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Saint Simeon |
Lonely warriors for Christ

Saint Simeon is drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 18, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

What impressed the tough-as-nails desert Bedouin were the hermits and monks who rejected the world and took to the wilderness to live on dates, berries, and God

Saint Simeon - Lonely warriors for Christ

Saint Simeon - Lonely warriors for Christ
The most famous of the column-sitting hermit monks, Saint Simeon spent thirty-six years living atop his perch in the Syrian Desert. This depiction of the hermit saint (above) is from a thirteenth-century doorframe in Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia church. One of the very few stylite towers still standing is the sixth-century structure and small chapel, which can be seen at Umm al-Rasas, Jordan.

As Christianity reached outward, it naturally reached the Arabs. What most impressed the Bedouin, however, was not the idyllic social Elysium portrayed by its urban congregations, nor certainly its influence upon those of high imperial office. Rather it was the Christians of the desert, the hermits and monks, who captivated the desert travelers and are spoken of with awe in Arab poetry:

A nature is theirs,
God gives the like to no other men,
A wisdom that never sleeps, a bounty that never fails.

Their home is God’s own land,
His chosen of old:
Their faith is steadfast:
Their hope is set on nought
But the world to come.

Their sandals are soft and fine,
And girded with chastity;
They welcome with garlands sweet
The dawn of the Feast of Palms.
Similarly an Arab, finding the site of a former camp, is reminded in his nostalgia of the monks.
Stay, let us weep at the remembrance
Of a loved one and favor (bestowed),
At the mark of a camp whose lines
Have long ago been obliterated.
Years have passed over it since I knew it,
And it has become
Like the writing of the Psalms
In the books of the monks.

These hermits and monks were in part a reaction to the increasing social and political acceptability of Christianity. In the fourth century, some men, and women, too, followed the example of Anthony, and rejected the world by taking to the desert to live alone on dates, berries, grasshoppers and God, to weep for their irresistible sinfulness, and to contemplate the beauty of the Christ who had delivered them from its consequences. (See earlier volume, Darkness Descends, page 68.)

The fascinated Bedouin regularly brought Anthony bread and asked him about Christ. Hundreds, even thousands, followed his example, and the caves and tents of hermits soon dotted the Sinai Peninsula.

In Syria, the phenomenon was the same. Throughout the country, the hermits gradually came together to form monastic communities. One pupil and emulator of Anthony was Hilarion, child of pagan parents, raised near the trading town of Gaza on the Palestine coast, who, after several years, returned to lead his own solitary life near his hometown. He, too, was attended frequently by Bedouin who were said to have received healing at his hand. “Bless us,” shouted a crowd of them on their way into Gaza for the pagan worship of the morning star. Hilarion’s sermon to them seemed so full of love that the whole band suddenly offered themselves to Christ. Their pagan priest bowed for baptism, the wreath of his forsaken office still about his head.

To a group of such solitaries, living eight miles northeast of Jerusalem, came the twenty-nine-year-old Euthymius of Melitene on the Euphrates in 405. He later moved with another monk to some caves in a hillside close to the Dead Sea. A whole community of monks grew up around them. One day, a notable pagan sheikh named Aspebet arrived with his clan from the Persian frontier, and told how he had incurred the wrath of the Persian authorities by facilitating the escape of Christians from persecution.

The bane of Aspebet’s life, however, was not the Persians. It was the pitiful condition of his son, paralyzed down the right side and pronounced hopeless by all who had sought to cure him. The Christians had told Aspebet to pray to Christ for the boy and nothing had happened. But he had subsequently seen in a vision an old white-bearded monk, whom he realized was Euthymius, by now aged. The prayers of Euthymius cured the son, and the grateful sheikh ordered his whole band baptized, he himself taking the new name “Boutros” in Arabic, which translates into English as “Peter.”

The recovered son became a sheikh, and Peter became a Christian missionary–later, in fact, first “Bishop of the Camps” and a delegate to the Christian Council of Ephesus in 431. The office, Bishop of the Camps, remained for centuries.

Of all the monks and hermits, however, none fascinated the Bedouin more than the “stylites” (from stylos the Greek word for a pillar), who sought the presence of God by perching themselves on pillars, away from the world, a practice that persisted in the Middle East for more than two hundred years. And of all the stylites, none proved more intriguing than Simeon, atop his eighty-foot structure at Telanissos (now Qalat Siman in Syria, where a large church was erected on the pillar’s site). Simeon was sought out by the sick, the distressed, whole tribes from the desert, and officers of government for his healing and advice. Whether Simeon was himself an Arab is not known, though there were Arabs in the monastery where he spent his youth.

The power of such holy men did not, in the popular view, die with them. Their bones were considered likewise beneficent, resulting, much to the disgust of church authorities, in an unseemly brawl among the village Arabs over the remains of forty hermits martyred near the Dead Sea. When similar disturbances broke out over the corpse of St. Simeon, the army had to be called out to guard it.

The sites of martyrdoms sometimes became shrines to the Christian Bedouin. For example, in the Sinjar region (seventy miles east of the Iraqi city of Mosul on the Tigris) legend held that a Jewish lad, Abd al-Masih, had decided to dedicate himself to Christ and been baptized in a certain spring, considered sacred since the earliest times. His wrathful father put him to death as a human sacrifice on the very spot. So the spring’s sanctity was renewed, becoming useful, it was said, for healing disease and discovering the whereabouts of stray camels.

Until the christological conflicts of the fifth century, most monks attended the local church and respected the local bishop. While it was true that few became priests, that was rarely because they were anti-clerical or opposed the hierarchy of the church; rather, they simply did not sense a vocation to the priesthood.

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, however, this congeniality changed sharply in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The monks of the desert rejected Chalcedon. When the patriarch of Jerusalem declared his acceptance they denounced him, too, and ran him out of town, until the imperial troops escorted him back and ordered the desert dwellers to pay him their respects. Almost none did. Instead, many abandoned their monasteries for the road, denouncing the Chalcedon doctrine in every town and encampment. There were, however, exceptions. The revered Simeon Stylites, for one, became an influential figure in support of the Council of Chalcedon.

This is the end of the Saint Simeon category article drawn from Chapter One, beginning on page 18, of Volume Five, The Sword of Islam. To continue reading more about Saint Simeon from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at