Syria has a rich array of ancient wonders – such as the Bronze Age cities of Mari and Ugarit, Queen Zenobia’s desert city of Palmyra, and Krak des Chevaliers, the castle to trump all castles – but the Byzantine ghost towns of the north are one of the strangest. These were satellite settlements of Antioch, a magnificent ancient city that was utterly destroyed over 700 years ago.
Antioch was founded in 300 BC at the mouth of the Orontes river by Alexander the Great’s general, Seleucus I Nicator, who named it after his father Antiochus. For two centuries it was the capital of the Seleucid Empire, which at its height stretched from modern-day Turkey to Pakistan, and the first western outpost of the Great Silk Road. The city fell to Pompey in 64 BC and became the capital of the Roman province of Syria. For the next three centuries it was the third city of the classical world after Rome and Alexandria, with a population approaching half a million. Under the Pax Romana, Syria grew rich by supplying an insatiable market in the Mediterranean with an inexhaustible supply of luxuries from the East. Syria provided several rulers for the Roman Empire, including the outrageous Elagabalus, Alexander Severus, and Philip the Arab.
Antioch vied with Athens for intellectual and cultural leadership of the Empire, and was notorious for its self-indulgence. “Fashion was the only law,” wrote Gibbon, “pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendour of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch. The arts of luxury were honoured, the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule, and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of the capital of the East.” 
It was perhaps only natural that there should be a spiritual reaction to such decadence. One of the first Christian communities was founded in Antioch by St Peter himself, and the term ‘Christian’ was first used here in AD 43. It was from here that the new faith spread across the Roman world, becoming the official imperial religion in AD 324.
Antioch was repeatedly devastated by earthquakes, and before the seventh century AD was sacked six times by the Persians and Arabs. Taken by the Crusaders in 1098, it became the capital of a Frankish principality until 1268, when it was totally destroyed by a Mamluk army from Egypt. Contemporary accounts relate that 17,000 Christians were massacred and another 100,000 enslaved. All that remains of the city today are a few bits of defensive wall on Mount Sipylus, overlooking the sleepy modern town of Antakya. After a referendum in 1939, the surrounding region (known as the Hatay) was taken from French-mandate Syria and given to Turkey.
East of Antioch, in northern Syria, are the limestone uplands – roughly 90 miles (145km) north to south – where the so-called “Dead Cities” are to be found. “Dead Cities” is actually a bit of a misnomer: there are over 100 major sites and a total of 780 settlements, but the largest is little more than a country town. The remains of an astonishing 1,200 churches have been counted, the largest collection of religious ruins in the world. Population pressures made exploitation of these uplands economic, supplying olive oil and wine to the Empire. The pinnacle of prosperity came in the fourth to the sixth centuries AD, following Rome’s loss of its North African provinces, hitherto a major agricultural source, particularly in olive oil. Oil wealth had a different connotation to that of today. Antioch was the only city in the ancient world with public street lighting – fuelled by olive oil.
Antioch’s hinterland declined as trade routes gravitated south from Aleppo to Damascus with the arrival of the Muslims in the seventh century, and was deserted by the 10th century, leaving it largely undisturbed by subsequent settlement and rebuilding. The population moved south and east to grain-growing terrain. Spared invasion and natural disaster, the Byzantine ghost towns offer one of the best pictures possible of the world of late antiquity. The scarcity of wood meant that most of the permanent buildings were of stone. Masonry walls were built without cement; stone was used for almost all purposes – stairs, porticos, balconies, benches and cupboards.
Serjilla is an eerie and remote fifth-century settlement at the end of a cul de sac between wild and barren hillsides with extensive remains of houses, a church, baths, tombs and sarcophagi. William Dalrymple wrote that “more intact domestic Byzantine buildings lay clustered at my feet in this obscure valley than survive today in all three of the greatest Byzantine metropolises – Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria – put together”. Near the baths lies an andron (men’s meeting place or tavern), its south front marked by a double portico, one of the most perfectly preserved Roman buildings in the world. “In places,” wrote Andrew Humphreys, “you pass down narrow grassy lanes between high stone walls punctuated by carefully carved windows and doors, and half expect a householder to step out on a quick errand to fetch something from the market.”
