In my profession," the archeologist said, "you'll never be out of work in the Middle East. Just start digging almost anywhere here, and chances are pretty good that you'll find something important."
Not all antiquities, of course, have to be dug up. Some are in plain sight, but because they are far from the beaten tracks they have been simply forgotten—sometimes for centuries. Petra is one example. The Dead Cities of northern Syria are another. There, in a wide area west of Homs and Aleppo, and northeast of Aleppo, stand more than 100 of these cities, empty and deserted, but well-preserved and fully visible to anyone who can get there.
As has so often happened in the Middle East, the exact history of the Dead Cities has been forgotten. Apparently, though, these cities were built by and for Christians in the period between the fourth and the seventh century. They were prosperous and peaceful communities, with agriculture the main source of income. But at some point, probably during one of the recurring wars of the ancient world, they began to decline. Invaders cut down the forests indiscriminately; the ingenious irrigation systems fell into decay; earthquakes drove the terrified inhabitants away. Their cities, deserted, slowly died and the roads leading to them fell into disrepair. Months passed and then years. Soon the very existence of the cities was forgotten.
In 1860 and 1861, the Marquis de Vogüé, a French historian and traveler, visited the area and excitedly reported what he saw, thus drawing to Syria several American expeditions, around the turn of the century, and many historians, archeologists and writers from Europe.
The Marquis' proudest "discovery" in the rugged hills, some 40 miles northwest of Aleppo, was Qal'at Sem'an, the splendid church and monastery built in commemoration of a fantastic man known as St. Simeon Stylites.
Simeon—Sem'an in Arabic—was the son of a poor farmer. He was born in the vicinity of Qal'at Sem'an some time between the years 386 and 390. He first worked as a shepherd but then, being a highly religious young man, entered a local monastery at the age of 16. He stayed there 10 years and was then asked by his superiors to leave. He had developed into such an eccentric that the monks felt the church would be better served if he "went it alone"—which he did.
Simeon became a hermit who later, finding a single, 10-feet-high pillar that was ideal for meditation, went to live on top of it. Unfortunately, the local people soon decided that this strange young ascetic was a "holy man," and began to visit his pillar. Simeon, who prefered to be alone, moved to another, even higher pillar and set up housekeeping again. But still the people came, anxious to hear him preach. Simeon finally chose an enormous pillar 50 or maybe 60 feet high, settled down and stayed there until his death more than 35 years later. On top of the pillar was a small platform where Simeon could sit, stand or kneel—but not lie down. A chain prevented him from falling. Food was brought to him several times per week by monks from a nearby monastery.
Despite his efforts to find solitude, his fame grew from year to year. Finally, he decided he must preach to those who came to the pillar and soon pilgrims were coming from countries as far away as Spain, Britain and Persia to hear him. His influence was enormous.
The Stylite died, it is generally believed, on July 24, 459. His body was brought down, first buried in the church of Constantine in Antioch, and later moved to Constantinople.
One of Simeon's spiritual heirs, St. Daniel Stylites, suggested to Leo, Byzantine Emperor, that a church be built in memory of Simeon and, in 476, the work began. Nobody knows today exactly how many years it took to complete it, but the result was a magnificent structure, undoubtedly the finest and biggest example of Christian contemporary architecture. Unorthodox in design, it was built around the pillar of St. Simeon still about as high as it had been when Simeon laid claim to it, and standing upright in a large octagonal space.
From the octagon, which was the heart of the church, four wings were built, one extending in each direction. Three were 75 feet long and almost as wide but the fourth, being the church proper, was 20 feet longer, and contained the altar.
Northeast of the church was built a mortuary chamber, a wall surrounding the entire complex, and some hastily erected defensive towers. The wall and the towers account for the church's name—Qal'at Sem'an means "Fortress of Simeon"—and they were necessary because the church had to be physically defended against Persian and Arab invaders. This the brave monks succeeded in doing for many years and it was not until July, 986, that Simeon's fortress was finally overwhelmed.
Simeon's church was a great example of early-Byzantine art: strong, noble and beautifully decorated. Today its ruins still reflect its former glory, but unfortunately little is left of Simeon's column. Though the monks tried hard to protect it after Simeon died, countless pilgrims chipped away at it until there's now not much more left than a large piece of stone, roughly the shape of an egg.
Over the centuries, Simeon's Fortress has fallen into ruins, but they are ruins which time has treated with reverence. There is nothing forbidding or depressive about Qal'at Sem'an, but rather an air of friendliness which gives the visitor the distinct feeling that he is welcome. Unlike many other sites in the Middle East, which seem to be there for the tourists only, Qal'at Sem'an is visited frequently by the local populace for whom the ruins are a source of pride and whose games and music bring life and laughter to this empty outpost of the Dead Cities.
Jan van Os is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.