Whosoever adopts the likeness of angels, let him be a stranger to humans.
—Aphraates, Patrologia Syriaca
If anyone can be said to be the patron saint of holy fools then surely it is Simeon Stylites. The base of the pillar upon which he stood for thirty-seven years can still be seen near the village of Deir Semaan, an hour’s drive northwest of Aleppo. The church complex, called Qalaat Semaan, built around the pillar between 476 and 491 AD, is one of Syria’s greatest architectural treasures as well as the greatest Byzantine structure of its time. A single detail, the use of acanthus, bespeaks the grace of the whole. Acanthus—the conventionalised leaf of which figures in Corinthian capitals, its adoption inspired, according to Vitruvius, by acanthus leaves growing about a basket of toys left in a cemetery—was given a fresh twist by the architects of the church of Saint Simeon. The spiked fronds skilfully carved into stone were flattened so as to suggest the influence upon them of a strong breeze, “the breeze itself a pilgrim to the mysteries within,” Michael Haag writes. The blown acanthus, as this new style was dubbed, spread rapidly throughout the Byzantine world.
What Simeon, who shunned all earthly things, whose life moved through spheres beyond all concern for the beautiful, would have thought of such extravagance is beyond conjecture. As it is, we can barely follow his mind. The imperial authorities at Constantinople spared no expense in the building of the church, and in this we may suspect a strong message to those pursuing alternative religious lines. The Monophysite heresy that allowed for no separation between Christ’s divine and human elements had already begun to sow discord at the fringes of the Byzantine Empire. The language used by the Monophysites was not suggestive of tolerance: “May those who divide Christ be divided with the sword, may they be hewn in pieces, may they be burnt alive.” Simeon pulled instead for the orthodox side.
The church was constructed in the shape of a cross, four basilicas meeting at an octagon at whose centre we can still see the base of the pillar upon which the saint took up residence. The earthquakes of 526 and 528 which destroyed Antioch probably brought down the roof here. The pillar was still standing at the end of the sixth century when the ecclesiastical historian Evagrius visited the Mandra, as it was then called by the local people. A couple of minor details in his account lend a curiously pagan air to the scene. Rustics, and by this we may suppose he was speaking of Bedouins, performed dances around the pillar and also repeatedly led their beasts of burden around the structure. They took literally it seems the metaphorical Mandra (from the Greek mandra, meaning the hovel in which sheep and goats are fed).
Simeon did not leave behind any writings, so for details of his life we are largely dependent on the written testimonies of his disciples and witnesses. There are three major accounts written by contemporaries, the first and most reliable by Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, written around 444, when Simeon was still alive and had already spent twenty-two of his thirty-seven years on his pillar. Theodoret—who, according to one tradition, may have been a student of St. John Chrysostom’s—was a historian with a historian’s discipline for weighing matters, even particularly irksome ones.
For what took place surpasses human nature, and people are accustomed to measure what is said by the yardstick of what is natural. If something were to be said which lies outside the limits of what is natural, the narrative is considered a lie by those uninitiated in divine things.
The second account is by Antonius, an intimate disciple (it was he who first approached Simeon’s corpse). Although disjointed and lacking Theodoret’s Platonic style, it is valuable for details other writers might have seen fit to exclude. There is surprisingly little of the adulatory, whereas the third account, by an anonymous hand, commonly known as the Syriac Life, begins and ends with an overpowering smell of incense. Antonius’ account is also the much plainer of the two, humbler in intent, unsparing in its presentation of physical realities difficult even for his contemporaries to embrace, and seeking not to place too much emphasis on miracles. The Syriac Life is almost all miracle. And while to ignore the miracles would be akin to cutting all the battle scenes from the Iliad, there is, in the more easily verifiable details of Simeon’s life, a story far stranger than any attributed to miraculous causes. The three accounts present Simeon’s early life as a shepherd, his early asceticism, his years in the monastery at Teleda, his removal to Telanissos and finally his years as a stylite (pillar hermit), but between them the narratives have little in common. Where they do meet, however—and, curiously, almost always at the seams of the probable—they command our fascination.
