Arrival in Aleppo, Syria; Visit to St. Symeon the Stylite Cathedral; Meeting with His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL of Aleppo - 11/13/10

Aleppo, Syria

The delegation recrossed the border into Syria driving on a modern road, but it quickly pulled over to survey an ancient road that linked Antioch to Aleppo, built in 64 B.C. Made completely of stone, it rests slightly above its descendent.

Our first major stop of the day was the remains of St. Symeon the Stylite Cathedral just outside of Aleppo, a massive fifth-century edifice that rivaled Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople. The churches were about the same size, and even though St. Symeon Cathedral sat about 37 miles away from the nearest big city, it always teemed with people because of the monastic life that once thrived there. This cathedral is built around the very same 30-foot pillar on which St. Symeon the Stylite sat on top for more than 40 years, devoting his life to repentance, prayer and fasting. Symeon ascended this pillar simply to escape the throngs of people wishing to touch his garments or seek his counsel. He did so not out of arrogance, but out of his own sense of unworthiness and need to work out his own salvation. People from around the known world came to see Symeon’s ascetical feats with their own eyes, and the church historian Theodoret of Cyrrus called him “the great wonder of the world.” St. Symeon reposed in peace in 459 A.D.

The Cathedral was consecrated with an octagonal layout in 475, complete with four basilicas and altars, ossuaries cut into the rock, monastic cells and baptisteries surrounding St. Symeon’s pillar in the center. The most important altar is the eastern altar, at which the Metropolitan of Aleppo, his clergy and the faithful gather for a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy on September 1, the feast day of St. Symeon and the beginning of the Church New Year. Opposite the southern basilica is adult baptistery, where the mosaic tiles dating to the Cathedral’s opening still decorate the floor. On the day of their baptism, the adult catechumens would walk down the steps and into the pool of sanctified water to be baptized. They would walk up another set of steps in front of them, and the archway above was curved in a way so that the newly illumined would not bump their heads!

The delegation then drove into Aleppo, Syria’s second city and “northern capitol” to visit the archdiocesan Cathedral the Prophet Elias and chancery. By far, we agreed that this was the most state-of-the-art complex in all of our visits. Before His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigy) came to greet us, we toured the community center, complete with a computer lab for students, a 300-seat auditorium for various lectures and film presentations, and the cathedral grounds which host after-school programs for 300 students. During lunch, we sat in amazement and a degree of inadequacy as we watched a video of all the archdiocese’s various ministries and outreaches.

The five-story administrative and residential building is temporarily housing a small monastery for nuns who write icons and sew vestments. It also contains a small chapel with the following relics of these famous saints: Anastasia and Theodora of Thessaloniki, Barbara of Heliopolis in Syria, Pelagia of Antioch, Arsenios of Cappadocia, Nektarios of Aegina, Gregory Palamas and John the Merciful of Alexandria. They surround a piece of the original precious and life-giving Cross of Jesus Christ.

Then, we were in awe of the cathedral interior, which, like many Middle Eastern centers of worship, has three holy altar tables. The iconostasis was completed in the last ten years and boasts a number of saints, including our new favorite, St. Symeon. We could now understand why he was always depicted on top of a pillar, especially as we had just visited it.

Sayidna PAUL then joined us and immediately treated us to lunch. He assumed leadership of the archdiocese in 2000, after completing his theological doctorate at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki and serving the Patriarchate of Antioch as a hieromonk. Before all of that, he was an engineer by profession. Sayidna JOSEPH praised him as a holy man who had really grown his flock since it was first entrusted to him. He also could not believe that it had been ten years since he celebrated Sayidna PAUL’s consecration at the Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus.

The delegates then went into the bookstore to purchase as many icons, books and recordings as possible, as they would keep us company on the four-hour bus ride back to St. Christophorus Monastery at Saydnaya.