One of the saints commemorated today is St. Daniel the Stylite. A life of this fifth century saint may be found here:
In 2005, the journal Road to Emmaus interviewed an archaeologist(Lukas) who worked in Syria on stylite sites. Here’s a brief excerpt from that issue (6:3) for your educational enjoyment:
Four Lesser-Known Stylite Sites
RTE: What other stylite sites have you been to?
LUKAS: I’ve spoken about St. Simeon the Elder and St. Simeon the Younger, but I can give you a short account of four other sites I’ve investigated. The first is Kafr Derian, which is perhaps a half-hour by car from St. Simeon’s. There, as I mentioned earlier, you can see the column base with some post-holes where an enclosure may have beenf ixed.Y ou can also see a very venerable tomb. The column nowadays is lying on the ground in pieces. At the front of the church, facing the column, was a sort of portico, con structed as a balcony. George Tchelenko, the archeologist who investi gated it, argues that this was a kind of platform, half the height of the pillar, from which you could bet ter approach the holy man Kimar: column drum, note the holes for metal clamps. ? .. ?? to ask your questions. If this is true, this was perhaps set up so that when he was consulting, he did not have to have people climbing his pillar as St. Simeon did, nor did he have to come down, but the people on the platform could talk to him from half-height. A very interesting arrangement. There is a little speculation in this, but nevertheless, it’s a very good suggestion. We have no idea of what may have been built later around the shrine today, as the surroundings of Kafr Darían are all overbuilt. Nevertheless, we can say that, as at Qal’at Si’man, it was the village in the valley that cared for the holy man and his shrine at the top of the hill. A second stylite column is on the same mountain as St. Simeon’s, north of Gebel Sim’an, in a village called Kimar. In Kimar, we still have two apses of a church standing, and the monastery building, a nice quadrangle with some crosses. Inside are arcosolia, which are arched tombs. They are very common in both ancient and modern monasticism, and in each, a holy man would have been buried. There is a large column lying close to one of the
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apses that has broken into pieces. The absence of other columns, which you would certainly see if the building itself was columned, may well indicate that this was a stylite site. Most interestingly, the drums were connected by metal hooks, of which you can still see some holes, and atop the last one, there may have been a platform. The other evidence that this may have been a stylite column is the diameter. I measured it and it is 80 or 90 centimeters, which is never used in normal architecture as such. A third column is in a place up in Gebel el-A’la, which is another mountain of the Syrian Limestone Massif, and again, you see there a very large base, with a column fallen into pieces and no other columns around, a kind of plat- form and a big cistern. The fourth site is close to Ghebel el-A’la, southwest of Gebel Sim’an, in a place called Deir el-Malik – Der, or Deir, the House or Monastery, el-Malik, of the King, the one who has power. This is a fascinating site that, unfortunately, has been disregarded by mod- De*r el-Malik: general view, looking north, on the left ern research. It has a very the column base; in the hack> monastic buUding’ large enclosure, is situated near a village that was famous for its wine pro- duction in ancient times, and was close to a traveled Roman road. It has a big platform that overlooks the eastern valley on two sides of the mountain. Here we have a kind of flat platform, and slightly off-center, a large column base with most of the column gone. We know with certainty that Deir el-Malik was a stylite site from a Syriac text in the British museum that speaks of both the stylite and this place. So this is one of the cases in which archeology meets the text. The column was in a very central place, well-seen from all sides. Deir el-Malik also has a large cistern, with what we suppose to be a small guest-house, and in the major compound are olive or wine presses. So, here again we have an obvious need to accommodate people who came to pray at the shrine, an enormous need for water, and the presses. Why domestic wine? We don’t really know. The monastic attitude towards wine varies from complete refusal to mild praise, and both attitudes can be found even towards growing and crushing the grapes. Although some monks argued,
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“No wine, no meat… it doesn’t suit the monastic life,” others argued, “The Lord drank wine and even blessed the jars at Cana, so there would be more.” So there is no general rule, but there were local rules and we often have very clear statements against the consumption or production of wine. Rules like this are almost always a response to something that was out of order. But at Deir el-Malik it seems that the monastery/pilgrimage center that grew up after the stylite’s death grew grapes to produce wine for their own and their pilgrims’ needs, or perhaps to sell it to obtain other supplies. The guesthouse could have been for the upper-class, and since wine was the common table drink, why not make their own? Also, we don’t know who the laborers were. It may have been the monks, or it could have been hired vil- lagers, as the temptation of working in the vineyard and the winepress was often a cause of debate among the fathers. So, the main elements that are common among the stylite sites I’ve seen are that they were close to a village, they seem to have often been on an elevated, beautiful site, there were provisions made for water and supplies for pilgrims, and eventually each site was surrounded with pilgrimage buildings.
