How Syrian Monastery Culture Spread

Once hugely influential, especially in Europe, it’s now threatened by civil strife

How Syrian Monastery Culture Spread
At the Basilica of St. Simeon in Telanissos, Syria, stands the pillar from which the saint preached in the fifth century / Getty Images

At the end of the fourth century, a lady named Egeria, thought by some to belong to the family of Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great (347-395), traveled from Spain to Palestine, Egypt and Syria. She kept a diary of her travels, the first of its kind, addressed to her “fellow sisters” back home, later published as “The Pilgrimage of Etheria.” “I wished to go,” she wrote, “according to the will of God, to Mesopotamia in Syria to see the holy monks of whom, it was said, there was a great number and of such holiness that it can hardly be told.”

She was not alone. As Christianity began to spread after the Great Persecution (303-11) and the Roman Empire officially adopted the new religion in 313, a whole succession of Western scholars and pilgrims were drawn by the deep spiritualism of Syria, eager to learn from what were widely recognized as the far more advanced religious centers of the Near East.

Today it is the better-known Egyptian monasticism that receives attention, with focus on the Desert Fathers, including St. Antony, who date from the third century. Early Syrian monasticism and its influence on Europe have been neglected, with the Syrian diaspora in the West during the early centuries of Christianity likewise overlooked. Recent scholarship has begun to correct some of this imbalance, though much work remains to be done. In addition to pilgrims like Egeria heading east, a surprising amount of documented travel also took place in the other direction, as Syrian merchants and monks set course for Europe, taking with them manuscripts, artifacts and new ways of life. They disseminated to the farthest corners of the Western world not only their religious and artistic knowledge but also their architectural influence. The churches, cathedrals and religious practices we see in Europe today still bear the marks of this far earlier history of Christianity. It is a cultural debt that deserves acknowledgement and appreciation, especially given the ongoing war in Syria that has destroyed much of this precious heritage. And what remains is at risk the longer it continues.

In the region of Syria known as the Dead Cities, to the west of Aleppo, an astonishing treasure trove of over 2,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-century churches is concentrated in 820 settlements, scattered over the limestone massifs. Today, most have the misfortune to fall within the remote rural province of Idlib, where some 3 million opponents of the ruling Assad regime are currently kettled, awaiting their fate.

These remarkable early ruins of the Byzantine Empire reflect the great prosperity of those once-thriving settlements. Their wealth was based on trade in olive oil and wine, in an era that coincided with the economic decline of Italy, Spain, France and North Africa, brought on by the “barbarian” invasions that led to the gradual disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. Syria was the beacon of early Christian piety and civilization where pilgrims, scholars and merchants flocked. St. Jerome himself, Father of the Bible and compiler of the New Testament, spent two years as a hermit in the Chalcis Desert near Aleppo, attracted by the incredible ascetic feats of Syrian monks.

While there, Jerome wrote a succession of highly influential letters in 375, which circulated among his friends in the elite aristocratic circles of Rome. Syria’s reputation as a destination for the pious and the learned was sealed. Small wonder then that monks from Ireland were sent to Syria (so Adamnan, biographer of St. Columba [521-97], tells us), to learn about how the original holy monks lived and how these communities built the very first monasteries.

Before the official adoption of Christianity across the Roman Empire, it was martyrdom that had drawn the most fervent of early Christian believers, but such dramatic demonstrations of faith were no longer relevant once persecution ended. The next best thing to prove the intensity of belief was to live a life of extreme asceticism, which drew followers of a different kind. The first monks appeared in Syria directly after the Great Persecution, and of those, it was the near-theatrical feats of those who condemned themselves to living in stationary positions, up tall towers or pillars from which they would preach, who most captured the imagination. Stories spread far and wide of their extraordinary exploits, always living outdoors, without lying down to sleep. So far, over 100 of these narrow towers, with only a few slit windows apiece, have been identified by archaeologists in Syria. Living alone in the wilderness, these men were charismatic ascetics seeking God through direct contact with Mother Nature. St. Simeon the Elder was the most famous, living 37 years on a column — the Greek word is “stylos,” so therefore he was known as “the stylite.” In “A History of the Monks of Syria,” the contemporary Bishop Theodoret of Cyrrhus (a Roman city whose ruins lie on the Syrian side of today’s Syrian-Turkish border) described him as “the great wonder of the world, known by all the subjects of the Roman Empire.” Others were vagrant hermits known as the “saloi” (the demented), who roamed from village to village as if possessed by devils, the most famous of whom was St. Simeon the Fool, whose ascetic feats were recorded by his contemporary Leontius, the bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus.

