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Qal'aat Samaan

The Basilica of St. Simeon, 60 Kilometres from Aleppo.

Thirty-six years on top of a column… Thirty-six years  under the blazing sun, in the bitter cold, and exposed to all the mountain winds! The man’s name was Simon: a shepherd from Northern Syria he became a monk as the result of a revelation in a dream. It was not enough for him to live walled up in a cell; isolation as close as possible to the Heavens was his way of demonstrating his detachment from the world and his faith in God.

There is only a stump of the column left, some two or three meters high, such was the superstitious fervor of pilgrims over the centuries - each wanting to take away a piece, no matter how tinny, of the column which had been the scene of such a remarkable exploit.

It must be said that excellent arrangements were made for the veneration of the memory of the ascetic. Shortly after the death of the holy man the most beautiful church in the East was built on the ridge of the hill where he had taken up "residence". The layout, centering on the famous column, was original. Four basilicas, arranged in the shape of a cross, opened onto a sort of octagon covered by a dome; in the center stood the sacred pillar.

The church orientated eastwards, and hence slightly out of alignment, was the one mainly used for worship. The three others sheltered the pilgrims, of whom there was always enthusiastic crowd, hoping for a miracle. Women were admitted, but not allowed to approach close to the column.

There were many candidates for baptism, anxiously awaiting admission to the baptistery nearby, in the narthex in front of the southern facade.

Monks and clergy were lodged in the vicinity, in a building several stories high, whilst visitors found their way down a splendid road lined with classical style triumphal arches, to the shops and hostelries at the foot of the hill. If a traveler were to die during his stay here, there was a special funerary chapel behind the basilica to receive him.

Well over a thousand years have passed. Books, documents, sculptured stones (there are some in the Museum in Damascus) all tell of Simon, whom the Church soon declared to be a saint. But if we know the elements of the remarkable story we can read it four ourselves on the very spot where it took place.

More impressive even than the astonishing story itself, are the beautiful remnants that remain. Their simplicity and harmony combine to make the ruins of the Basilica of St. Simon one of the masterpieces of pre-Islamic art in Syria.

Its builders had absorbed much from classical antiquity but they expressed what they had learned in an original way. Preceded by a flight of seven steps, extending along its full length, the facade with its three porches is a model of architectural balance. The eight great arches which form the central octagon rest on a skilful arrangement of vaults, columns and pilasters. The apses, either flat or rounded, and the lateral apsidal chapels, form a perfect contrast to the great round-headed windows open to a sky that is almost always intensely blue.

Everywhere the stone has taken on a warm golden tint, almost pinkish. The decoration was conceived so as to emphasize the purity of the main lines; there is a discreet plain molding linking the openings; a frieze or band of delicately carved grapes and foliage emphasizing the arches or lintels; sober Corinthian capitals, but whose acanthus leaves seem sometimes strangely shaken by the wind…

Outside, the facade with its arches surmounted by a triangular front, but even more the east end of the church with its great apse of six bays flanked by small columns, anticipate by six centuries the finest Romanesque churches of Europe.

Beyond the apse the funerary chapel still stands, well preserved, amid tombs carved out the rock.

On the other side, the baptistery adjoins the ruins of another basilica. Its square external plan embraces an octagon formed by eight arches springing from pilasters or engaged columns. It was a halt on the processional route around the narrow plateau, where they were joined by the newly baptized Christians who then went them to the great Basilica of St. Simon.

The setting is magnificent, with extensive views all around. Other "ghost towns" can be seen, even with the naked eye, on the nearby hilltops. In the 10th century ramparts flanked by towers made the place into a fort, a "Qalaat", a citadel, the citadel of Simon. Down below the city gradually became deserted and fell into ruins. Some two and three story facades still remain standing.

Shortly before the turning for Qalaat Seman, approaching from Aleppo, the road to Antioch crosses a strange paved road built on a solid stone foundation. The structure is intact and modern cars can be driven quite safely down this road from another age. Usually Roman roads seem to consist of a few scattered blocks of paving: here there is a stretch of twelve hundred meters that might have been preserved expressly to delight the tourist.

There are other curiosities in this region, along the road to Qalaat Seman and Afrin.

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