RTE: Can you articulate the importance of saving these sites? What does archeology speak to in the human spirit and why do we need to have these links with the past?
LUKAS: I think that knowledge of the past helps us to understand the pres- ent and plan for the future. Also, I feel that if this is a holy site, if it touches one person spiritually, then it is worth guarding. These Christian holy places are filled with spiritual power, and if you are not arrogant and allow your- self to “catch” it, you can think, “In this place there was prayer, there was asceticism… I have had a chance to witness it, and I want to carry this wit- ness forward in my life.” I’m quite sure that we can’t carry it forward in the same way the stylites did, but there are principles behind it, which are: “Do good. Step back from the world, but when you must be a part of the world, interfere in a good way. Step back for prayer. Do your job in the world but keep some resources free for others.” We also have to remember that a spiritual place does not cease to exist spiritually once it ceases to exist archeologically. So even though
Road to Emmaus Vol VI, No. 3 (#22)
St. Simeon’s site is in ruins, it is a reminder that people in the Syrian lands were once able to follow Christ in this very unique way. Don’t believe that times are so much better nowadays. Economic constrictions affect us more and more and we are part of a global network that brings many advantages but leaves our souls very dry. Meeting some- thing like this helps you identify yourself, where you come from. “I have a chance to believe in the same Gospel of Christ that this man did. He performed miracles. Why should I not be given a chance to imitate Christ in a similar way – not on a column, but in a contemporary way?” If we had never discovered St. Simeon’s, perhaps it would not have been a spiritual catastrophe, but since it has been preserved, it is a reminder in time and space to mortify ourselves and to follow Christ. Archeology itself, of course, has a rather academic purpose – to keep the memory of pre-existing cultures alive where there are material images and structures for a future generation, for the building of identities, and also for future development. It doesn’t necessarily have a spiritual dimension.
RTE: I’m not sure. I think we need these physical links to our history to help engage our spirits. Grace comes through the sacraments, through our neighbors, or through the earth itself, blessed by a holy man living and praying in a certain place. I think its archeology’s job to save these sites for the sake of this spiritual connection as well.
LUKAS: I fully agree with you in this, but as far as academic archeology goes, it is a science dedicated only to bringing things to light and documenting, analyzing, and interpreting them. This is a very technical science, which does not mean that the archeologist won’t be deeply affected personally by this spiritual element. It happens to me often, and this is why I continue working on these monastic sites. It has developed a dynamic: the more I work on them, the more fascinated I become – the more fascinated, the bet- ter I work. I also have to be aware that fascination may distort my view. If I allow the fascination to overshadow my archaeological technique, I might be willing to see or construe things that do not really exist. An example of this are the towers that have been found in the ruins of Syrian monasteries. There is a debate going on, “What was the purpose of these towers – two, three, four floors high?” There is an early Arabic verse that says, “I saw the light of the hermit’s tower shining in the night.” So,
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based on this poem some would like to believe that these were hermits’ tow- ers. But there is a lot of discussion going on. Was this a hermit’s tower, or was it simply a watchtower, or was it a watchtower that had been taken over by a hermit? We have one scholar (in fact he is a Franciscan monk himself) who interprets every tower as a hermit’s tower – hermits, hermits, hermits. Since he is so persistent in seeing hermits’ towers everywhere, I don’t believe this anymore. In many cases we can’t say; there are only a few inscriptions or textual references.
RTE: Although an abandoned watchtower would have been an excellent place for a hermit looking for a refuge.
LUKAS: Yes, and in eastern Syria there are ruins of many abandoned towers and fortresses, which at certain points were taken over by monastic com- munities. This was a very common procedure