Best when viewed with Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.

Welcome and Introduction to The Desert Fathers

In the fourth century A.D. the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia were peopled by a race of men who have left behind them a strange reputation. They were the first Christian hermits, who abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude....

What the Fathers sought most of all was their own true self, in Christ. And in order to do this, they had to reject completely the false, formal self, fabricated under social compulsion in "the world."

They sought a way to God that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand. They sought a God whom they alone could find, not one who was "given" in a set, stereotyped form by somebody else. Not that they rejected any of the dogmatic formulas of the Christian faith: they accepted and clung to them in their simplest and most elementary shape. But they were slow (at least in the beginning, in the time of their primitive wisdom) to get involved in theological controversy. Their flight to the arid horizons of the desert meant also a refusal to be content with arguments, concepts and technical verbiage....Thomas Merton...The Wisdom of the Desert

Hello and Welcome...

This blog serves as a companion to my blog: Alexandrine Librarian  (2010) which has been revised and rewritten as the Book of John the Librarian in 2021. One purpose of this blog is to document my research of the rise of monasticism in the third and fourth centuries in the Egyptian desert around the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt. Another purpose is to explore the nature of the compelling spirituality of these desert fathers who lived quite independently mainly in the desert of Egypt around the ancient city of Alexandria prior to the time of Church interference that began with the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Alexandrine Librarian was a fictionalized story told by one of the librarians who worked at the great library, in Alexandria, Egypt, right before its demise in 415 AD. I began writing the story to get a sense of what it might have been like working in that great library during those years of political and religious turmoil in the empire.

Surprisingly, the fourth century AD started as a century of hope for human civilization as it was a period of time when there were many great libraries throughout major metropolitan cities and the early beginnings of a prototype modern day university was established and thriving in Alexandria, Egypt.

I began my research in 1995. As a university librarian, my initial interest was in learning about the Great Library located in Alexandria, Egypt - how it came to be and what happened to it. However it quickly became obvious that the fate of the Great Library was closely tied to the truculent nature of the local Christian Church and its bishop. The two could not be separated.

In 1995, little did I realized that my interest in this topic would be so compelling that eventually I would take early retirement from my position as a university library director, in 2005, in order to spend all my time researching and writing about early Christianity and its influence on ancient libraries. For me this interest became an obsession, a sort of spiritual journey into the origin and roots of early Christianity and, more importantly an exploration of my own feelings and beliefs about the nature of the unseen world and the nature of the Divine and Divine Realm.

Before 1995, the god I thought I knew was a god created by men, perhaps men of good intention, perhaps not. But certainly they viewed an anthropomorphic god with all the limitations of human weaknesses. These same men put human limitations on their god and fashioned that god for their own purposes. But the God of those men and women in the third and fourth century monastic movement was a very real God, a God who could be experienced first hand.

The 4th century AD, must have been one of the most spiritual centuries in human history with a two-pronged effort toward searching for the nature of God and the destiny of the human soul. One search was under way in an early university set up in Alexandria, Egypt, centered around that early repository of ancient wisdom, the great Alexandrian Library. Building on the early works of the great mystic Plato, that included ideas, such as karma and reincarnation, from texts on eastern religions, they attempted to understand the nature of the unseen world through rational thinking based on ancient wisdom from India and Tibet. Among these Christian Neoplatonists were early church fathers, including Clement and Origen, who likely used the resources of that great library facility in their studies and teachings.

Clement has been quoted as saying: "Many streams flow into the one river of truth. The bee gets her honey from every kind of flower in which she can discover it." One could easily surmise from this that he was a heavy library user. As the great library was all inclusive in its collection building, it is likely that the library acquired the texts of eastern religions and that those texts were available to the early Church fathers. Karma, reincarnation and the belief that the human soul was eternal were a part of early Christian Neoplatonist philosophy. Neoplatonist philosophy including the writings of the early church fathers from the second and third centuries was later declared a heretical teaching by the church in the fourth century.

The other search for the nature of the unseen world was in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia, where men and women, in solitary, sought to experience the Divine. They followed the path of the great mystics from the east. Through extreme asceticism that involved physical deprivation and the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs they had powerful visions that enabled them seek a way to the divine "that was uncharted and freely chosen, not inherited from others who had mapped it out beforehand." (Visit Monks and Nuns of the Egyptian Desert for a brief archaeological and historical overview.)

Two very different approaches toward solving the riddle of the future of the human soul. Both efforts, using different methods, converged at that point in human history, and focused on understanding the nature of the unseen world.

At first in the second and third centuries, these two approaches easily coexisted side by side in Egypt. This peaceful coexistence continued until the early Christian church and an emerging church doctrine began to take shape in fourth century. In 380 AD, sixty-eight years after Constantine legalized the Christian religion, Roman Emperor Theodosius' decreed that Christianity was the only religion of the Empire. That act lead to the beginning of the end of the Alexandrian University and the rational approach to understanding the nature of the unseen world. After that time the early Christian church quickly consolidated its power and began aggressively eliminating of all contrary ideas about the nature of the unseen world. The world of classical scholarship and learning, supported by vast collections of recorded wisdom, which the early church branded as pagan and, therefore, heretical, was coming to an end.

The decree of 380 gave the Christian Church authority to use Roman troops to destroy all non-Christian temples and non-Christian libraries throughout the Empire and murder anyone who stood in the way. According to some accounts the early Church moved quickly to enforce the decree, leaving those individuals who were not Christian with no alternative but convert, or else, to Christianity as their shrines and temples were destroyed. Many non-Christians lost their lives when they rebelled against the destruction of their sacred places. The early Christian Church proved as brutal in carrying out the new decree as the Romans were in persecuting early Christians.

Theodosius's decree in 380 lead to the beginning of the end of classical scholarship and all teaching and research in the Empire. The Alexandrine University, located in Alexandria, Egypt was eventually closed with its faculty and librarians fleeing to higher education institutions and libraries in Persia (modern day Iran). Fortunately some classical texts in the libraries were saved from destruction by being transported to libraries in Persia. But in the main, library collections were burned and scholars and librarians who tried to defend their libraries were murdered by Christian fundamentalists (see here and here for an alternate view for destruction of classical literature).

The brutal murder of Hypatia of Alexandria in 415 AD, one of the last philosopher librarians, by members of the Church underscored just how serious the fracture between the church and classical scholarship had become.

The movie Agora released in 2009 dramatizes one version of the end of the Great Library, the death of librarian-philosopher Hypatia and the end of classical scholarship. The movie was produced in Spain, but never made it to popular distribution in the US because of it's strong anti-Christian content. According to Robert Ebert in his review of this movie, "This is a movie about ideas, a drama based on the ancient war between science and superstition." Also the review in the New York Times authored by A.O. Scott should be read before viewing the movie to identity the various historical figures close to Hypatia.

According to Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos:

"Hypatia stood at the epicenter of ... mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and ... flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint."

One would think that given the technology, science and individual spirituality that emerged at this time, that human civilization was about to make a great leap in improving the human condition for all.

However, it did not. For the next thousand years the light of wisdom would go dark for many as a period of the Dark Ages descended upon humanity in Europe and Northern Africa.


This blog and the companion blog Alexandrine Teaching explores that question.

click on image to enlarge

Comments and observations are welcome. If you wish to contribute a chapter or so to this blog, feel free to contact me.

The Librarian
From the high mountains of southern Colorado
October 2010
send email to:

Some additional links:
Back to Previous Level