Syria is a country of many contrasts. Its countryside reminded me sometimes of being on a road-trip through Central Europe, where strategically placed castles overlooked green valleys filled with trees. However, here in Syria, landscape can changes completely after several turns on the road. Right after a green valleys can lie desert plains, where Bedouins are camping next to Roman and Greek temple ruins.
And as if this was not enough, the towns of Syria are bustling with hectic souqs that are scent-filled with oriental spices. Finally, the occasional call for prayer from the mosques’ rooftop loudspeakers reminded me that I actually was in the Middle East.
One of these multi-cultural aspects are the ruins of the Church of Saint Simeon. They witness the bizarre story about a Christian ascetic saint who essentially lived most of his life on a pillar during the 5th century. He was one of the most famous persons at that time and people would come to this church and visit the stylite, where he lived, for advice and for prayers.
His fame grew to a level, where the Church became interested and where he had many followers also choosing to live as ascetic Christians on top of stylites. When Saint Simeon died about 40 years of life on such a column, the legacy by his followers went on for some time. Other stylites with people living on top were therefore commonly referred to as “Simeon Stylites“.
Today, the remains of the original Saint Simeon’s column are topped, but the place still has some magic – despite the tourist crowds swarming the grounds. The ruins of the Church are in a magnificent setting on top of a small hill, overlooking the valley beneath. This place contains the oldest surviving Byzantine church. Having almost the same surface as the famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Church of Saint Simeon was part of a big complex, including two other churches, houses and a monastery.
Since this historic complex is located not far away from the city of Aleppo, I went there for an after-noon visit before returning to Hama.
Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and quite different from its capital, Damascus. Having traveled along the silk road through Central Asia and China, being in Aleppo was especially momentous to me as, since it is one of the terminal points of this world famous historic trade route network. Moreover, walking through Aleppo also means exploring one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Knowing that people lived here about 7000 years ago was mind boggling. What is even more fascinating, is the fact that there have been almost no archaeologist excavations, because today’s city is built on top of the ancient sites. There are still some mysteries to be discovered underneath this place.
One of the great landmarks of Aleppo is the Great Mosque, which was originally built in the 8th century. It was changed in the 12th century, then destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century and finally reconstructed in the 14th century. The nearby Souq az-Zirb – another major site – connects the mosque to the Citadel of Aleppo. All of this is a very complex and historic environment.
As if there weren’t already enough superlatives for the day, the citadel is one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. 4000 years old, it was occupied by the Greek, Byzantine, Mamluks and Ayyubid civilisations.
After visiting this vast complex, I started to feel that there was only so much I could take in for the day. Too much history, too many exotic places. And as if the Syrians knew how tourists felt after a day of exploration, they seem to have purposely-built a small plaza for tourists near the entrance of the citadel. There, featuring numerous French-style restaurants, I relaxed on a terrace – watching the busy city-life, before taking the ride back “home” to Hama.