Malta: St. Paul's Anchor Discovered?
Coincident or Providence? On Sunday morning, April 24, 2005, the very day of the solemn Inauguration Mass of the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI, a diver made a stunning discovery offshore the coast of Malta.
Mark Gatt is a rescue diver with 25 years of experience, working for the Department of Civil Protection of Malta. Like so often, on this Sunday he got up early and went for a dive with some fellow divers. Since the weather was bad, they decided to stay rather close to the coast, with a landmark in view. They decided to drop anchor northeast of the Salina Bay, right north of the Ghallis tower, where the sea has a depth of 36 meters. When Mark Gatt reached the ground, he noticed a large, black, metallic object which he first believed to be a tail fin of a WW2 aircraft. Only when he got closer, he realized that he was wrong. He had not found an aircraft wreckage, but, instead, an object much older, something, he has seen before in the Maritime Museum of Vittoriosa – a Roman anchor, a lead anchor stock!
“It was like it wanted to be found by me”, Mark Gatt later told German historian Michael Hesemann, author of a bestselling biography of St. Paul, “it attracted me magnetically!” Gatt marked his discovery with a buoy, fixed on a long rope to lead treasure divers astray. Back home, he prepared the recovery of the find. Six days later, just in time since the buoy had already attracted trasure divers, Gatt and his friends retrieved the anchor with the help of lifting bags. Slowly it rose towards the sunlight, which broke through the waves. On the coast, a crane waited to lift it into a small truck, just to be driven to the Maltese Authorities at the Maritime Museum in Birgu. On the first examination, the anchor turned out to be 2,25 Metres long and had a weight of 700 kg. Unlike most Roman anchors, it bore an inscription, two names in Latin letters: ISIS – SARAPIS. Both were Egyptian deities, venerated from the 1st to the 3rd century AD. The center of their cult was Alexandria, the capital of the Roman province of Egypt. Alexandria also was the most important harbour in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the Nile Valley was the granary of Rome, a fleet of grain ships regularly crossed the Mediterranean to guarantee the wheat supply of the Imperial capital. Since these grain transporter were under imperial contract, they also had to transport troops and prisoners. According to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul reached Malta on an Alexandrian grainship (see 27:6), which got into a thunderstorm on its way to Rome. When after 14 days on the open sea, the sailors sensed the nearby coast at night, “they dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for the day to come” (Acts 27:29). Next morning, “they did not recognize the land; but they observed a bay with a beach, onto which they planned to run the ship if possible. And they let the anchors and left them in the sea, meanwhile losing the rudder ropes; and they hoisted the mainsall to the wind and made for shore. But striking a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the prow stuck fast and remained immovable, but the stern was being broken up by the violence of the waves.” (Acts 27:39ff.)
According to a local tradition, St. Paul shipwrecked at St. Paul’s Bay, just west of Salina Bay. But this tradition is questionable. First, St. Paul’s Bay is not a “bay with a beach”, but a rocky, cliffy bay. Second, it has no sandbank which would cause a shipwreck, as described in the Acts. Third, even the most careful investigation by maritime archaeologists has not revealed any indication of an ancient shipwreck in this bay – no amphoras, no Roman anchors, nothing.
A much better candidate is Salina Bay. It is surrounded by a flat, mostly sandy beach. It also has a sandbank – maliciously located exactly in the middle of the narrow bay, just where every Captain would steer his ship, expecting that this is where the sea would be deepest. And yes, there is an ancient shipwreck. Loads of pottery fragments indicate it. Maritime archaeologists believe the wreckage itself is buried underneath the central sandbank. It must have been large, large like an Alexandrian grainship. One of the first who investigated the site, the Maltese Comm. Anthony Scicluna, found not only broken amphoras but also , to quote his report, “Tubi Fittiti, made of pottery and used in one another as covering of cabin roof on Roman grain croppers, 100 AD.” In the area in front of the Ghallis tower, just where Mark Gatt found “his” anchor, Comm. Scicluna had already discovered three large and two small Roman anchors between 1961 and 1985, all of the same type, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD.
Indeed the maritime topography of this area fits perfect with Luke’s description in Acts. Any sailor who anchors where the lead anchors were found would already see the entrance of Salina Bay with its beach and steer right into it. If he stays in the center of the Bay, as every Captain would, he couldn’t avoid the Sandbank. It begins far enough in the open sea that waves, on a stormy day, would break the wrecked ship. On the other hand, the beach is close enough to be reached by any swimmer. Therefore no wonder that all 276 men on that ship survived.
There is another archaeological confirmation of this scenario. Just above Salina Bay, the village Burmarrad is located. Its name, “dirty waters”, indicates that it was once close to a swampy area. On a hill, the small Church S. Pawl Milqi (“Welcome, St. Paul”) is located. It was built by Grandmaster Wignacourt of the Knights of Malta in the 17th century, but on the site of an earlier Church, already mentioned in a document from 1448. According to the local tradition, this was where Publius, “the leading citizen of the island”, received St. Paul and introduced him to his father, “sick of fever and dysentery” (Acts 28:7f.), who was healed by the Apostle.
Only during WW 1, this tradition was confirmed, when British soldiers, dugging trenches around the Church, discovered the ruins of a 1st century Roman villa rustica underneath. Still it took another 50 years, until an archaeological excavation took place 1963-68, directed by the Roman archaeologist Prof. Michelangelo Cagiano de Azevedo. His discoveries were stunning. Obviously the villa was once the property of a rich and influential citizen. Its luxurious living quarters were painted with imitations of marble. Several ancient oil mills and storage jars for olive oil indicate that a major oilve tree plant belonged to it. In the 3rd century, the age of the fiercest persecution of Christians, the house was burned down. Today, you can visit the excavations underneath the church. Its altar is built right above the ancient well of the villa. Obviously, according to the tradition, this is where St. Paul baptized Publius and his father.
According to Prof. Cagiano, the site was used since the 4th century as a Christian sanctuary with a baptistery on the site of the well. He found graffiti of a bearded, bald man and a Roman ship, obviously representing St. Paul and his shipwreck, as well as a number of oil lamps with Christian symbols of the 5th century. Only the Arab invasion ended the Christian cult at this site. When Cagiano published his findings in his book „Testimonianze Archeologiche della Tradizione Paolina a Malta“, he caused a controversy, but his findings speak for themselves. From the Church and its Roman villa, you have a perfect view on Salina Bay. If a shipwreck would happen there, the farmworkers could arrive there within minutes to kindle a fire and welcome the strangers, just as the Acts of the Apostels report.
Did Mark Gatt indeed, on this providential day, discover a silent witness of the most important moment in his island’s history, one of the anchors of the ship of St. Paul? The probability is high, according to the evidence. Is it a coincident that it all happens on the day of the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI, the very Pope who already initiated the International Pauline Year 2008/9, announced the discovery of St. Paul’s tomb and celebrated the 5th anniversary of his election on Malta?
On February 17th, 2010, the German historian Michael Hesemann, after investigating Mark Gatt’s finding, presented his report to Pope Benedict XVI. After listening carefully, the Pope was convinced: “This is indeed a sign of providence.”
On his request, the anchor was brought to St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat, to be presented to the Holy Father in the evening of April 17, 2010.
17 February 2010: Author Michael Hesemann informs Pope Benedict XVI. on the discovery of the anchor