Al-Bara lies a few miles north-west, a ghost town extending over more than two square miles (1,280 acres), occupying a good position on the north-south trade route between Antioch and Apamea. Pyramid-roofed tombs jut out from the dense olive groves, slightly reminiscent of South American ruins. Settlement began in the fourth century and al-Bara soon became the regional centre of wine-making. A massive wine-press can still be seen (although we didn’t find it). Al-Bara was devastated by an earthquake in 1157.
A few miles north of Aleppo  is a wooded height crowned by the church of Saint Simeon (Simon Stylites), the first and most renowned of the pillar saints who populated the eastern Roman Empire as its western provinces fell to ‘barbarians’. Following Simeon’s death in 459, the Byzantine emperor Zeno ordered a church to be built in his honour, which was completed in 491 after 14 years of building. This vast edifice comprises four separate basilicas radiating out from an octagonal chamber, once probably domed, built around the remains of the Stylite’s pillar. It could contain 10,000 worshippers. The cruciform ground plan was unprecedented and not established as a Christian tradition for at least another 500 years.
Howard Crosby Butler, who led the famous Princeton expedition that surveyed Syrian antiquities in 1899–1909, was bowled over: “The great cruciform church is unique in the history of architecture and is not only the most beautiful and important existing monument of architecture between the buildings of the Roman period of the second century and the great church of Santa Sophia of Justinian’s time, but also the most monumental Christian building earlier than the masterpieces of the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Northern Europe.” 
By 525 the cluster of buildings included a monastery and baptistery, and covered 54,000 sq ft (5,000 sq m). The earthquakes of 526 and 528, which devastated Antioch, probably brought down the dome over the central octagon. The hillside was fortified when the Byzantines retook the area from the Arabs in the 10th century – hence its present-day name, Qala’at Sema’an (Simeon’s fortress). It fell to an Egyptian army in 1017 and has apparently not been used for worship since then. The Stylite’s pillar was still standing at the end of the sixth century, but today all that remains is the plinth: over the centuries, pilgrims chipped bits off and, according to one account, consumed the powdered stone in water as a magical potion. Thus it could be said that the pillar has been eaten by the faithful. A huge boulder that sits on the base is something of a mystery, for nobody remembers where it came from. It was not there a few decades ago.
Simeon was born around AD 390 to a Christian family in the village of Sisa, near Nicopolis in northern Syria, and as a boy tended his family’s sheep. Following a vision in which he was exhorted to dig ever deeper in preparing the foundations of a house, he began a life of extreme mortification of the flesh. At the age of 17, he entered the monastery at Teleda, near Antioch. For Lent, he would wall himself up in his cell completely, and he spent long periods buried up his neck in the ground. He nearly died here after wearing next to his skin a rope of twisted palm leaves that had eaten into his flesh. This took three days to remove, being softened by water and separated by incisions. After a further four years, during which extreme fasting often brought him close to death, his fellow monks insisted on his expulsion. He moved to a hilltop cave where he subsisted on a diet of chicory and wild lettuce.
In about 423 Simeon became a stylite – from the Greek stylos meaning pillar. He set himself up on a 9ft (2.7m) pillar – possibly, it is thought, in a vain attempt to escape the attention of visitors who continually interrupted his solitude and meditation. After four years, he graduated to a taller pillar 18ft (5.5m) high, on which he stood for three years; then he spent 10 years on a third pillar 33ft (10m) high. The fourth and last pillar, built by his admirers, was 60ft (18m) high, surmounted by a balustraded platform calculated to have been about 7ft (2m) square (though some accounts say it was smaller). Here he remained for his final 20 years, exposed to severe winter winds and scorching sun. According to one account, he had an iron collar round his neck, chained to a post to stop him toppling off at night.
