A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patrick's Day Special: Patrick and the Irish-Egyptian Connection

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone, an appropriate wish here since the Irish Church Patrick founded seems to have been the religious and monastic daughter of the Church of Egypt (the Coptic Church).

Ah, you're thinking: he's really reaching this time, trying to find a way to work Saint Patrick's Day into a blog on the Middle East. My name is, after all, Michael Collins Dunn, and I'm therefore rarely assumed to have Greek or Japanese ancestry, but actually it's not a reach to find a reason for a Saint Patrick's Day post on the Middle East, since Irish Christianity has ancient, if somewhat hard to document, links to Egypt, and Saint Patrick himself may have studied alongside Egyptian monks. They say everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, but I'm going to explore how Egypt and Ireland have links dating back to the earliest days of Christianity in the West. And while some of the evidence is a bit hazy, none of this is crackpot theory. I warned you that I started out as a medievalist, and still have flashbacks sometimes. Forgive me if I can't footnote every statement here.

Anyone who has ever seen one of the standing crosses that are a familiar feature of medieval and post-classical Irish Christian sites will know what the Celtic Cross or "wheel cross" looks like; anyone who has ever set foot in a Coptic Church will know what a Coptic Cross looks like; unfortunately the illustrations at Wikipedia's Coptic Cross site don't include a precise example, but the wheel cross is common among Egyptian Copts as well, and can be seen on many churches in Egypt today. The wheel cross is not an obvious derivation of the Christian cross, and many think it is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, so what is it doing on those Irish standing cross towers?

Sure, iconography can repeat itself: both Indians in India and Native Americans used the swastika long before Hitler did, and so on. But the Celtic Cross/Coptic Cross similarity is not the only link. There is pretty decent evidence that Christianity in Ireland, if not immediately derived from Egypt, was closely linked to the Egyptian Church. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for "the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh." The place mentioned is somewhere in Ulster, with many placing it in Antrim: perhaps suggestively, "desert" or "disert" in Irish place names meant a place where monks lived apart from the world as anchorites, modeled on the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. "Ulaidh" just means Ulster.Who these seven holy Egyptian monks were is unclear, but they died in Ulster and were sufficiently venerated to be remembered in a litany.

It is often said (I haven't got a firm cite though) that holy water bottles found in Ireland carry the twin-camel emblem associated with the Shrine of Saint Menas west of Alexandria. (Menas was one of the major patron saints of Egypt, his shrine a major pilgrimage center, and his cult extended far beyond Egypt.) If so, I don't think the Irish were using local camels as models. There are also said to be tombstones in old Irish ogham writing that refer to the burial of so-and-so "the Egyptian." The earliest Irish forms of monasticism included anchorite communities who withdrew from the world and venerated the tradition of Saint Anthony of Egypt; the early Irish church used an Eastern rather than a Western date for Easter; some aspects of ancient Celtic liturgy resemble eastern liturgies, and there are archaeological evidences (mostly probable Egyptian pottery in Ireland and British — Cornish? — tin in Egypt) of trade between Egypt and the British Isles. "Double" monasteries — where a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns were adjacent — first appeared in Egypt, and were common in Ireland. The evidence may be circumstantial, but there's a lot of it.

I've also heard (but can't Google up the reference just now) that somewhere in the Irish monastic literature there is a pilgrimage guide to the Desert of Scetis, the Egyptian desert region of Coptic monasteries today known as the Wadi Natrun. That, along with the Saint Menas holy water bottles, suggests Irish monks made pilgrimages all the way to Egypt. And obviously those seven holy Egyptian monks in Ulster made the trip the other way.

But do these connections between Egypt and Ireland, tenuous as they may seem, really connect in any way with Saint Patrick, justifying this as a Saint Patrick's Day post? I'm glad you asked.

Saint Patrick's life has been much encrusted with mythology (the snakes, the Shamrock, etc.) and all we can really say for certain is what he himself told us in his autobiographical Confession: he was born somewhere on the western coast of Roman Britain (so the Apostle of Ireland was British, but before there was such a thing as an Englishman since the Angles and Saxons were not yet present: he probably spoke old British, an ancestor of Welsh), was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, later escaped and joined the church, and returned as the apostle of Ireland. But very ancient biographies (though not his own autobiographical account, one of the few vernacular Latin works to survive from the period) say that he studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the south coast of France. This was a Mediterranean island abbey much influenced by the church of Egypt and the rule of Saint Anthony of Egypt, and according to some accounts, many Coptic monks were present there. There's no certainty that Patrick ever studied there, but then, he studied somewhere, and this is the only place claimed by the early accounts. So Patrick himself may have had direct links to the Egyptian church. (And remember that until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD — by which time Patrick was already a bishop in Ireland, himself dying in 461 by most accounts — the Coptic Church and the rest of Christendom were still in full communion.)

There may be even more to it than this. A few linguists believe that the Celtic languages, though Indo-European in their basic structure, have a "substratum" of some previous linguistic element that is not found in other Indo-European languages, only in Celtic, but some aspects of which are also found in Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly Berber and Egyptian (of which Coptic, of course, is the late form). I'm certainly not qualified to judge such linguistically abstruse theories, and know neither Irish nor Coptic, and they seem to have little to do with the question of Egyptian-Irish Christian influences. But it helps remind us that the ancient world was more united by the sea than divided by it, and that the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia.

While the links are tenuous, they appear to be real. Irish historians accept some level of Egyptian influence in the Christianization of Ireland, and Coptic historians love to dwell on the subject, since it lets them claim a link to the earliest high Christian art and culture of Western Europe. If Irish monasticism preserved the heritage of the ancient world and rebuilt the West after the barbarian invasions, and if the Irish church is a daughter of the Egyptian church, then tbe West owes more to Egypt than most would imagine.

I first heard a discussion of this in a presentation by the Coptic Church's bishop in charge of ecumenical outreach, Bishop Samweel, back in the early 1970s. I later ran across several references to it in British orientalist literature (Stanley Lane-Poole seems to have been particularly fond of it, and I think he places Desert Ulaidh near Carrickfergus), and continue to find it intriguing, if never quite clear enough to nail down precisely.

Bishop Samweel, mentioned above, met an unfortunate end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way. When Anwar Sadat deposed Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1981, Sadat named Samweel — considered one of the Coptic church's leading figures after Shenouda — head of a council of bishops to run the church while the Patriarch was in exile. Due to this appointment, Bishop Samweel was seated on the reviewing stand behind Sadat on October 6, 1981, and died in the volley of fire which killed the President.

Like much of the earliest history of any culture or country, the links between Irish and Egyptian Christianity are fairly well-delineated but their precise origins are untraceable, but tantalizing. Since this is little known to most Westerners or even to Egyptians who aren't Copts, it seemed appropriate to mention it on Saint Patrick's Day.

Erin go bragh. Misr Umm al-Dunya.

2 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for a great St. Patricks Day Post - and as an Irish Catholic who lived in Cairo (and former MEI intern), I am hoping to add to your circumstantial evidence!

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. When were you an intern?