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St Simeon Stylites, pillar hermit

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St Simeon Stylites took the search for peace and quiet to a new level when he spent 37 years alone atop a tall pillar. He was the first and most famous of a succession of stylitoe, or “pillar hermits”, whose asceticism earned them a great reputation for holiness throughout eastern Christendom.

Simeon was born about AD388 at Sisan, near the northern border of Syria. He began life as a shepherd but entered a monastery before the age of 16 years. Searching for a more austere existence still, he left the monastery and shut himself in a hut for three years, where he passed the whole of Lent without eating or drinking, combined with the mortification of standing upright for long periods.

After his spell in the hut he found a rocky space in the desert, less than 20m in diameter, in which to escape the hurly-burly of life. But then, fed up with crowds of pilgrims interrupting his devotions, he sought an even more solitary existence. He found a 4m high pillar near Aleppo with a small platform on top and decided to stay there until his death.

Well-wishers subsequently replaced the pillar with grander versions, so that eventually he sat more than 15m from the ground on a platform about 1m square. Even then he could not escape his devotees, who scaled a ladder to hear him speak or receive letters. He also delivered addresses to those assembled beneath.

During his early years atop the pillar Simeon would tie himself to a stake during Lent, but he later dispensed with the stake and stood unaided. After 37 years on the pillar, Simeon died in 459 AD. His remains were taken to Antioch, where the ruins of Qalaat Semman (the fortress of Simeon), erected in his honour, can still be seen today. The base of the pillar on which Simeon stood is at the centre of the ruins.

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