Simeon was born at the end of the fourth century, around 390, to a Christian family, in the village of Sisa near Nicopolis. A smallish but reportedly handsome youth, he tended his parents’ flocks, work likely to be conducive to contemplation. According to the Syriac Life he would go about the fields gathering storax, a gum resin which when burned smells like frankincense. The geographer Strabo mentions its use in the worship of pagan deities. Simeon, it was said, burned the substance without understanding why he did so, and one finds elsewhere the suggestion that he unconsciously moved in the direction of the Scriptures. Such time as he had to spare was spent in the company of ascetics who advised solitude and the renunciation of bodily health and desires as vital to keeping the soul pure. After spending a couple of years as a kind of novice Simeon went, without telling his parents, to the monastery founded by Eusebonas at Teleda, not far from Antioch. There the seventeen-year-old threw himself at the feet of the abbot, Heliodorus. A good and holy man, Heliodorus entered the monastery when he was only three and, according to Theodoret, was so untouched by worldly concerns he knew neither a pig’s nor a cock’s shape. One suspects here a gentle joke. Theodoret who visited him frequently marvelled at the simplicity of his character and the purity of his soul.
Describing himself as low and wretched, Simeon begged Heliodorus to save a soul which, although perishing, desired to serve God. Heliodorus, taken aback by the intensity of the youth, asked him his name, where he came from and what his background was. The youth would not say who his parents were, and by this we may infer that in dissolving earthly bonds he had become as dead to them. We find such reports in the newspapers, of young people with odd religious leanings who have severed all family ties, their parents struggling to break through the screen of silence. Antonius’ account has Simeon’s parents in tears, ceaselessly looking for him, whereas the Syriac Life has them already in their graves. Simeon entered the monastery where he was to spend a whole decade, and, at least to begin with, was loved by his brethren, and, most vitally, he observed the rules. After a while, however, he began to move in directions that were not those of his brethren and perhaps not entirely his either. Whether divine inspiration, madness or indeed both were the spur (there is nothing in his own words to give us guidance), he began upon a course that would increasingly test the patience of the other monks. The meagre portion of bread and pulse which was his daily fare he gave away to the poor so he would go from Sunday to Sunday without sustenance, and on the seventh day consume only a few spoonfuls of soaked lentils. This did not go unnoticed by the other monks who being spiritually competitive were unable to purge themselves to such a degree. There were greater feats to come. Simeon dug a hole in the garden and stood in it up to his chest for days on end in the blistering sun. At night he would stand on a round stick so that if by chance he began to doze it would roll beneath his sagging weight, keeping him awake. The monks began to condemn more vociferously than ever activities that put their own in the shade.
All came to a head over a length of rope.
“Behold, the new Job!” Heliodorus cried. Maggots, this was what he had been brought to see, Simeon’s bed was crawling with them. The monks gathered there agreed the boy had gone too far this time, that here perhaps was the lever by means of which he would be made to leave. Why did he go to such extremes? The stench was unbearable. Heliodorus who greatly loved Simeon was at a loss what to do. The monks had on many occasions pressed him to take measures, and because he saw in their demands something other than love, his reply was always the same.
“Since he afflicts himself for God’s sake, I will not be the cause of any loss to him.”
Always they spoke of the “greater good” while never once admitting to the envy that, like scorpions at the bottom of an empty cistern, dwelled in their own breasts. This time, however, Heliodorus was deeply troubled. He had been put under severe pressure. Unless he agreed to expel Simeon the monks warned they would leave, and if that were to be the case the holy order that was entrusted to his safekeeping would collapse.
Heliodorus took Simeon by the shoulders and shook him.
“Why do you do these things? Why do you break the monastery rules? What are you, some kind of spirit come to tempt me? If you want to die, get away from this place.”
