the crowds who, as his fame spread, made pilgrimages to see and hear the famous ascetic. Like most Byzantine ascetics, Simeon was a confirmed misogynist, who yelled and threw things at women pilgrims.

His fame created something of a fad for pillar sitting in the Greek Church in the Middle East: More than 200 other people took up Simeon’s lifestyle over the next 1,500 years. Pillar mounting became a common tourist attraction throughout the whole region.

Whenever many pilgrims gathered, inns had to be built, religious goods were manufactured, and books were written and sold. Mystics like Simeon and their devotees from as far as the corners of Europe stimulated spiritual—and financial—revival. Simeon was ultimately canonized.

A mere 50 years after Simeon’s death, the Byzantine emperor Zeno had a large octagonal church and monastery complex constructed around the pillar. The sanctuary was the largest in the Christian world, surpassed only by the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople more than two generations later.

Every attempt of Simeon to escape this world’s grasp by climbing higher on his pillar had failed: His death had brought only more of the same attention and following. The "stylite" movement of Simeon was the last big revival of Byzantine Christianity in the Middle East before the advance of islam.