Gradually, toward the mid-fourth century, some Syrian hermits renowned for their holiness accepted one or more disciples as companions to share their way of life. This marked the beginning of these communities regulating their lives together, forming the nucleus of what was to become known as a monastery, with a chapel, a rectangular meeting room or refectory, and a porticoed two-story building for other communal activities. Nearby were individual cells for the monks, initially not in dormitories but in simple separate huts made of rubble and mud. Each monk was required to build his own hut after completing three years as a novice.

The chapel was the first building to be erected, the most important and usually the most central, using the best construction methods and materials possible because it was a symbol of the divine presence. All monasteries had a collective tomb, known as a memoria, often excavated into a nearby limestone rock face, but sometimes located beneath the chapel itself, which was the origin of the crypt. Cruciform windows in pairs were carefully positioned to allow sunlight to penetrate at a certain hour, evoking the figure of Christ, “the true Light, which lighteth every man” (John 1:9). Each monastery also included a rainwater cistern according to its size, so the monastery at Breij, for example, held 317 cubic meters of water, enough to supply 28 liters of water a day to each of its 30 residents for a year.

Decorative elements were kept to a minimum, so that the early monasteries had a certain stark monumentality, reflecting the pragmatic and ascetic character of the monks. Just a simple cross was carved on the door lintels after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ruled that the mark of the cross should be made on the main facade door of all monasteries. The local limestone was cut and squared with great precision, blending into the rugged landscape — always built in isolated locations on the outskirts of villages, never among houses.

By the mid-fifth century, as the reputation of the anchorites spread among the local population, Syrian Christians began to move and settle in places where the anchorites had lived and died. Their reasons were probably both religious, the hope of benefiting from the miraculous powers associated with the sites, and economic, since commercial activity inevitably followed the growth of settlements to supply the population with food and other needs. The monk saints were credited with healing illnesses and seen as the “protectors and guardians of the cities,” as Theodoret wrote.

After their deaths, their tombs and relics continued to exert a powerful hold on the imagination, believed to transmit vital energy to those who touched them. Today in Syria, the Arabic word used by both Muslims and Christians to convey the miraculous powers of the saints’ relics is “baraka,” or blessing. This veneration can still be seen today at shrines all over Syria, such as the monastery of Saydnaya, Our Lady, where the icon of the Virgin (said to have been painted by St. Luke) is fervently venerated by Christians and Muslims alike, who touch and kiss the silver grill behind which the relic is said to rest. The motivation, then as now, for touching the stone of a holy tomb or the casing of a holy relic is to obtain that special baraka. In the fifth century, when half the population died before reaching the age of 5, minds would undoubtedly have been more focused on improving health, curing illness and gaining a bonus in the afterlife than they are today.

From the second half of the fifth century the worship of relics became widespread throughout Syria, and such was their power that the clergy in large cities like Antioch, Edessa and Apamea, as well as the smaller settlements, would compete to obtain such precious items. Beyond the inherent sanctity of the relics, it would also have been well understood that pilgrims would be drawn to visit the towns and sites where they were held, bringing prosperity and trade with them. Chartres (in France), for instance, became a major pilgrimage center only once the bishop acquired the “birthing robe of the Virgin,” the Sancta Camisia, in the ninth century. The cult of this relic grew, bringing with it much wealth and prosperity for the church and for the local merchants.

As well as hosting some of the earliest relics, Syria was also the site of the first battles over who should have custody of the bodies of famous native holy men. Theodoret was a witness to the scuffles that broke out over possession of the corpses of local hermit monks Maron, Theodosius and Abraham. Upon the death of St. Simeon the Stylite in 459, the whole mountainous region of Jebel Sim’an mobilized to secure his mortal remains, but the more powerful bishop of Antioch sent a troop of 600 soldiers to collect the body and transport it triumphantly on a cart back to his own city, where it was then deposited in the great church of Constantine. Byzantine Emperor Leo I (457-74) later requested that the saint’s relics be transferred to Constantinople, but the defiant Antiochans refused to part with the body and rejected the imperial request.

The Basilica of St. Simeon, which was built in 490 around the pillar from which the stylite had preached, perched on a hilltop, quickly became the chief pilgrimage site of Christendom — the Santiago de Compostela of its day. Pilgrims flocked from all over Europe to visit — Romans, Franks, Spaniards and Britons — staying locally, buying provisions and souvenirs, and contributing greatly to the local economy.

Many inns and hostelries sprang up at the foot of the basilica, in the town of Telanissos, as the monastic community expanded. A sacred path, Via Sacra, snaked up the hillside from the settlement, leading streams of pilgrims first to the baptistery, where priests conducted mass baptisms to ensure the conversion of more Christians, before they were permitted to approach the holy site of St. Simeon’s Basilica, a church with four chapels around the central pillar. So many pilgrims chipped off chunks of the pillar as souvenirs and for baraka that the 64-foot-tall pillar was, in time, reduced to a sorry stump.

