Monday, August 01, 2011


Sat 02 Feb 2009
A true cause celebre

MAGAN'S WORLD:IT’S HARD to avoid finding oneself on a celebrity trail nowadays. Every wall you look at seems to have a plaque saying who did what there when. But why? What’s the point? Are we really supposed to experience a euphoric jolt every time we stand where someone famous stood a year, a century, a millennium ago?

I’ve found myself at the rock where Adonis sat in Crete, the spot Joyce mistakenly got off the train in Ljubljana, the bars Hemingway frequented in Havana and the In Bruges sites in Bruges and haven’t felt even a twitter.

Only once did I ever experience the genuine thrill of contiguity and that was at the site of St Simeon of Stylites’ pillar outside Aleppo in Northern Syria. Simeon was a celebrity’s celebrity - famous for doing absolutely nothing, except climbing on top of a pillar in 423AD and sitting there for 37 years. Long before Nicole Richie, he figured out a way of earning worldwide fame without ever working or even moving beyond his metre sq platform. The idea didn’t come at all easily to him: he started out on a tortuous career path as a Christian ascetic – subjecting himself to ever-increasing bodily austerities from wearing spiked girdles which drew blood, to burying himself up to his neck for a few months and chaining himself to a rock in the desert. But it was when he came up with the pillar idea that he got true fame. This concept drove his fans wild and he ended up having to build a higher column to get away from them, but the higher he went the greater his reputation rose and eventually he had pilgrims and celebrity-gazers coming from all over Europe – even Britain and France - to see him and shout up questions. And this was all despite alienating 50% of his potential audience by forbidding women to come. Even his mother, Saint Martha wasn’t allowed to come until she was dead and he permitted her body to be brought. One woman who tried to come see him dressed as a man was turned to stone.

Standing at his site in Syria, looking up into empty space above the butt of the pillar (which is all that remain after centuries of pilgrims chipping bits off to take home), one can’t help but marvel at his achievement at becoming internationally renowned during his own life time a thousand years before the printing press was invented. He had to deal with all the problems that still taunt megastars today, such as what to do all day other than greet the fans who turned up each afternoon for sermons on subjects like the evils of a nice hot meal or clean sheets. ‘Clean sheets! Clean sheets. I’ll give you clean sheets. Did Jesus have clean sheets on the cross?’

Like all celebrities, a large part of the day was spent on a fitness regime – an early form of aerobics involving bending forward to touch his toes repeatedly - one witness stopped counting after 1,244 times bows. Other than the fitness/prayer regime, Simeon just stood praying for the 37 years – possibly thinking of how great it would be if there was such a thing as a Guinness Book of Records. He spent the nights either, sleeping standing up tied to a pole, or if he was feeling indulgent he’d curl up on the ground, chained to the balustrade in case he rolled over or a storm arose.

Like all celebrities he had a vast entourage to control the crowds, arrange access for VIPs (kings and emperors could climb a ladder to consult with him), and bring him the occasional meal. (His PR people managed to hush up details of how he dealt with bodily waste). A basilica was built around the pillar after his death - the largest in the world at the time – not even Britney or the Beatles managed that. Respect.