On the Apostle Paul's ill-fated journey to Rome, the ship he traveled on was blown off course soon after leaving the Cretan anchorage of Fair Haven (Acts 27:8-12). Dr. Luke, who accompanied the Apostle Paul on this voyage, records the details of the storm that hit during their voyage.
'But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon. So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive. And running under the shelter of an island called Claudia, we secured the skiff with difficulty. When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven' (Acts 27:14-17, NKJV).
Luke makes it clear that they are afraid of being run aground on the Syrtis Sands. But why would they be afraid of being run aground? In order to answer that question, this essay will ask the questions: Where and what are the Syrtis Sands? The ancient sources will show that the Syrtis was not a dry desert but two bodies of water, the 'name of two dangerous, shallow gulfs off the coast of North Africa' (Olson 1992:4: 286).
The Ancient Sources
There is a long history of ancient accounts that give descriptions of the Syrtis Sands. One description of the sands is from Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-3rd century BC). In his legendary book, the Argonautica, also known as Jason and the Golden Fleece, he describes a ship that was near the land of Pelops [present day Peloponnesus] that was hit with a 'deadly blast of the north wind [that] seized them in mid-course and carried them toward the Libyan sea for nine whole nights and as many days, until they came far into Syrtis [the legendary shoals and desert coast of Libya where ships become stranded], where there is no getting out again for ships, once they are forced to enter that gulf. For everywhere are shallows, everywhere thickets of seaweed from the depths, and over them silently washes the foam of the water' (4.1231-1235; LCL 429, the footnotes are in brackets. For a full discussion of the Syrtis episode, see: Clare 2002: 150-160, 222-24; Williams 1991: 163-73).
Strabo, an ancient Greek geographer from Pontus who lived at the end of the first century BC and beginning of the first century AD, describes the location and dimensions of the Greater and Lesser Syrtis in his Geography (2:5:20; LCL 1: 473, 475). Olson observed that 'the Greater Syrtis covered an area approximately 450-570 miles in circumference, and 170-180 miles in breadth' (1992:4:286). The Lesser Syrtis is the western of the two bodies of water, and he writes: 'Of the Syrtes, the lesser is about 1,600 stadia in circumference; and the islands Meninx [also known as Girba] and Cercina lie at either side of its mouth.' Today, it is called the Gulf of Gabes, located off the south eastern coast of Tunisia.
Elsewhere he describes these two bodies of water in these terms: 'The difficulty with both [the Greater] Syrtis and the Little Syrtis is that in many places their deep waters contain shallows, and the result is, at the ebb and the flow of the tides, that sailors sometimes fall into the shallows and stick there, and that the safe escape of a boat is rare. On this account sailors keep at a distance when voyaging along the coast, taking precautions not to be caught off their guard and driven by winds into these gulfs' (Geography 17:3:20; LCL 8: 197).
Dio Chrysostom, a rhetorician and traveler who lived from about AD 40 to about AD 120, described the Syrtis in these terms: 'The Syrtis is an arm of the Mediterranean extending far inland, a three days' voyage, they say, for a boat unhindered in its course. But for those who have once sailed into it find egress impossible; for shoals, cross-currents, and long sand-bars extending a great distance out make the sea utterly impassable or troublesome. For the bed of the sea in these parts is not clean, but as the bottom is porous and sandy it lets the sea seep in, there being no solidity to it. This, I presume, explains the existence there of the great sand-bars and dunes, which remind one of the similar condition created inland by the winds, though here, of course, it is due to the surf' (Discourse 5:8-10; LCL I: 239). Is it any wonder the sailors on the ship the Apostle Paul was on were in fear of the Syrtis because there was no escape (Acts 27:17)?
Strabo and Dio Chrysostom were both near contemporaries with Dr. Luke and the book of Acts. Luke was chronologically sandwiched between these two writers, and his understanding of the Syrtis would have been the same as their understanding. Today, the Greater Syrtis is the Gulf of Sirte off the coast of Libya. The Lesser Syrtis is the Gulf of Gabes off the coast of Tunisia (Talbert 2000: I: 552-57, maps 1, 35, 37).
Later, around AD 560, Procopius gives a possible meaning of the name Syrtis when he wrote in his book Buildings: 'When a ship driven by wind or wave gets inside the opening [of the Gulf] … it is then impossible for it to return, but from that moment it seems 'to be drawn' (suresthai) and appears distinctly to be dragged steadily forward. From this fact, I suppose, the men of ancient times named the place Syrtis, because of the fate of the ships. On the other hand, it is not possible for the ships to make their way to shore, for submerged rocks scattered over the greater part of the gulf do not permit sailing there, since they destroy the ships in the shoals. Only in small boats are the sailors of such ships able to save themselves, with good luck, by picking their way amid perils through the outlets' (Buildings 6.2. 3-8; LCL 7:371-73; see also 6.4.14-23; LCL 7:377-79).
The Conclusion of the Matter
Why were the sailors afraid of the Syrtis Sands? The Syrtis is two bodies of water in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of North Africa. Even with 'good luck' (Procopius' words), the sailors on the Alexandrian grain ship carrying the Apostle Paul and Dr. Luke were terrified because they knew they were doomed if they hit the Syrtis Sands. The grain ships were the largest ships plying the Mediterranean Sea at that time, with a deep draft, and they would easily have gotten grounded on a sandbar in the middle of no-where and many miles from any shoreline! The old sailor's axiom would hold true: 'Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!' They would have had plenty of grain to eat on the ship, but not a drop of water to go with it. They were afraid of a slow and painful death by dehydration.
2008 Argonautica. Trans. William Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 1.
Clare, R. J.
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1992 Syrtis. P. 286 in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 6. Edited by D. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
Procopius of Caesarea
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1989 The Geography of Strabo. Vol. 1. Translated by H. L. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 49.
1982 The Geography of Strabo. Vol. 8. Translated by H. L. Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. Loeb Classical Library 267.
Talbert, Richard, ed.
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This article is the fruit of on-going research that Gordon Franz has conducted on the island of Malta since 1997. His focus on his six visits to the island has been the shipwreck of the Apostle Paul. Periodically he will be adding articles to his website on various aspects of this subject: http://www.lifeandland.org/category/pauls-shipwreck-on-malta/