Lent for Simeon was always a time of exceptional austerity: the first two weeks were spent praising God upright, the next two sitting, the last two lying down owing to increasing weakness from his total fast. Every day he repeatedly bowed his body in prayer; he would stretch out his arms, bend from his hips to make his head touch his toes, and then straighten himself up. A visitor is said to have counted 1,244 prostrations in one day. Muslim prayer is reminiscent of Simeon’s prostrations, just as the minaret from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer can be seen as owing something to the Stylite’s pillar.
The solitude he had sought eluded him, as he became one of the most famous people of his age, visited by throngs of sightseers, both Christian and pagan. Many saw beauty in his suffering. According to one legend, a maggot that fell from his leg was picked up by an Arab who when he opened his hand again found a pearl there. Many Arabs were converted, despite the lack of a common language.
Simeon was known from Britain to the Persian empire, and among Armenians, Ethiopians, Gauls, Spaniards, Scythian nomads, and sophisticates from Rome and Constantinople. He was even visited by three Byzantine emperors. Those who could not make the long journey consulted him by letter. Twice a day he would deliver an exhortation, and after three in the afternoon sit in judgement over the cases brought before him.
Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus (393–466) said that Simeon’s preaching was practical, kindly, and free from fanaticism. According to Marius Kociejowski, Simeon “was involved in social work, spoke on behalf of slaves, in many instances securing their release, settled family disputes, sought refuge for orphans and widows, delivered the oppressed from their oppressors, had taxes remitted, unjust policies reversed and food distributed to the poor, engaged in delicate negotiations concerning ecclesiastic policy, and even took part in matters of foreign policy, mediating, for example, between the Byzantine emperor and unruly Bedouin tribes.” 
“In an age of licentiousness and luxury,” wrote David Hugh Farmer, “[Simeon] gave unique and abiding witness to the need for penance and prayer; his way of life provided a spectacle at once challenging, repulsive, and awesome.”  He died on his pillar on 24 July 459, aged about 70, and was laid to rest in the great church of Constantine in Antioch. Later his remains were transferred to a new martyrium in Constantinople.
In his autobiography My Last Breath, Luis Buñuel recalled: “I’d been intrigued by [Simeon] ever since Lorca introduced me to Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend [c.1275] when we were both university students in Madrid. He used to laugh when he read how the hermit’s excrement, which ran the length of the column, looked like the wax from a taper. (In reality, since all St. Simeon ate was lettuce leaves, it must have looked more like goat turds.)” 
The great surrealist cinematographer made Simon del desierto (Simon of the Desert) in Mexico in 1965. In the film, Satan tempts St Simeon to abandon his mortifications, using a number of disguises, such as a bearded, hermaphrodite Christ carrying a lamb, and finally whisks him away to a contemporary New York nightclub, where the punters are doing not just the “latest dance” but “the last dance” – to a number called “Radioactive Flesh”.
By the sixth century, many of the peaks rising from the Orontes valley around Antioch were crowned by stylites, who were believed to have a hotline to the Almighty. “Competition between them was rife,” wrote William Dalrymple. “If one was struck by lightning – something that clearly happened with a fair degree of frequency – the electrocuted hermit’s rivals would take this as a definitive sign of divine displeasure, probably indicating that the dead stylite was a secret heretic.”  Stylitism travelled west, getting as far as Trier before being abandoned in the face of a colder climate. In the Russian Orthodox Church it lasted until 1461, and there were pillar saints in remote parts of the Near East as late as the 19th century.
1 Edward Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), chapter 24.
2 William Dalrymple: From the Holy Mountain (HarperCollins, 1997).
3 Andrew Humphreys & Damien Simonis: Syria (Lonely Planet, 1999).
4 Aleppo (Halab) and Damascus vie for the title of “oldest continuously inhabited city in the world”. Aleppo has been settled for at least 8,000 years.
5 Howard Crosby Butler: Early Churches In Syria (1927), quoted in Ross Burns, The Monuments of Syria (IB Tauris, 1992).
6 Marius Kociejowski: The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey (Sutton, 2004).
7 David Hugh Farmer: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (OUP, 1992).
8 Luis Buñuel: My Last Breath (Cape 1984).
9 Dalrymple, op. cit.