From Pillar Saint to Post: A Bizarre Desert Phenomenon

On the historical development of pillar saints, who took monasticism to new heights in the Near and Middle East.

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Please don't smile; for thirty-five years - think of it -

winter and summer, night and day, for thirty-five years

he's been living and suffering on top of a pillar.

Before either of us was born (I'm twenty-nine,

you must be younger than I am ),

before we were born, just imagine it.

Simeon climbed up his pillar

and has stayed there ever since facing God.

- From "Simeon" by Constantine P. Cavafy (translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard )

Somewhere in the western Negev, not far from Israel's current border with Egypt, there was once a town called Sobota. All that remains today are the archaeological site of Shivta and a large military base. But in its heyday, around 500 C.E., Sobota was home to thousands of residents and three churches, whose remnants still leave a powerful impression on the few people who visit the site.

At the center of the main, paved courtyard of the largest church stand the remains of a pillar framed by chiseled stones. Archaeologists who have excavated here have trouble determining why - in contrast to everything we know of the logic of Byzantine architecture - a single pillar was placed in the middle of the church's atrium. The most accepted assumption among researchers is that a man used to live on the top of the pillar - a Christian monk.

Although not enough is known about the pillar to establish its exact function, this hypothesis is not groundless. During the period, dozens of Stylites - or the so-called pillar saints - lived across the Near East and especially in the area of Syria. Many spent long years atop tall pillars. The Stylites (from stylos in Greek , meaning "pillar") were the most extreme and representative embodiments of the Christian ascetic movement that spread throughout the East after the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Many of the monks believed in the total mortification of the flesh, which they regarded as impure.

While some monks would deform their spines using heavy chains, others exposed their bodies to the ravages of the weather, shut themselves up in barrels or went to sleep for long periods. Some chose to live as "grazing hermits" (boskoi in Greek ). These monks, who depended totally on vegetables, acted like grazing animals, sustaining themselves on weeds, roots and fruit. They roamed the mountains avoiding human company and refrained from using fire. Their aim was to return to the condition of the first man, before Original Sin.

Christian monasticism began when Christian believers were still persecuted by the Roman authorities, but rose in prominence after the institutionalization of the religion in the fourth century. Formerly, when believers' lives were still in constant peril, the status of martyrdom was easily attainable. But when the persecution ended, it became necessary to institutionalize a new system of self-denial and abstention that would replace martyrdom. The road to redemption, according to Israeli historian Aviad Kleinberg, had become too easy. The radical believers returned, therefore, to the bleak desert in order to guarantee their souls' salvation.

The origins of the Christian monastic movement lie in the Egyptian desert, but during the fourth century it spread to Byzantine Palestine. Most of the monks in that area lived in communal or semi-communal monasteries. While few monasteries are active today in the Judean Desert, during the middle of the first millennia the area was inhabited by thousands of monks, leading one writer of the period to remark, "The desert was turned into a city." Monks also lived in the Negev and the Sinai Peninsula - some in established monasteries and some in caves, such as those in Ein Avdat, near what is today Sde Boker.

Strange self-torment

The lives of these ascetic monks were described in the hagiographies penned by Church writers. Although these texts tend toward exaggeration, there is no doubt that the self-mortification practiced by many of the monks brought them close to the limits of human endurance. While most contemporary monks are content with celibacy and prayer, their forbears began developing strange ascetic methods of self-torment. The competition that ensued led to increasingly long periods of ritual fasting and retreat. In the Greek world, athletes won fame by succeeding in the Olympic Games. Now, in the young Christian world, a new ascetic "sport" was developing and bringing its practitioner no less prestige. It is not for nothing that the monks became known as "God's athletes."

The figure of St. Macarius of Alexandria, who died at the end of the fourth century, is exemplary in this regard. When he learned that some monks had refrained from eating cooked meat during Lent, he gave up cooked food altogether for a week. According to other stories, Macarius left his cell to wander for 20 days without a single night's sleep. And once, after killing a fly, he was so stricken with guilt that he spent six months roaming the wilderness as penitence. His face was so disfigured by mosquito and hornet bites that, when he returned to his cell at the monastery, his friends could only recognize him by his voice.

But no form of asceticism was as prestigious as establishing one's abode on top of a pillar. This way of life was invented by the Syrian monk Simeon Stylites, the most famous pillar saint in Christian history. Born at the end of the fourth century, Simeon began his career as a regular ascetic monk. He became renowned for his achievements in fasting and self-mortification, and admirers began congregating around his cell in search of guidance and blessing. But the young monk wanted to escape human company, not attract it. After several failed escape attempts, he climbed up a column several meters high, which had been left over from a ruined building not far from Aleppo. Perched on a small platform that he had made, Simeon took up a life of prayer and fasting, subsisting on small rations of bread and goat milk that local boys passed up to him.

In a short time, however, an even larger group of admirers than before assembled around the pillar. Simeon, in response, gradually raised the pillar, till it eventually reached a height of 18 meters. Only then did Simeon finally grasp the extent of his fame. At dawn he would begin by performing hundreds of genuflections, and at midday he would present himself before the astonished crowds and give sermons. This extraordinary ascetic monk became one of the Church's greatest assets, according to his biography, bringing about the conversion of several pagan Arab tribes: "Thousands, tens of thousands, followed his command and gave themselves over to Christ's authority."

His biography further tells of the "many far-flung Arabs, who did not even know what bread was, but who became his followers, converted to Christianity and abandoned their ancestral idols." The historian Theodorus called him "a candle of faith that shed its light on the entire world."

Simeon's influence, like that of charismatic religious leaders throughout the ages, reached all the way to the highest echelons of political power. The Roman emperor himself would make pilgrimages to the pillar to seek the monk's advice. From his elevated post, the pillar saint issued verdicts on the most important Church disputes of the time and even dictated politically oriented decisions to the emperor, some of which revealed the fanatical side of Simeon's nature. In a missive to Emperor Theodosius II, for instance, Simeon demanded that Jews in Byzantium be prohibited from serving in any civilian or military capacity. Fearing the wrath of the venerated monk, Theodosius issued the decree in 439. Thus, the god-loving ascetic promoted the expulsion of Jews from Christian society.

Simeon died at the age of 68. After his body was taken down off the pillar, it was brought to Antiochia, in what is modern-day Turkey, in a large funeral procession. In Simeon's wake, other pillar saints appeared in the East. The best known, Simeon the Younger, apparently climbed to the top of a pillar before he was eight years old and remained there for 68 years. A third Simeon followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, but his self-mortification was cut unexpectedly short after he was struck by lightning.

Toward the end of the eighth century, the popularity of ascetic monasticism began to wane, and the phenomenon of pillar saints almost disappeared. Religious faith and athletic achievement, in Western Christianity, went their separate paths.

The figure of Simeon Stylites left surprising traces in Jewish culture. Kabbala scholar Yehuda Liebes has pointed out that the depiction of Simeon Bar Yochai in the Zohar was influenced by the figure of Simeon Stylites. In our time, playwright Nissim Aloni planned to write a play about Simeon, in which a prostitute successfully lures him down off his pillar. However, it was the poet Constantine P. Cavafy who wrote the most poignant and sharp description of the man: "He may have been the only man who had dared to be genuinely alone."

A 16th-century icon depicting Simeon Stylites.



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