Simeon Stylites, a famous ascetic saint seeking for a spiritual life of extreme austerity, spent 37 years living on a small platform atop a pillar. Probably born in 390 AD, Simeon was devoted to Christianity since about 13 years old. His practice of extreme austerity led him to a pursuit of an ascetic life in seclusion. In order to avoid the crowd of pilgrims seeking for his prayers, Simeon found a pillar from an ancient ruins and built a platform of about one square metre on top and started his 37 year living on a pillar. He moved to different columns throughout his life. The last was recorded to be more than 15m from ground. Instead of isolated from the society, his fame grew even greater after living on a pillar. He would talk to visitors from a ladder, wrote letters, instructed disciplines, hosted lectures for an assembly down below. Even the Roman emperors greatly respected Simeon and his counsels. He died in 459 AD after 37 years spent on a pillar. After his death, stylites or pillar dwellers had become a kind of popular Christian ascetics in early Byzantine era. Qalaat Samaan, or the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, is a 5th century church built on the site of Simeon’s pillar. Before the construction of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Saint Simeon had the most famous dome in the world of Christendom. Over the last 1600 years, the basilica survived earthquakes and wars, but had met its fate of destruction being at the wrong place at the wrong time: at the crossroad among forces of the Syrian, ISIS, Kurdish, Turkish, Russians and other rebels. Since taken by the ISIS in 2013, the complex had gone through several years of absolute chaos and madness, missile bombing and stone removal, all causing significant damages to the world heritage complex. What believed to be the remains of Simeon’s pillar was damaged by Russian air strikes in support of Assad’s regime. Along with the destruction of old Aleppo, Qalaat Samaan’s ill fate is another great loss to human civilization that no reconstruction work can ever restore.
A 1664 depiction of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
From the bus station of Aleppo we hired a car to Qalaat Samaan, the famous ruins of the four basilicas built in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites. The ruins was rather remote, at approximately 2 hour of drive north of Aleppo. We were amazed by the grand scale of the complex, and found the ruined archways very photogenic. We finished our visit at around 11:00 and didn’t have a clue of how to return to Aleppo, as our hired car only offered an one way trip. No public transportation was available, and we were up on a hill far from the highway. At the parking lot, I decided to try hitchhiking. Since there were six of us it wasn’t easy. I headed towards a tour bus in which the driver was reading newspaper. I tried to communicate with him in English and luckily he understood my request. He led me to the tour guide and the group of Spanish tourists. They agreed to take us along all at once as they were leaving for Aleppo as well. They were not a big group, around 15 of them, mainly in their 50s. The bus was the most luxurious tour bus we had ever seen, with large comfortable chairs and a banquette seating area at the back where we settled ourselves comfortably. Their bus even dropped by one of the 700 sites of the Dead Cities along the way. We were invited to go along with them. On the bus, the Spanish group kindly offered us biscuits and snacks. The bus was so comfortable that at the end we all fell asleep. When we woke up we had already back at the Citadel of Aleppo. This remained as our only hitchhiking experience in the Middle East.
Saint Simeon was an influential figure 1500 years ago, prompting people to construct a large church complex shortly after his death at the site of his pillar. The ruined complex is consisted of the main Church of Saint Simeon, Baptistry, and Monastery.
The Church of Saint Simeon had about 5000 sq.m of floor space, almost comparable to that of the Hagia Sophia. It was designed in a cruciform with four basilica centered at the octagonal courtyard where the remains of the pillar of Saint Simeon stood.
Built in 490 AD, the church was one of the earliest churches in this part of the world.
The massive archways are the most well preserved elements of the complex.
The fine details of the arches and column capitals are valuable artefact from the early Byzantine era.
We could have spend a long time to study the fine details of the ruins.
Much of the walls of the four basilicas remained intact in 2006 when we visited.
Along with the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the church was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. However taken by ISIS in 2013, the church had entered a few years of absolute madness and destruction.
Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon.
The most important spot of the complex is the octagonal courtyard where the remains of Simeon’s pillar stood before the war.
