In the early fifth century, a Syrian monk named Simeon wandered out into the desert, where he found, near modern-day Aleppo, an abandoned column rising up out of the desert. Simeon climbed the pillar, and would remain on aloft for the next thirty-seven years (though he did eventually transfer to a much taller pillar nearby). From the pillar, he preached sermons to those who sought out his wisdom and his example, though history has not treated his vocation well. Edward Gibbon wrote of Simeon, “This voluntary martyrdom must have gradually destroyed the sensibility both of the mind and the body, nor can it be presumed that the fanatics who torment themselves are susceptible of any lively affection for the rest of mankind.” His odd life later became the subject of a scathing satire by Luis Buñuel, Simon of the Desert.
He was not the only pole sitter (known as “stylites”) but he was the first and the most famous, and after his death this church was built on the site of his pillar to honor his ascetic devotion. The church was huge, over 5000 square meters, rivaling Hagia Sofia in size, though it has long since fallen into ruin, and now composes only part of the large complex of ruins known as the Dead Cities of Syria. Saint Simeon’s pillar, surprisingly, still stands, though it’s been whittled down to just a few meters from centuries of relic seekers who’ve carved off small shards for themselves.