Simeon bowed to the ground in silence, tears filling his eyes. Heliodorus asked him who his parents were (if he were born of real parents, that is), and from what place he came. Working himself up into a rage he turned to the others.
“Strip him,” he shouted, “so we can discover what this smell is.”
When they tried to do so they were unable to peel the shirt from the boy’s flesh. Cloth and flesh had become as one, an integument of decay and discharge, and for three days they soaked him in warm water mixed with olive oil. When finally the shirt was removed and with it much flesh what they saw amazed them.
The missing rope.
The monks remembered Simeon a couple of weeks earlier going out to fetch water from the well and coming back, saying that the rope for lowering the bucket was gone. They begged him to keep silent about it, fearing somebody would inform the abbot. And now here was that same object, soaked with blood and infested with larvae. What had transpired, they learned, was that Simeon had taken the rope made of palm leaves, which was extremely rough even to the touch, and going into a secluded place wound it tightly around his waist so that at first it burned and then, with every movement he made, cut ever deeper into the flesh until some days later that whole part of his body was a ghastly putrescence.
“Let me be, my masters and brethren,” Simeon cried. “Let me die as a dog, it’s what I deserve for the things I’ve done. I’m an ocean of sins.”
Heliodorus wept to see that wound.
“You’re not yet eighteen, what sins do you have?”
“The prophet David said, ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquities, and in sin did my mother conceive me.’ I have been clothed the same as everyone else.”
The abbot, much struck by Simeon’s answer, immediately called for two physicians to tend to him. The operation to remove the rope was such that at one point they gave him up for dead, but finally they managed to do so and for almost two months kept Simeon under their care. When Simeon recovered, the abbot summoned him.
“Look, son, you are now healthy. Go where you wish, but you must leave here.”
After leaving the monastery Simeon went to a nearby well that was dry, at whose bottom dwelled numerous scorpions and snakes. The people avoided that evil place. He lowered himself into the well and hid in a cavity in the wall. A week after Simeon’s departure Heliodorus had a dream in which he saw many men clad in white, holding torches, circling the monastery. They accused him, threatening to burn the place unless Simeon, the servant of God, were handed over to them.
“Why do you persecute him?” they asked. “Do you not know what you had in your monastery? One who will be found greater than you.”
The abbot awoke, crying out to the monks to come.
“Truly I see now that Simeon is a true servant of God!” he cried. “I beg you, brethren, find him for me, otherwise do not bother to return here.”
A search party looked almost everywhere. When Heliodorus learned that they had avoided the well he ordered them to go to that place. They prayed above the well for three hours, after which five monks holding torches lowered themselves by means of ropes. The reptiles fled from the glare.
Simeon cried out to his rescuers.
“I beseech you, brothers and servants of God, grant me a little time to die. That I cannot fulfil what I set out to do is too much for me.”
The monks took him with considerable force. The way up, they said, is not as easy as the way down. They brought him as if he were a criminal to Heliodorus who fell at Simeon’s feet.
“Agree to my request and become my teacher, servant of God, teach me patience and endurance.”
Simeon stayed in the monastery for another three years, but the pressure from the monks continued until finally the abbot, fearful for the future of the monastery, promised that if Simeon did not conform to their rules he would be made to leave. Another year was spent trying to persuade him to abandon his strange practices. With Lent drawing near, Heliodorus called Simeon before him.
“You know, my son, how much I love you and how I did not want you to go from here, but I cannot change the laws laid down by our fathers. Arise, go wherever the Lord is preparing for you. I will rejoice in you.”
One night, without saying a word to anyone, Simeon left and came to Telanissos where he confined himself for three years to a small hut, living only on a diet of soaked lentils and water, and, on one occasion, fasting for forty days after which he was unable to speak or move. Gradually, he was nursed back to health on a diet of chicory and wild lettuce.
The man disturbs as much as he inspires.
