September 20, 2004
The church is built on the sight where the third-century monk, St. Simeon, began his peculiar habit of living atop various pillars, spending his whole time praying to God and never coming down. For 42 years St. Simeon sat atop his pillars welcoming pilgrims and sharing his advice, creating a huge cult following. Byzantine authorities finally built the remarkable church on the spot as an attempt to create church unity and appease the Eastern sects that were so in love with St. Simeon. The church soon became a huge pilgrimage center and remained so even after its capture by Arab and other invading forces. However, as the surrounding area eventually became depopulated because of instability, the church was also abandoned and left practically untouched until the last century.
The lack of human contact meant that the church was only left to the elements and, thus, survived surprisingly well. Visiting the church today, even though the roof has crumbled as well as some of the walls, it is still easy to get an idea of the grandeur of the church and the awe it must have imposed on pilgrims. The main entranceway is well preserved, as is the triple apse. Inside the main hall of the church, you can see bits of mosaic peeking out through layers of dirt, but one of the most spectacular aspects of the church is its views. From among the ruins of the church, you can peer out past columns at the Afrine River, rolling limestone hills, and orchards of olive trees. Across from the church, there was also a small monastery and chapel that contains a very nicely preserved baptismal basin. The church has even maintained its status as a pilgrimage center. While there, I saw two busloads of Greek Orthodox priests and nuns unload for a visit.
All in all this is probably the one place outside of Aleppo that you have to see. The size of the church is astounding and the views are amazing. Like the rest of the area, though, it is beyond public transportation and so you will have to arrange for a guide to take you; most hotels can do this for you. St. Simeon is something you should not miss out on.
From journal Aleppo: Syria's Second City