A stylite is a person, typically a Christian ascetic, who lives on the top of a pillar; in short, a pillar hermit. By living on a pillar to pray, preach, and fast, stylites believe that they are ensuring the salvation of their souls. In some ways, they are the precursors to the modern day tree dwellers — the ultimate tree-huggers, who live in a tree to prevent its destruction. The word stylite is derived from the Greek word stylos meaning “pillar.”
Although they are not popular today (and a lack of suitable pillars in good locations, might be part of the problem), they were popular among monks during the time of the Byzantine Empire, roughly 330 to 1453. The most famous of all the stylists was Simeon Stylites the Elder (390-459), born near what is now Aleppo, Syria. Simeon embraced Christianity after reading the Beatitudes at the age of 13 (talk about a life-changing book) and soon after entered a monastery. Apparently the young monk practiced such an extreme level of austerity that he became a persona non grata even among the most abstemious monks. Simeon retreated to a small hut and endured the entire period of Lent without any food or drink. This achievement, considered a miracle, caught the attention of the faithful who sought him out, asking for his spiritual counsel, relief from illness, or prayers. Simeon then moved into a small hut on the slopes of what is now the Sheik Baraka Mountain; however the never-ending stream of pilgrims did conflicted with his desire for peace and solitude. And here’s where the pillar comes into the story.
In 422, eager to get away from the crowds, Simeon decided to move on up. He found a stone pillar, about 6 feet high with a small platform about a meter square, located in the ruins of what is now Taladah, Syria. He climbed up the pillar and lived there for the next 37 years — a remarkable feat considering that he was exposed to all the elements and only received minimal food (mainly flat bread and goats milk) by disciples who climbed up a ladder to reach him. (Curiously, there is no source that explains how he relieved himself; but we leave that to the reader’s imagination; perhaps gravity plays a part.) Of course, it didn’t take long for worshippers to find him. The pillar became an extremely popular pilgrimage — Simeon was literally and figuratively exalted. Over the years, Simeon felt compelled to move higher up, eventually living on a pillar that was 50 feet high. For his safety, a short railing was built around the small platform.
On September 2, 459, a disciple found Simeon without a pulse, slumped over in prayer. He was honored and buried near his beloved pillar, where the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, consisting of four basilicas built around the pillar, was built. It is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine churches, now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins, including the base of the pillar, can still be seen at Mount Simeon, located 19 miles northwest of Aleppo, Syria, a testament to the faith, discipline, and determination of an inspirational monk.
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For further reading: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Simeon-Stylites