We are not alone in finding certain aspects of Simeon’s life repulsive. It was a problem for many of his contemporaries too, even though many ascetics indulged in similar practices. Evagrius describes their activities:
They maintain common supplications to God throughout the day and night, to such a degree distressing themselves, so galling themselves by their severe service, as to seem, in a manner, tombless corpses . . . Indeed, their own rule enjoins them to hunger and thirst, and to clothe the body only so far as necessity requires: and their mode of life is balanced by opposite scales, so accurately poised, that they are unconscious of any tendency to motion, though arising from strongly antagonist forces; for opposing principles are, in their case, mingled to such a degree, by the power of divine grace combining and again severing things that are incongruous, that life and death dwell together in them, things opposed to each other in nature and in circumstances: for where passion enters, they must be dead and entombed; where prayer to God is required, they must display vigour of body and energy of spirit, though the flower of life be past. Thus with them are the two modes of life combined, so as to be constantly living with a total renunciation of the flesh, and at the same time mingling with the living.
Evagrius speaks always in the present tense, describing things familiar to his readers. There seems to be something in the very landscape which drove these “fleshless athletes, bloodless wrestlers” to such extremes, many of them actually melding into the scorched wilderness, becoming “grazers,” permitting themselves only what the ground produced, and that barely sufficient to sustain life. The desert was, after all, a spiritual home to those who rejected the comforts of an earthly home, a place where sleep and food seemed luxuries, where the devils one fought in the imagination took on an almost corporeal existence. Although the area we are speaking of does not, strictly speaking, fall into this geographical zone the desert was always close. There were reports of people who so completely transported themselves into the natural scene that neither panther nor lion harmed them.
We seek to understand the savagery of such a course.
O Lord, Lord,
Thou knowest I bore this better at the first,
For I was strong and hale of body then;
And tho’ my teeth, which now are dropt away
Would chatter with the cold, and all my beard
Was tagg’d with icy fringes in the moon,
I drown’d the whoopings of the owl with sound
Of pious hymns and psalms, and sometimes saw
An angel stand and watch me, as I sang.
Edward Fitzgerald reports Tennyson reading aloud his poem on Simeon “with grotesque Grimness, especially at such passages as ‘Coughs, Aches, Stitches, etc.’ laughing aloud at times.” Simeon is for Tennyson a figure swollen up with morbid pride, whose religious enthusiasm has degenerated into a fanaticism bordering on the hallucinatory, his mind set only on a crown-bearing angel who may or may not be there. “Who may be made a saint, if I fail here?” Although he may to some degree pity this man “whose brain the sunshine bakes,” Tennyson cuts to the bone.
As does Edward Gibbon: “A believing age was easily persuaded that the slightest caprice of an Egyptian or a Syrian monk had been sufficient to interrupt the eternal laws of the universe.” As did a group of monks who joined Daniel on his pilgrimage, hoping they might prove Simeon false: “Never has such a thing happened anywhere that a man should go up and live on a pillar.” (And as did, although rather less eloquently, a woman from Yorkshire who, standing beside me at the base of the pillar, remarked, “Sounds a bloody twit to me!”)
A symbol must be true to the world it addresses, and among most of his contemporaries Simeon inspired not revulsion but awe. They saw in Simeon’s suffering the beauty it symbolised. A maggot that fell from his leg was picked up by an Arab who when he opened his hand again found a pearl there. Simeon took into his own body the problems of the world as they really were, not abstractions or metaphors, but pain, hunger and sickness, and enacted them in the concrete. Simeon trimmed his body according to his soul’s desire. The danger of a journey such as he made is that in more impressionable beings it may lead only to a world where sanctity is merely a cloak for pride. Although it is true he physically made, in Theodoret’s words, “the flight of the soul towards heaven,” and in doing so freed himself of the distractions of the world, he remained of the world and spoke directly to its same distractions in other people. What his witnesses were able to vouch for, and which is the basis of all Christian perfection, was his spirit of humility. As for the scowling monks who joined Daniel, who himself later became a stylite, when they saw the saint they were moved by the love he showed towards them.