What remained from the 15m pillar where Saint Simeon once lived atop had become less than 3m tall before the Syrian Civil War. After the Russian air strike, the spot has become nothing but a pile of rubble.
There were hardly any explanations or signage at the ruins, but we were free to walk around the complex.
The Eastern Basilica was beautifully preserved. It was larger than the others, and used to held all major ceremonies.
Since 2003, the complex had been regularly surveyed and scanned by the French. Their 3D documentation prior to the building’s partial destruction in 2016 may prove to be crucial for its future restoration.
The octagonal Baptistery was a crucial part of the pilgrimage complex.
The Baptistery is one of the best preserved Christian architecture in Syria.
Baptistry Baptistry was constructed shortly after the construction of the main church. The wooden roof, either a cone or dome, didn’t survive to this day.
Since the complex was erected on the hill, there were spots where we could enjoy the surrounding scenery down below.
As of 2020, Idlib, the city near the Church of Saint Simeon Stylite, was the latest battle ground between the Jihadist forces, Turkish backed rebels, Russian backed Syrian government and Kurdish forces.
As first time visitors to Kyoto, we were eager to see the autumn colours at the world famous Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), especially when we knew that the iconic Kiyomizu Stage (清水の舞台) would undergo a major renovation starting from January 2017. It was the second last day of the season that Kiyomizu-dera opened for autumn special night viewing, and according to local weather forecast, Kyoto’s weather would turn bad in a day’s time. Without hesitation we hopped on a bus near Kitano Tenmangu and headed back to Higashiyama. We had some rest on the 45-minute bus ride. After getting off, we picked one alleyway to walk uphill. Soon we arrived at the magnificent Hokanji Yasaka Pagoda (法観寺 八坂の塔). As we walked uphill, we felt like we were pilgrims going back in time, entering into a world of narrow stone alleyways, centuries-old timber houses and Buddhist buildings. Along the way, most shops were already closed, but a few souvenir and snack shops still opened to serve the night visitors of Kiyomizu-dera. Over our heads, we soon discovered a strong beam of blue light in the sky, pointing from Mount Otowa (音羽山) where the temple was situated, outwards to the infinite sky above the city. According to the official website, the light embodies the Kannon (観音)’s compassion, brightening the streets of the ancient city. For us, it was like a guidance leading us uphill. It get more crowded as we walked closer to the temple. Minutes later we arrived at the stepped plaza of Niomon Gate (仁王門). In front of the famous Saimon Gate (西門), we lined up to get our admission tickets from a temporary shelter and delightfully walked up the stair to enter the temple complex.
The autumn foliage at Kiyomizu-dera had past its peak a few days ago. Nonetheless, all visitors including us were excited to tour around the celebrated complex under the illuminations of floodlights and embellishment of the remaining autumn maples. At the main hall, we took off our shoes, paid our respect in front of the sanctuary, and admired the illuminated autumn colours down in the valley below Kiyomizu Stage. Standing 13m above the valley, the Kiyomizu Stage (清水の舞台) had been the centerpiece of the temple for centuries. Without using a single nail, the Kiyomizu Stage is made of 410 Hinoki wooden boards supported by 18 Zelkova pillars using the hole and grooves technique known as the Kakezukuri Method. From the stage, a stone path led us to the opposite side of the valley, where a large crowd gathered in front of Okunoin Hall (奥の院) looking back to admire the main hall and Kiyomizu Stage. Perched above the fire red maples, the huge roof of the main hall made of Hinoki bark and the lattice structure of Kiyomizu Stage looked gorgeously timeless, while the comet-like beam of blue light connected the temple with the glittering urban skyline beyond. The path overlooking the valley of colourful leaves then led us further away from the main hall until reaching the base of the small pagoda where we headed down to the valley. In the valley, a tree-lined path brought us all the way back to the bottom of the Kiyomizu Stage, where the adjacent Otowa waterfall (音羽の瀧) came down in three separated streams. Another crowd of visitors formed a long queue at the waterfall, waiting for their turn to drink the water with the special cup provided. As we headed to the temple exit, we passed by a mirror-like pond with magnificent reflections of autumn leaves and the orange Three-storey Pagoda above the cliff.
