In A.D. 451, the new Byzantine Emperor Marcian, an orthodox Christian, ordered a new Ecumenical council be convened to establish once and for all, the belief that Christ was and is both God and Man. Pope Leo 1 called for it to be held in Italy but Marcian insisted it be held in Nicea. Unfortunately, Attila the Hun, who was not a Christian, orthodox or otherwise, was on the rampage at the same time. This prompted the organizers of the Council to relocate to Chalcedon an ancient maritime town situated on a peninsula near the Bosphorus, and opposite the old city of Byzantium. The main aim of the new council was to set aside the findings of the Second Council of Ephesus, held in 449 AD and which became known as the ‘Robber Council.’
The Council of Chalcedon issued the ‘Chalcedonian Definition’ refuting earlier beliefs that Christ was solely a God. The council bishops declared that Christ has two natures, God and Man. The Council’s decree is not accepted by large numbers of monks and the ancient Eastern Churches, including the Orthodox of Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. A major schism occurred soon after the Council ended, that lingers to the present time. Out of the ashes of the Council of Chalcedon arose the Orthodox Christian sect who chose the Church of Alexandra as their spiritual leader. These monks cut their remaining ties with the Church of Rome, retreated back to their desert bases, and indeed, many more actually fled from Egypt at this time.
In 2006 the discovery of an ancient book in a bog in County Tipperary, Ireland sparked an exciting debate. The book, Egyptian in style and with pages made of papyrus, lends credence to an ancient story which tells of a visit to Ireland by ‘seven monks of Egypt.’ In an early ‘Litany of Irish Liturgy,’ Oengas of Tallaght, mentions the burial of seven Egyptian monks in County Antrim. Another early literary source, the ‘Stowe Missal’ (c750) mentions the desert monks and in particular, Anthony of Egypt. There is a manuscript, written sometime in the eight century and kept in the British Library (Nero A11), London, which puts forth the theory that the desert monks of Egypt greatly influenced the behavior and lifestyles of the Irish monks. Author and historian, Archdale King, writes that “firsthand knowledge of the Desert monks was brought to southern Gaul by St. John Cassian and that links between the Irish and Egyptian monks were particularly strong at this time.” King also mentions an Ogham inscription on a stone near Saint Olan’s well in the parish of Aghabulloge, County Cork, which has been interpreted as reading “Pray for Olan the Egyptian.”
Much of the contact between Egypt and the British Isles took place before the Muslim Conquest of 640 AD. There is evidence of a trade route through the Mediterranean and in a passage of the life of St. John the Almsgiver, the Greek Patriarch of Egypt, 610-621 AD, reference is made to “a vessel sailing from Britain to Alexandria bearing a cargo of tin.” This tin most likely came from Cornwall or Somerset, well known areas of Britain for tin mining. An Irish monk named Dicuil, in his ‘Liber de Mensure’ written in 825 AD, describes the pyramids in great detail as well as a precursor of the Suez Canal leading us to believe that visits were often made to Egypt by pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. The ‘Saltair Na Rann,’ an anthology of biblical poems attributed to Oengus the Culdee, also contains the ‘Book of Adam and Eve,’ composed in Egypt in either the 6th or 7th century AD, and known in no other country except Ireland.
It is believed that the Irish monks, inspired by the lifestyles of the desert monks, sought out similar places in Ireland as their retreats. While there are no actual deserts in Ireland, there are places which afforded desert-like qualities, places that were remote and away from the everyday hustle and bustle. One notable example of this can be seen on the windswept island of Skellig Michael, a monastic settlement that sits about 11 kilometers west of the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry, 600 feet above the wild Atlantic ocean, which was hewn from the bare rock by Irish monks in the 6th century AD.
*Note: The word Disert or Dysart (solitary place) appears in many Irish place names.