Sunday was a red letter day. I have studied Byzantine monasticism on and off since I was 20, I wrote my masters thesis on it, focusing on architectural signatures of different types of Byzantine monastery. The early Christian saints are a litany of the strange and unusual, possibly top of the odd list are the stylites (although the medieval transvestite saints come close in terms of being unusual for their time). Stylite monks are a type of ascetic, someone who withdraws from the world in order to better understand God. Usually this meant living in a cell on the fringes of the desert, or as part of a lavratic monastic community – a group of hermits who meet maybe once a week for a service followed by a meal conducted in silence. Stylites chose to retreat from the world upwards; they measure out the length of their days stood on top of pillars.
The earliest Stylite saint was Simeon Stylites the Elder (5th century AD), whose monastery is still mostly standing just behind the mountain photographed in my last blog post, or rather it was last time anyone checked. As it’s in Syria I’m now very unlikely to get an opportunity to visit it, which made me doubly invested in getting to see its sister monastery, St Simeon the Younger. Simeon the Younger (6th century AD) hopped on the stylite bandwagon and spent his entire life on pillars of various heights. Seeing the monastery was the only thing other than seeing Sera that I really wanted to do while visiting Antakya. Everything else I had planned to do I could take or leave, but it seemed crazy to go to the area and not make the trek to Simeon’s mad mountain.
Sunday morning was lazy in the way of hardworking career girls, we got up late, ate crumble for breakfast and talked about politics. Sera translated some things while I worked out and read a journal article, consecutively, not simultaneously, I’m not magic. At about two we were ready to set off into the wilderness. A couple of Dolmuş rides later we were at the base of a mountain with a newly paved road signposted to St. Simon. Our remembered instructions said it was about 4k from the base of the mountain to the top, but I’ve followed Rough Guide instructions before and rarely found them accurate, so when a pickup truck with a cabin full of family members offered us a lift we took it gratefully. Roaring around winding mountain roads with the wind in my hair, knees flexed to absorb the roughness of the road and arms braced against the cross beams I felt exultant and strangely safe. Once we’d reached the cross roads where the family were turning off our road they offloaded us into a second car, also full of family, who happily took us as far as they were going and then pointed the way up the last bit of the mountain, now covered in towering windmills, up to the lonely outpost of the monastery.
Photo courtesy of Has Avrat
The monastery of Simeon Stylite the Younger is in the middle of a wind farm, on top of a mountain which looks out over the Mediterranean and over into Syria. As the windmills whirred and groaned, the gathering clouds were occasionally pierced by shafts of sunlight and I wondered somewhat apprehensively what a lightning storm by a power station might be like. We strolled to the top, passing two extremely confused looking men in a shed who clearly looked after the power lines. Reaching the summit, a stern faced man and two enormous dogs told us it was shut ‘for restoration’.
louring clouds over a modern stele.
Eventually a combination of pretty smiles, appropriate academic humility, apparent complete acceptance of our fate and persistence got us a guided tour, so although it was a little rushed, I got to see the pillar of the stylite saint.
the pillar of St Simeon the Younger
a doorway to blue yonder
our guide brushed away a section of dust floor like any other, and beneath was this mosaic which apparently covers all of the interior spaces of the monastery
Our trip down the mountain was swift, if a little terrifying. The previously stern faced site guard, having promised to go slowly, took us down on the back of his motorbike. My heart was in my mouth the entire way as we swooshed round corners with a sheer drop to one side, the newly paved gravel surface of the road heightening my sense of impending doom. He kept to his promise though, and it really was a gentle ride to the bottom of the mountain. I’m relieved to have seen the site before restoration happens, you can never be quite sure what’s going to be added or taken away. The day ended with a fantastic meal in the old quarter of Antakya, perched above a courtyard complete with tinkling fountain, palm tree, orange tree and attentive old fashioned service. An evening of rakı, meze, grilled fish, incredible views and lovely friendship.
chilled fruit in the late evening sunshine