The base of the pillar is all that remained after pilgrims hungry for relics chipped away the stone piece by piece. A huge boulder that sits on the base is something of a mystery, for nobody remembers where it came from. It was not there a few decades ago. When Simeon moved to the hill above Telanissos he made for himself a circular wall of unmortared stones, and wearing an iron chain twenty cubits long remained in this fashion until a cleric, Meletius, persuaded him to remove it, saying that the fetter of reason would suffice. After approximately ten years in the enclosure Simeon became a stylite, from the Greek stylos, meaning pillar. Whether he did so because he found the people continually poking at him quite out of place with the ascetic life or because he had already made a pact with heaven is not known. There are those who argue the case for Simeon as phallobate rather than stylite, and although there are precedents in the pagan world, such as that described in Lucian’s De Dea Syria, where a man climbs and stays on a “phallus” for seven days, it is unlikely that Simeon rose upon such an impulse. What he did was more in keeping with the imitatio Christi so prevalent among ascetics, the striking of a Christ-like posture. There were three pillars, the first four cubits high (approximately three metres); this was gradually increased to eleven metres and finally eighteen metres with a platform two metres square. Simeon wore an iron collar (presumably to prevent himself from falling off), and for thirty-seven years stood exposed to severe winter winds and scorching sun.
We have a reasonably clear picture of his daily activities. According to Theodoret, Simeon would prostrate himself, bringing his head close to his toes, in one instance doing so 1,244 times before Theodoret’s attendant lost count. Because he ate only once a week his empty stomach allowed for freer movement, and during public festivals he would stand all night with his hands raised to heaven. Twice a day he would deliver an exhortation, and after three in the afternoon sit in judgement over the cases brought before him. From around sunset on, the whole night and next day until three o’clock he spent in prayer. Theodoret supplies a vital clue to Simeon’s character, saying he did all these things with unpretentiousness (and here one thinks of Gibbon’s assertion that monks were a foul-tempered breed). Simeon was at all times very approachable, pleasant and charming, speaking directly or through an interpreter to each person who addressed him.
What is beyond dispute is the incredible effect he had on his world. “As they come from every quarter, each road is like a river,” Theodoret writes, and by the time of Simeon’s death his fame had spread from Britain to the Persian empire, and among Armenians, Ethiopians, Gauls, Spaniards, Scythian nomads, sophisticates from Rome and Constantinople, and, most strikingly, among the Arabs themselves, many of whom were converted, despite the lack of a common language, and who at Simeon’s death wanted to remove his corpse for burial in their own territories. The Arabs were particularly fascinated by the strange spectacle of a man on a pillar, and if, at worse, the pillar was an attention-seeking device it certainly worked upon the nomadic imagination. The Arabs were as yet without a distinct identity and it was not until the Prophet Mohammed came that they found one, but on no account should we underestimate their significant role in the development of Syriac Christianity, a matter that has been treated at length elsewhere. Christ moved among the Arab people, and it is worth noting that, according to Muslims, it will be at the minaret of Jesus at the southeast corner of the Great Mosque in Damascus that he will descend from heaven. Although Simeon may have quit human society for the company of angels, and indeed it may be that he failed in his original aim to be alone, it was human affairs he attended to, and as such his contributions to society were real.
