Simeon of Syracuse

Trier in November 1030: In a solemn ceremony, Archbishop Poppo walled the Greek monk Simeon into a tiny cell in the east tower of the Porta Nigra. To the time of his death, four-and-a half years later, the hermit Simeon is said to have never left his cell again. He spent most of his time in quiet prayer. His nourishment – bread and water  but also wine and vegetables – was laid in a basket for him, which he pulled up by a rope. He was often plagued by hallucinations. By reciting Psalms from the Bible, he defended himself against these “demons.”

What seems for us today a terrible punishment was for Simeon, who had quite consciously decided on existence as a hermit, the fulfillment of his purpose in life. But, much to the contrary, he was a man of this world: He spoke Greek, Egyptian, Arabic, Syrian, and Romansh. In the course of his travels and pilgrimages, he covered an estimated 15,535 miles/25,000 kilometers. “It was just this cosmopolitanism, which nevertheless did not deter him from his profound piety, a practiced religiosity to the ultimate, that makes him a highly interesting personality,” said Alfred Haverkamp, Professor for Medieval History at the University of Trier.

Guide for Pilgrims in the Holy Land

Simeon was born around 980/990 as the son of a Greek officer in Syracuse, Sicily. After theological studies in Constantinople, the young Simeon could hardly wait to visit the holy places in Palestine. The biography of Simeon by the Abbot Eberwin of St. Martin’s Abbey in Trier states: “He wanted nothing other than to be a poor man following the poor Christ.” The first pilgrimage into the Holy Land turned into a stay of seven years. Very soon Simeon was so familiarized with the Biblical sites that he was able to serve as a guide for pilgrims.

In the long run, this way of life brought Simeon no religious fulfillment. Finally, he was received into the St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. But even that as well was not yet secluded enough for him: He left the monastery several times and sought the isolation and ascetic life in the desert.

Pirate Attack on the Nile

After a while, Simeon was sent to Europe by his abbot because the monastery needed money. Simeon was to seek out Richard II, Duke of Normandy, who had proven to be a generous benefactor in the past. The description of this journey reads like a script for an action thriller: While still in the Nile delta, Simeon’s ship was attacked by pirates. He was able to escape only by jumping into the river, and he reached the embankment completely exhausted, naked and penniless.

Undeterred, he set forth again on foot and reached Normandy after many detours, only to see that Duke Richard had died and that a feud had arisen over his successor. There was no money to be had there, at least for the time being; therefore Simeon made his way to Abbot Eberwin of Trier, whom he had met on his journey and had come to value. This is likely how Simeon landed for the first time in Trier in 1027. Eberwin introduced him to Archbishop Poppo, and it was quickly decided to organize a pilgrimage to the Orient under Simeon’s sterling leadership. After the return in 1030, Simeon was finally inspired with the desire to end his life as a hermit. Poppo conferred the Porta Nigra on him as a sanctuary.

After Simeon died at the beginning of June 1035 and was buried, with a great number of townspeople at the ceremony, Poppo and Eberwin focused on the canonization of their protégé. With the aid of the biography written by Eberwin which Poppo sent to Rome, Pope Benedict IX was persuaded of Simeon’s exemplary piety. As early as December 1035, Benedict proclaimed the canonization. Poppo then founded a college of canons in the name of the saint next to the Porta Nigra. Today, the structure houses, among other things, the Municipal Museum. The Porta Nigra as Simeon’s burial place was converted into a double church, which was not dismantled until the order of Napoleon in 1804. 

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