Even that was ignominiously blown to smithereens in a Russian air strike in 2016.

By the sixth century, Syrian monastic life had reached its golden age. For any kind of settlement to be considered a proper place, it had to have a nearby monastery within a 1.5-mile radius, and the monks evangelized the countryside. Jebel Barisha, for example, covers 82 square miles, a region in which 63 monasteries have been identified, most very small, with just seven to 15 monks each. A handful of larger monasteries existed in the region of Apamea (near today’s Syrian city of Hamah) where Theodoret tells us that two monasteries housed 400 “athletes of virtue,” as he called them. The pilgrimage monasteries were also very large. The 11th-century Arab historian Ibn Butlan tells us that the outbuildings of St. Simeon the Young from the Wondrous Mountain 16 miles south of Antioch occupied an area as big as half of Baghdad. In his monumental study “The Christian Art of Byzantine Syria” (1995), Spanish scholar Ignacio Peňa estimates the monks represented between 4% and 6% of the population in the so-called Dead Cities, a remarkably high proportion, indicative of their importance in the community.

Syrian monks dedicated much of the day to prayer but also to work, the model later adopted by the Benedictine program of Ora et Lavora (pray and work). Most manual work centered on agriculture. St. John Chrysostom described the fifth century Syrian monks “plowing the land, watering, planting trees, weaving baskets and sewing sacks.” Gradually they evolved beyond self-sufficiency toward institutions with economic, welfare and cultural interests. They fenced off cultivated land and grew olives on the nearby mountainsides, sometimes on a near-industrial scale, as at the monastery of Breij. Some monasteries provided work, accommodation and training in agriculture to laborers, which contributed greatly to the economic development of the region, leading over time to the growth of extensive settlements around the monasteries.

By this time, the monks had also become champions of knowledge and librarians of classical culture. Only those who could read were admitted, and many monks received a classical education in the most prestigious schools of the East, like Edessa, Antioch and Nisibis. The principal monasteries ran schools in which theology, the sacred scriptures and the sciences were taught, including the philosophy of Aristotle, Plato and the Neoplatonists, Galen’s medicine, rhetoric, grammar, history, mathematics, music and astronomy. Syriac literary sources reveal 23 monastic libraries spread across the region and a Syriac manuscript tells us that in Tell ‘Ade in the middle of the limestone massif of the Dead Cities, “this monastery is a center of exegetes, readers, researchers, the learned, doctors, visionaries and philosophers.”

In the larger monasteries, teams of translators, copyists and scribes produced manuscripts that were then illuminated with bright colors. The exceptional manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels for example, with its richly decorated paintings framed in horseshoe arches, was copied in the Syrian monastery of St. John of Zagba in 586, housed today in the Library of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. Beneath the intricately drawn arches, which form a kind of arcade supported on columns, is the text of the Canon Tables, an index system developed by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century to cross-reference Gospel passages.

The Canon Tables, which cross-reference Gospel passages, were created in a Syrian monastery in the sixth century and are now housed in the Library of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence

The influence of such manuscripts on European monasteries is hard to overstate. Traveling in the baggage of monks who migrated westward, they would have served as both artistic and architectural models to early Christians of the West, be they painters, monks or architects. The Canon Tables appear in the lavishly illuminated “Book of Kells,” and manuscripts from Lindisfarne illuminated and decorated by Irish monks like St. Aidan all show strong Syrian affinities, the depicted buildings following the same arcaded layout as found in the early Syrian monasteries, recorded in Syrian manuscripts.

Merovingian or Carolingian manuscripts with miniatures from the fifth and sixth centuries show the same influence, such as the Rossano Gospels discovered in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Rossano in Calabria. Sometimes there are specific examples of direct links, such as the case of St. Benedict Biscop (circa 628-89), founder of the English monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth in Northumberland, who acquired the rich library of the Syrian monk Cassiodorus (circa 485-580) in Vivarium, southern Italy, and had the texts and illustrations directly copied.

Music as well as manuscripts show this link between East and West. St. Ephraim the Syrian, who served as an inspirational teacher under four bishops at the famous school of Nisibis, wrote hundreds of lyrical hymns in his native Syriac, some of which are still commonly sung in their English versions today. Widely recognized by both the Catholic and the Eastern Church as a poetic genius, he also trained the first choirs, both male and female, in his school at Nisibis (on the Turkish side of today’s Turkish-Syrian border). Theodoret tells us that the antiphonal chant, now used throughout the whole church, where clergy and congregation sing alternately in responses, was first introduced in Antioch by two monks, Diodore, future bishop of Tarsus, and Flavian I, later bishop of Antioch. By the end of the fourth century, Pope Damasus I had introduced it in Rome.