As bizarre as his practices may seem to us, there was hardly anything of the fanatical, if fanaticism is, as Isaac Taylor defines it, “enthusiasm inflamed by hatred.” We are continually struck by the practicality, and, barring the miracle stories which carried out all kinds of ghastly retribution, the quick compassion of the man. He was involved in social work, spoke on behalf of slaves, in many instances securing their release, settled family disputes, sought refuge for orphans and widows, delivered the oppressed from their oppressors, had taxes remitted, unjust policies reversed and food distributed to the poor, engaged in delicate negotiations concerning ecclesiastical policy, and even took part in matters of foreign policy, mediating, for example, between the Byzantine emperor and unruly Bedouin tribes. We may ask, how did he manage to do so from such a confined space? The answer is both profound and simple: because people did as he told them to, such was the respect he commanded. Simeon was in possession of a quality that the Apostles had in abundance, parresia, a Greek word which, to give but one of its several attributes, refers to the ability to speak, with the full force of one’s convictions, without fear of punishment or of any human obstacle. An emperor and a beggar would be addressed in the same language. The people came hoping for a cure, divine inspiration and God’s forgiveness or even in order to settle a dispute over a melon patch. Simeon was both jury and judge. As for the miracles, Theodoret writes, “But how long shall I strive to measure the depth of the Atlantic Ocean? For just as humans cannot measure that, so what he accomplishes day after day cannot be narrated.” Simeon stood until his death on July 24, 459, when he was almost seventy years old.
A boy with a magnifying glass could have set the world ablaze. The heat was so intense that as far as one could see the land was scorched brown, almost black in places. Simeon had been suffering for a couple of days already from a high fever that gave much cause for concern among his disciples. They spoke in whispers between themselves, knowing full well any rumour would spread like wildfire. On the third day of his illness, by some fluke of nature (although others would say otherwise), a cool breeze blew about the pillar. The disciples remarked a sweet fragrance to which neither choice herbs nor Arabic scents could compare. As the maggot is to the pearl, so putrefaction to perfume. The crowds gathered there could not smell this for all their burning of incense. As the savour grew in intensity the disciples understood Simeon’s time had come. Antonius climbed the ladder and addressed the motionless figure.
“You have not answered me, my lord.”
Antonius touched Simeon’s white beard and seeing that he did not move kissed him on the mouth, then his eyes, his beard, and lifting the hem of his tunic kissed his feet too. And taking hold of Simeon’s hand he placed it on his eyes, remaining there in silence for thirty minutes. When he came down and informed the other disciples a message was despatched to the patriarch of Antioch to come. Every effort was made to keep the assembled crowds in ignorance. There were too many people from the surrounding villages and also Arabs who had come fully armed ready to seize the corpse for burial in their own territories.
After four days troops and clergy finally came.
Ardabur, the military commander at Antioch, arrived with twenty-one prefects, many tribunes, six hundred Gothic soldiers, Martyrius, patriarch of Antioch, and accompanying him six bishops of the province. They immediately formed circles between the pillar and the crowds already assembled there. Ardabur, son of Aspar who ruled over the eastern provinces, felt a sharp pain in his wrists. It was no worse than usual, but his coming here had the effect of condensing, as it had first done, his whole being upon a single point of anguish. Only habitude had allowed his mind to occupy a wider surface. A soldier must bear his injuries, even those inflicted during peace. Ardabur had won his rank of magister militum per Orientem after smashing the barbarians at Thrace. And not so long ago he had fought the Arabs near Damascus, forcing them to the banquet table. A man of noble character, he spent much of his time at home in Daphne or at his villa overlooking the bay of Sosthenium near Constantinople. As of late, according to wagging tongues (yes, the scribbling Priscus too), he revelled in the company of “mimes and magicians and all the delights of the stage.” As though sweet music should irritate the minds of the people! As though we should not with art purge our feelings of anything harsh or disagreeable! And it was said too that he indulged in “womanlike luxuriousness.” Ha, as though a few years of peace should weaken his hinges! What does a soldier fight for but peace?
The irony was that he of all men, an Alan and an Arian too, should be sent on a mission to rescue from overzealous olive growers and gatherers of dates the corpse of a man who a few years earlier he himself might have killed with pleasure. The Antiochenes had begged him to go, and, he reflected, whom one rules one serves. Simeon, darling of the skies! Ardabur had pegged him for a fake. What soul was this that fed upon its own substance? Which embraced wretchedness as though only rags, blistering sun and ice could be true? What spectacle in nature is so vile as a man who’d willingly choose physical torture? As though Christ would put himself upon the cross! Yes, glorious the man who invents for himself a fresh torture, who binds himself to a stake with the bonds of pride, who begins by worshipping God with an impure love, and because he misunderstands a single phrase compounds his error until finally he looks down from on high upon whom he despises. Ah, better the scorpion lurking in the crevice than the fiery serpent suspended in mid-air. Who but an impostor or a fool would spend year after year stuck in that posture? If man’s the only fool and the only wretch among creatures it is because he alone might be virtuous, happy and wise.
