site situated on a promontory overlooking the ῾Afrin Valley, at the heart of the Syrian tetrapolis in Antiochea, 60 km (37 mi.) from Aleppo; 80 km (50 mi.) from Antioch, 140 km (87 mi.) from Apamea, and 180 km (112 mi.) from Latakia.
Although some of the earliest visitors to the site published descriptions and drawings (A. Drummond, 1754), it is since the middle of the nineteenth century that this monumental group of buildings has been the subject of exploration and detailed publications. Melchior de Vogüé completed the first important study of the site, and those by M. van Berchem and E. Fatio, Howard C. Butler, J. Mattern, D. Krencker, and Georges Tchalenko followed. Since 1980, Jean-Pierre Sodini and Jean-Luc Biscop have made regular expeditions for purposes of excavation and survey, under the aegis of the French Institute of Archaeology of the Near East (IFAPO) in Damascus. [See the biographies of Vogüé and Butler.]
The promontory the sanctuary occupies is the site of the column where St. Simeon practiced his asceticism from 412 to 459. According to Tchalenko, the sanctuary is on an artificial platform formed by the leveling of the north–south ridge and by the embankment of the east and west flanks. The monuments cover a surface of approximately 1,200 sq m. The buildings are divided into two groups: to the north, a cross-shaped martyrion, a monastery, and a conventual tomb; and to the south, a baptistery bordered by a church and propylaeum. In between are many inns on the east, west, and south. A sacred way from the village of Telanissos (Deir Sim῾an), situated below, leads to the sanctuary from the south; this sacred way, with shops on both sides, passes through an arch and then climbs the slope to the propylaeum.
Verifying the date of the construction of Qal῾at Sim῾an remains elusive. What is known is that In 472/73, the date the life of St. Simeon was written in Syriac, there was as yet no edifice around the column. By 517, however, monks from Apamea were making pilgrimages to the sanctuary. Its construction should be placed in the context of the politics of Zeno: St. Daniel had learned from him that he had had the relics of St. Simeon transported from Antioch to Constantinople, and so between 471 and 474 a martyrion was constructed to shelter them. It was perhaps on the urging of St. Daniel, and finally to appease the religious discord dividing the patriarchate of Antioch, which was well within the line of the Henoticon (482), that Zeno had the martyrion built around the column on which the first of the Stylites had lived. The work must have been finished before 491/92, for by that time the church at Basufan, a partial copy of the sanctuary of Qal῾at Sim῾an, had been built. For an enterprise of this magnitude, it took a relatively short amount of time to build. Tchalenko calls attention to the results of that haste: faulty connections in the different decorative elements of the martyrion, demonstrating that the gantry had been open in many places at once. [See Martyrion.]
The martyrion is made up of four three-naved basilicas positioned in the form of the Greek cross. [See Basilicas.] The basilicas meet again in the shape of an octagon formed by eight large arches. The column of the saint (18–20 m high), stands in the center of this arrangement. Only the rocky base and a block of stone of the column remain, perhaps because it was cut up to be sold as relics. The column was square-cut and had three superimposed shafts. The saint lived on a platform enclosed by a railing. Of the eight arches, four open onto the basilicas and the other four onto small apses which made the links. The largest of the basilicas is on the east. It is the true sanctuary in which the liturgy unfolds. It ends in three projecting apses. The west basilica, which opens to the outside, has the function of a rostrum. The cult of the saint was therefore disassociated from the divine cult, which had its center around the octagon. The south basilica is preceded by a narthex to which access was through a great central arch of two arches of weaker bearing.
The monastery, which is adjacent to the martyrion to the southeast, includes a two-story building with porticoes on three sides (there is none on the east), placed at right angles. The porticoes form, with the martyrion's south and east basilicas, a rectangular court that opens to the outside onto a small church. Outbuildings were joined to the principal building.
To the north of the martyrion, the collective tomb is an example of a one-nave basilica. [See Tombs.]
The southern group of buildings includes, most importantly, the propylaeum, which is situated 80 m south of the baptistery: it opens with two series of three arches onto a vast space bordered to the south and west by inns and to the east by the baptistery. [See Baptisteries.] The inns are one-story buildings that open on one side, like the houses, and are preceded by pillared porticoes. The baptistery is an octagon inscribed in a square. The principal room is square in plan. It is topped by an octagonal drum covered by an eight-sided pyramidal roof and flanked by three long rooms replaced on the east by an apse that contains the baptismal tank. Entrance and egress are by means of stairs located in side rooms, not in the central room.
Qal῾at Sim῾an poses three archaeological problems: how the octagon of the martyrion was covered; its place in the evolution of the architecture and ornamentation of churches in Syria's limestone massif; and the duration of its occupation.