We were overjoyed for having such a fruitful day of sightseeing. To give this beautiful day a satisfying closure we opted for a late dinner. We walked downhill from Kiyomizu-dera, passed through Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), and entered the lively district of Gion (祇園), the active area of traditional geisha. We picked Okaru (おかる), a small udon restaurant popular with geiko since established in 1923. We ordered two of their signature noodle bowls and felt truly grateful of finishing our wonderful first day of Kyoto.
Passing by the Hokanji Yasaka Pagoda (法観寺 八坂の塔) as we headed up to Kiyomizu-dera.
Minutes later we arrived at the stepped plaza of Niomon Gate (仁王門).
In front of the famous Saimon Gate (西門), we lined up to get our admission tickets from a temporary shelter, while the beam of blue light shot up the sky behind the temple.
Stone statue in front of the Three-storey Pagoda.
Looking back out to the Three-storey Pagoda behind entering the main hall.
Visitors stepping into the timber structure of the main hall.
Inside the main hall, the sanctuary is consisted of three sections: outer, inner, and innermost. Only the outer sanctuary is open to the public.
Visitors gathered on the Kiyomizu Stage photographing the skyline of Kyoto.
The strong beam of blue light shot out from Mount Otowa behind the temple.
Behind the Kiyomizu Stage, a prominent stair led down to the Otowa waterfall.
Iconic overview of Kiyomizu Stage, main hall, autumn maples, blue light and Kyoto skyline.
The beam of blue light pointed towards Kyoto Tower in a distance.
The stair adjacent to the timber structure of the Kiyomizu Stage.
The amazing structure of Kiyomizu Stage lit up with floodlight.
Lanterns indicating special night viewing, which happens three times a year: cherry season in spring, three days of Thousand-day Pilgrimage/Special Viewing of nainaijin in the Main Hall in the summer, and the maple colours in autumn.
Autumn foliage and the Three-storey Pagada reflected in the pond near the exit.
Autumn colours, blue light and the Three-storey Pagoda.
By the time we returned to the Niomon Gate (仁王門), Kiyomizu-dera was already closed for the night.
We passed by the lanterns at Yasaka Shrine on the quest for our late dinner.
We picked Okaru (おかる) in Gion for a simple noodle bowl.
We ordered two of the signature dishes: curry and cheese udon and local duck udon.
Curry and cheese udon and local duck udon.
Our posts on 2016 Kyoto and Nara:
OUR FIRST KYOTO STORY, Japan
DAY 1: ARRIVAL AT HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: RYOANJI TEMPLE (龍安寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NINNAJI TEMPLE (仁和寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KINKAKUJI TEMPLE (金閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KITANO TENMANGU SHRINE (北野天満宮), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NIGHT AT KIYOMIZU-DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: MORNING STROLL IN SOUTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA to KENNINJI, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: ○△□ and Chouontei Garden and Ceiling of Twin Dragons, KENNINJI TEMPLE (建仁寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: SFERA BUILDING (スフェラ・ビル), SHIRKAWA GION (祇園白川), KAMO RIVER (鴨川) & DOWNTOWN, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: YAKITORI HITOMI (炭焼創彩鳥家 人見), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: MORNING IN NORTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (北東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: NANZENJI (南禅寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: PHILOSOPHER’S PATH (哲学の道), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: HONENIN (法然院), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: GINKAKUJI (銀閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: CRAB AND SAKE, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 4: HORYUJI (法隆寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: TODAIJI TEMPLE (東大寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KASUGA TAISHA (春日大社), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KOFUKUJI (興福寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: NAKAGAWA MASASHICHI SHOTEN (中川政七商店 遊中川), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: RAMEN & CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 1, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 2, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 5: FAREWELL KYOTO, Kyoto, Japan