Ardabur watched the proceedings with a jaundiced eye. This place was the cradle of his agonies. A few years ago, wishing to demonstrate that Simeon was a fake, he put an arrow to the string of his bow and aimed it at the unwashed, emaciated figure. Suddenly, a skewering pain shot through his hands and he was unable to bend the bow. Then gout attacked him. A mere coincidence, of course, but those who make a study of coincidence will call their findings miracles while all they’ve done really is make connections between what was already there. What simile is not a miracle? The agony in his wrists and ankles would not go, and from this Ardabur suffered ever since. And now here was his soul’s adversary, a small heap of rag and bone, whom Ardabur would bear home. Simeon dead! The skinny man gone. And as death makes of all men brothers, Ardabur would conduct Simeon over the rugged terrain as carefully, as gently as he would a fragile vase.
There was a screeching of birds in the cloudless skies.
Three bishops climbed up to where Simeon’s body was and reciting three psalms kissed his robes. The corpse was then lowered from the pillar by means of pulleys. Only then did the assembled crowd know for sure that Simeon had died. The sound of weeping could be heard at a great distance. Although dead four days Simeon’s face was fresh as if still alive. The patriarch of Antioch wanting a relic went to cut a hair from Simeon’s beard but his hand withered at the attempt. The other bishops prayed for their leader and tearfully addressed the corpse.
“Nothing is missing from your limbs or clothes, and no one will take anything from your holy and venerable corpse.”
As they spoke the power in the patriarch’s hand returned. Simeon’s body was placed, to the accompaniment of psalms and hymns, in the leaden casket that had been brought from Antioch. That night there was much burning of incense. The journey to Antioch took five days during which time the body travelled in state, with people pouring in from the villages to pay their last respects.
At the outskirts of a village called Merope, about five miles from Antioch, the mules pulling the carriage which bore the leaden casket that contained Simeon’s corpse stopped and despite the many proddings they received would not budge. They were obeying some commandment audible only to themselves. The crowd stood about in awkward silence. With such a short distance to go, why this ungodly insubordination of mules? And in the middle of a heat wave too. There was a cemetery to the right of the road and suddenly from its entrance a man dressed in rags ran at full speed towards the carriage and throwing himself upon the casket cried, “Have pity on me, holy one of God, Simeon!” All those who knew him were amazed to hear him speak.
All the people who travelled that road knew who he was, this man whose words we remember but not his name, and taking pity on him would give him food and drink as he sat on the steps of a certain tomb that he had made his home. Other times, he would pace back and forth at the entrance to the cemetery roaring aloud, his cries so terrible people were afraid to approach him. The tomb where he had stayed day and night for these past twenty years contained the remains of a woman with whom he had fallen in love. She was another man’s wife. We do not know whether she warmed to his words of love, but it was certain they had not made physical love. The young woman died, her body was placed here. So maddened with sorrow “the hater of good might gain the soul of that man” he opened up the tombstone and did to her in death what he was not permitted to in life. Almost instantly, the wretched man went into deep shock, was struck deaf and dumb, and was no longer able to recognise anyone. He remained in this state, and, who knows, perhaps by choice, or, as someone remarked later, surely he had been reserved for heaven’s mercies. At Simeon’s approach the demon that had consumed the man for twenty years fled, and, with his reason restored and his tongue freed from the mental shackles, he was able once more to recognise, address and understand all the people.
The mules began to move.