From the fourth to the sixth centuries, Mediterranean trade was controlled to a great extent by Syrians. At the same time they exported their olive oil, spices and other exotic products, they also exported their saints and their devotions, liturgies, codices, art and architecture to the Latin West, thereby transforming Christian practice and thought. Tradespeople in Rome placed images of St. Simeon above their shop entrances, and depictions of him can be found all over the churches of Europe, from mosaics in Venice at St. Mark’s Basilica to icons in Poland’s Warsaw Museum. In France today there are even two villages named Saint-Siméon, after the Syrian stylite. In the church of Saint-Siméon east of Paris in Seine-et-Marne, murals depict the saint receiving food from disciples on ladders leaned against his pillar, and there are stained-glass windows showing the saint preaching from his pillar.

And it wasn’t just commercial goods: Syrian monks began to disperse westward starting as early as the fourth century, carrying codices, plans of churches, knowledge of building and decoration, of the composition and illumination of manuscripts, along with many other ideas. They were well aware of their theological and artistic superiority over European Christians. Apollinaris of Antioch became the first bishop and patron saint of Ravenna in the second century, and every subsequent Ravenna bishop up to and including Peter II in 425 was Syrian.

They left marks of their presence all over Europe. In Ravenna’s Duomo (cathedral) the richly decorated sarcophagus of St. Barbazianus, the Syrian doctor, saint and spiritual guide to the Empress Galla Placidia in the fifth century, can still be seen. Daughter of the Emperor Theodosius I, the empress died in 450, and her tomb, in Ravenna’s most famous church, San Vitale, exhibits many Syrian decorative features. Its striking mosaics show the early Syrian iconography of the Good Shepherd with his flock and the symbol of the cross representing Christ in the blue-starred ceiling dome.

The lamb was a favorite symbol of the Syrian Christians, frequently replacing Christ to represent expiatory sacrifice, carved on the lintels of churches and houses in the fifth and sixth centuries, a practice that spread into Europe. Many Syrian artists and artisans are recorded as working on building projects in Venice, and we see the lamb appearing instead of Christ on a column in St. Mark’s Basilica. It was the Syrian Pope Sergius I (born in Antioch c. 650) who spread the veneration of the cross among the Romans, celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross feast and adding the drama of showing a relic of the True Cross to be “kissed and adored.”

The Syrians introduced new beliefs and religious holidays into the Latin Church, such as the first Marian celebrations, marking important days in the life of the Virgin Mary and the festival of All Saints on the first Sunday of Pentecost. Only toward the end of the seventh century did the Western ecclesiastical hierarchy approve the realistic depiction of the Crucifixion on the cross, an innovation also imported from the East.

Bordeaux, like many European trading ports, had its own large and influential Syrian colony. One merchant, referred to as Euphronius by St. Gregory of Tours, had a mansion so grand, boasting its own oratory with a reliquary of St. Sergius (from Resafa in Syria), that the local bishop wanted to ordain him as a priest in order to appropriate his property. In Paris, the Syrian population was so influential that by 591 they managed to elect as archbishop of the city one of their own, who then distributed the most profitable ecclesiastical positions among his fellow countrymen.

Influenced by Ravenna’s churches, Charlemagne ordered the Greeks and the Syrians to revise the text of the Gospels and summoned artists, artisans, scholars and scribes from the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean to work on his palatine chapel at Aachen. That Syrian stonemasons must also have arrived in France is attested by the first left pier in the central nave of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which bears the same swaying acanthus leaf capital as can still be seen on the Basilica of St. Simeon, Christendom’s most famous pilgrimage site in the late fifth century.

Today, over a thousand years later, it is the displaced Syrian refugees who live in the ruins of these once-magnificent buildings of early Christianity. Lacking the basic comforts of running water, heating or refrigeration, they represent a twisted reflection of the rigors of the early Christian ascetics, most certainly not from choice. The ongoing Syrian war, now in its 12th year, has made travel to the region of the Dead Cities nearly impossible for the last decade. Turkish, Russian and Syrian fighter jets compete for control of the skies, with regular aerial bombardment of the ancient ruins themselves — unprotected and vulnerable as they are — despite the UNESCO World Heritage status they belatedly achieved in June 2011, three months after the war began. Even more jarringly, today it is no outside force that seeks to oust the local population, but the Syrian government itself, with the Assad family in power since 1970. Millions have fled as refugees to neighboring countries and beyond, including Europe.

How many more years will it be before they can return to their homes and rebuild their lives and before we in the West can once again travel to visit sites like Al-Bara, Serjilla and Ruweiha? No one knows the answer, but in the meantime, we can at least highlight the importance of these forgotten early Christian settlements and their churches. We can recognize the enormous contribution they and their early inhabitants have made to our own cultural and religious traditions in the West and pray that pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim, will one day soon be able to return and experience again the deeply rooted Christian connections to which these church-covered hillsides bear witness.

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