Guest Contribution | Marwa Al-Sabouni writes A LETTER TO A COLUMN is delighted to present you a new collaboration with Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni. Born and living in Homs, Syria, Al-Sabouni’s texts offer special insights on life in her war-torn home city and Syria – from an architect’s point of view.

Marwa Al-Sabouni has finished her PhD research on Stereotyping in Islamic Architecture. Her articles were published in RIBA Journal, WSI mag, Architectural Review, and others. will publish a selection of her articles within the next weeks.

text (c) Marwa Al-Sabouni


Dear column,

I know you’re just a dead deaf stone; but seeing people hugging you, touching you with such fascination, taking photos with their arms all around you, made me write to you.

When I was a little kid living in Syria, school field trips took us to historic places. There I met you for the first time; I saw you everywhere, with those foreign tourists all over you. I didn’t understand this strange act at the time. I used to walk by, running around with my friends with absolutely no interest in you. Even when I started at architecture school I still saw the same scene of tourists holding their books and exploring you, teachers would tell us about your ‘birthday’ and how you came to life. But I still didn’t understand why ‘those people’ were so amazed by you; they’ll tell us ‘this is an amazing country with these ruins from thousands of years BC, yet still standing now’. Though now this special place is ruined by the effect of the Syrian war.

You were so dear to them, as you were to Sma’an Alamoudi, St. Simon vertical who was born in 389 AD in the town Sasan south of Mount Simon in Syria. He went to the monastery Thelanisos, was known later as the Monastery of St Simeon. Simon lived above you for more than forty years and never climbed down. You never held up any ceiling, you were able to make people hold you.

You also have always been so important along the celebrated history of architecture from the days when the Greeks and Romans have categorized you into Orders, till the birth of Modernism which marginalized you.

I have always wondered what made ‘those people’ hug you. Is it human’s everlasting longing for immortality? Do they find in you a hope to hold their lives in you, as they may believe you held that for those who made you? Or do you have something more about you? Is it the way you have been made? Because it’s as important what we say, the way we say things, as Roger Scruton’s says ‘What we appreciate is not the result but the process – or rather, the process as it is revealed’. Are ‘marks of human labour’ (Scruton) and ‘spiritualization of the stone’ (Worringer) what they are looking for?

Today you, the column, are no longer visible; you’re hidden inside, disguised, or melted in; the modern structure no longer depends on you. And if you do exist, you’re often made through moulding or 3D printing.

Is that why ‘those people’ never hug the modern you? Is this the reason they search for you in such old places? Will people in the future hug any part of what remains after we all are long gone? And which part will it be?

I guess I’ll wait for your reply.

Published first by RIBA Journal

Addendum: The Church of Saint Simeon Stylites (Arabic: كنيسة مار سمعان العمودي‎ Kanīsat Mār Simʿān al-ʿAmūdī) is a historical building located about 30 km (19 mi) northwest of Aleppo, Syria. It is the oldest surviving Byzantine church, dating back to the 5th century. Built on the site of the pillar of St. Simeon Stylites, a famed hermit monk, the church is popularly known as either Qalaat Semaan (Arabic: ‏قلعة سمعان‎ Qalʿat Simʿān), the ‘Fortress of Simeon’, or Deir Semaan (Arabic: ‏دير سمعان‎ Dayr Simʿān), the ‘Monastery of Simeon’ . (Wikipedia)

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