On this the two accounts we have of Simeon’s death and his removal to Antioch roughly agree, although there are some major differences too. Antonius explains why the man was possessed in the first place, and in doing so strikes a remarkable note of compassion. The explanation he provides suggests a tolerance we would not normally associate with the times and certainly not with a rural culture. We shudder at the lunatic’s fate. We can scarcely imagine the horror of that event, the coldness of the flesh, but to label as perverse what one night entered a tortured soul would be to miss completely the tragedy of what took place. Clearly, Antonius understood this. And so too did the people of the village who quite simply let the poor man be. Such a man, were he alive today, depending on where he lived might have been either stoned to death in a public place or kept fully tranquillized on drugs in a private one. The author of the Syriac Life shrinks away from the cause of madness and in his account the local people fearful of being attacked by the man keep their distance. The purpose in bringing him into the narrative at all is to add one last miracle to the many that took place while Simeon was still alive. The sceptic will find more to believe in the first, in what is, in fact, the more remarkable of the two stories.
The Antiochenes, still shaken by a recent earthquake, came out by their thousands, clad in white, carrying wax tapers and lamps, to meet the corpse. They sprinkled precious spices over the people who accompanied the saint. Simeon’s body was placed in a small church called Cassianus where it remained for thirty days while its final destination was being decided. The emperor Leo wanted the body brought to Constantinople, but the Antiochenes petitioned him, saying that a city without walls, such as theirs now was, needed the relics of a saint for protection from further earthquakes. After the petition was approved Ardabur had the body moved to the great church of Constantine.
After this we hear no more of the man who lived only for a woman’s corpse except that he joined the procession to Antioch and spent many days in prayer in the church of Cassianus. Of Simeon we know his remains were seen by Evagrius, in 588, when Philippicus, brother-in-law of the emperor Maurice, requested that relics of the saint be sent to him for the protection of the Eastern armies. Evagrius describes the body as being preserved almost entire, the hair much as it was when the saint was alive, the skin of the forehead wrinkled and the greater part of his teeth present, the others having been violently removed by the faithful. The iron collar Simeon wore lay beside his head. Many others followed Simeon’s example, becoming stylites too. Simeon Stylites the Younger took to the pillar at such an early age Evagrius says “he even cast his teeth in that situation.” It is said when Daniel became a stylite, Simeon’s garment of goat’s skin was bequeathed to him. A latter-day stylite was reported in the middle of the nineteenth century. There have always been men from different cultures who ascend to heaven by stages.
Of Ardabur we learn that the emperor Leo suspecting him, his brother, Patricius, and their father, Aspar, of planning a rebellion against him invited them to his palace in Constantinople. There he had them murdered by eunuchs who then hideously mutilated their bodies. A Goth called Ostrys fled with Aspar’s pretty concubine.
A single image of the great church of Constantine where Simeon lay survives in the border of the great Yakto mosaic in the museum at Antakya. There is another image, too, in that same border: Ardabur’s private bath, which judging by its inclusion here must have been one of the most magnificent in Daphne.
A gentle breeze blew through the ruins. An Armenian from San Francisco gave me some cucumbers, small Syrian cucumbers sweeter than those we are accustomed to. We chomped at them while he spoke to me of his ambition to go everywhere connected with the Armenian people. If he was here it was because many Armenians had gone to see Simeon. There was a church in the desert, he told me, not far from Deir ez Zor, at whose centre was an open pit containing the bones of Armenians massacred by the Turks. “You may handle them, all those thousands of bones,” he said. A group of French tourists having a picnic grimaced over a bottle of Syrian wine. I did try that wine once. A couple of Germans shouted at a boy who charged them double for beverages. As they became more abusive I regretted the boy had not charged them triple. The woman from Yorkshire continued to blare through the megaphone of her ignorance. So many people from distant places, they made this an oddly secular pilgrimage. There was, despite their numbers, a tremendous sense of peace here. We may picture the wildness of the spot as it was when Simeon was alive, darkness slowly hugging the slopes, a hyena laughing in the distance.