By observing and identifying fallen blocks, Krencker was the first to show that the octagon was not originally open but covered. He proposed a wooden dome, an untenable hypothesis because wood would have been too heavy for the stone construction on which it must have rested. Taking its span into account, an exterior diameter of 29 m, with a height of 18 m, the drum, with a height of 10 m, on which the roof would have exerted its force, would have inevitably been dislocated. (It is made of courses not exceeding 90 cm in width and its blocks are laid on top of each other without mortar or another bonding substance. Tchalenko has proposed an eight-sided pyramidal roof, like that of the baptistery. To reduce the load and the lateral thrust, he suggested that there were intermediate supports between the column and the pillars bearing the arches of the octagon. In the tenth century, at the time of the Byzantine reconquest, the floor of the octagon was recovered with tiles. Sodini and Biscop removed that floor, under which a beaten-earth floor revealed no trace of the base of an intermediary pillar. They hypothesize that the roof was in fact an eight-sided pyramid, as Tchalenko thought, but that it covered the entire surface of the octagon.
The second problem, the place of Qal῾at Sim῾an in the religious architecture of the limestone massif of northern Syria, has been studied by Butler, Tchalenko, Charles Strube, F. W. Deichmann, Sodini, and A. Naccache. For Butler, Qal῾at Sim῾an marks a break in the architectural and ornamental evolution of the churches of the massif, in which methods and ornamentation appear that were to experience wide diffusion in the churches of the sixth century, and notably in the basilica of Qalbloze, which he dates later than St. Simeon. Tchalenko, however, followed by Strube and Deichmann, placed the construction of Qalbloze in about 450, before that of Qal῾at Sim῾an. He established also that the church of Bettir, close to Qalbloze in the Jebel el-A῾la, and dated by inscription to 471, was a pared-down copy of its neighbor—each using pillars, rather than columns, to support the great arches of the nave, in a pure local tradition.
This long-accepted view is now challenged by Sodini and Biscop, who show that Bettir combines two stages (perhaps three according to Naccache) and that the inscription dating the church refers only to the first stage; they show further that the inscription describes a one-nave basilica, which owes nothing to Qalbloze. The terminus ante quem of 471 for Qalbloze thus disappears. In one study (Biscop and Sodini, 1984), the two authors show that the apse of Qal῾at Sim῾an combined two superimposed rows of columns. This feature gave the basilica a plan constituting a truly ornamental overlaid order. The other churches of northern Syria with columned apses show the same device, but incompletely: they were imperfect copies and Qalbloze does not belong to the category.
Naccache, in his work on the churches of Antiochea, drew up a complete inventory of ornamental innovations at Qal῾at Sim῾an that had also been found in later churches. If Qalbloze is dated to about 450, these innovations would have had to have existed without imitation for nearly forty years before being reprised at Qal῾at Sim῾an. It is thus preferable to reestablish the evolution of the decoration of churches by saying that the great edifice of Qal῾at Sim῾an, constructed by the state, owes its form to a foreign master worker and that its innovations were imported.
On the third problem, the duration of occupation at the site, the excavations have been less helpful. It is known, from Michael the Syrian, that the sanctuary was burned in about 546 and that it was then that the octagon became open—a description confirmed by Evagrius after his visit in about 561. According to him, the neighboring peasants used to go into the sanctuary with their beasts of burden and dance around the column. The monastery was in use until nearly the second third of the tenth century. The emperors of Byzantium, Nikephoros II Phokas (963–969) and John I Tzimiskes, reconquered the occidental part of northern Syria. The soldiers who occupied Qal῾at Sim῾an evicted its monks and turned the sanctuary into a fortress to guard the border that henceforth separated the empire from the emirate of Aleppo. It was they who built the surrounding wall and the towers that still stand and who placed a tiled floor in the octagon (see above). The Byzantine garrison remained in place until the end of the eleventh century and the conquest by the Ottoman Turks. Sodini's excavation in the area west of the baptistery attests to an occupation uninterrupted until the Mamluk period.
- Biscop, Jean-Luc, and Jean-Pierre Sodini. “Qal῾at Sem῾an et les chevets à colonnes de Syrie du Nord.” Syria 61 (1984): 267–330.
- Biscop, Jean-Luc, and Jean-Pierre Sodini. “Travaux à Qal῾at Sem῾an.” In Acts of the Eleventh International Congress of Christian Archaeology, vol. 2, pp. 1675–1695. Rome, 1989.
- Biscop, Jean-Luc, et al. “Qal῾at Sem῾an: Quelques données nouvelles.” In Acts of the Twelfth International Congress of Christian Archaeology. Rome, 1996.
- Deichmann, F. W. Qalb Löze und Qal῾at Sem῾an. Munich, 1982.
- Shaath, Shawqi. Qal῾at Sim῾an (in Arabic). 2d ed. Halab, Syria, 1991.
- Sodini, Jean-Pierre. “Qal῾at Sem῾an: Ein Wallfahrtszentrum.” In Syrien: Von den Aposteln zu den Kalifen, edited by Erwin M. Ruprechtsberger, pp. 128–143. Linzer Archäologische Forschungen, 21. Linz, Austria, 1993.
- Tchalenko, Georges. Villages antiques de la Syrie du Nord: Le massif du Bélus à l'époque romaine. 3 vols. Paris, 1953–1958. See volume 1, pages 205–276; volume 3, page 124.