following article by Dr. Miho Demović has been published in
Zlatko Pavetić (ed): The Journey of Paul the Apostle to Rome led over the Croatian Island of Mljet (Melita) / Put apostola Pavla za Rim vodio je preko hrvatskog otoka Mljeta (Melite), Proceedings of the academic conference held on Mljet (Melita) 15 October 2011 / Zbornik radova znanstvenog skupa odr\anog na Mljetu (Meliti) 15. listopada 2011., Zagreb, 2015., ISBN 978-953-58133-0-9, 356 pp, in English and Croatian, hard cover, with color photos and maps
We express our gratitude to Dr. Demović for his suggestion to publish this article on the web.
FOLLOWING HIS SHIPWRECK, ST PAUL THE APOSTLE SAILED TO ROME ON AN ALEXANDRIAN SHIP FROM THE ANCIENT HARBOUR OF POLAČE ON MLJET IN THE YEAR 61 A. D.
Dr Miho Demović
Owing to the efforts of experts organized into the Croatian “Association of Paul the Apostle – Castaway from Mljet”, many of the issues which haven’t been satisfactorily studied until recently have been resolved, namely those associated with Dubrovnik’s tradition of regarding that the shipwreck of St Paul the Apostle occurred on the island of Melita (Mljet) in the Adriatic Sea, as was generally held to be true until the relocation of the order of Knights Hospitaller from Rhodes to Malta in 1530. Following their relocation to the island, said chivalric order gradually started appropriating the shipwreck of St Paul. By strongly promoting the African Melita (Malta), which lies in the Libyan sea, they imposed it to the Christian world as the location where the ship carrying St Paul the Apostle sank. The famous Abbot of Mljet, poet and historian Ignjat Đurđević (1675 – 1727) wrote the following about this topic: I say and claim that, before the noble order of Knights Hospitaller relocated to African Melita, the glory of being proclaimed the site of Saint Paul's shipwreck and rescue had been granted, without any hesitation or doubt, to Illyrian Melita. However, that glory was suddenly taken away from our island by sceptics and handed over to another island, and consequently greatly embellished during the new rule of religious leaders. Since then, you would be hard pressed to find a writer who would have chosen our Melita, either accidentally or on purpose. Nowadays, on the basis of new works written by the afore-mentioned Croatian researchers, we can hold with an almost scientific certainty that the shipwreck indeed occurred in the Adriatic, in the waters of the Croatian island of Mljet, and not on Malta. Researchers studying this problem in the process of scientific research, seeing as this is a biblical and historical event, did not have historical archives that kept written documents about this 2000 years old event at their disposal, so they needed to use the same method of argument usually utilized by biblical scholars in the interpretation of the events from the Holy Scripture, i.e. the analysis of the biblical text and its comparison to current facts provided by historical-cultural and natural features of the location connected with the shipwreck.
By utilizing this method, our researchers studying St Paul the Apostle's shipwreck on the island of Mljet thoroughly dissected the text of the Acts of the Apostles and studied all the facts associated with the island of Mljet, starting from its map, climate, political and cultural history, the art of navigation and construction of ships, oceanography and meteorology, dynamic hydrology, as well as underwater archaeology. The outcome of this multidisciplinary research demonstrated that the island of Mljet can be positively matched to the description of the island mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as the location of the shipwreck, and that this biblical text mirrors the facts regarding the island of Mljet of the time.
Therefore, all the key details from this biblical description, such as the cause and the location of the shipwreck and the events following it, the nature and duration of the tempestuous wind which caused the long-term storm that proved disastrous for the ship, the name of the sea in which hurricane-induced waves swept the ship “back and forth” at high seas for more than 14 days, the mainland with a beach which the shipwreck survivors spotted after being caught at turbulent open seas for 14 days, the underwater reef on which the ship ran aground, the vicinity of the mainland to the location of the shipwreck on which the shipwreck survivors managed to swim to following the destruction of their ship, the name of the inhabitants who helped the survivors, the name of the island and the name of its leader, the population of poisonous snakes on the island where the shipwreck occurred and the existence of a natural harbour suitable for the wintering of the ships. All these issues were analysed and light has been shed on them in dissertations written by the authors listed in the below-mentioned literature, and to some extent in this Collected Works as well, so it is not necessary to mention them again. Some conclusions can be deemed evidence and some indications; for example, finding the remains of a sunken ship in 1st century A.D. near Veliki Škoj or the tombstone bearing the name Publius in Ioannina on Pelješac, also dating from 1st century A.D. In turn, the aim of this paper is to point out that Paul the Apostle travelled from Mljet to Rome from the harbour of Polače on Mljet, on an Alexandrian ship which wintered there.
ANCIENT SHIP WINTERING HARBOURS
It is a known fact that sailing in Antiquity took place during the day and always along the coast, because orientation was not possible except by adjusting the ship’s course according to the horizon of the coast. In the Dubrovnik region there is a well-known ancient saying “Praise the sea, but keep to the land,” which served as a warning to sailors not to sail on the open seas because they could lose track of the coast’s horizon and become lost at sea. Sailing did not take place during the winter as well, due to frequent storms, so the ships rested in well-protected ship wintering harbours during winter periods. Not all harbours were equally suited for such wintering, especially not the harbours of the northern and central part of the eastern Adriatic coast, due to frequent hurricane-strength northerly winds and the rising of the sea level. Harbours with a view to the west in the southern part of the Adriatic, i.e. in the water area surrounding Dubrovnik, were suitable for wintering because northern winds are neither frequent nor too strong in that part of the Adriatic Sea and the sea level rise is not as high as in the central and northern Adriatic. In the water area surrounding Dubrovnik there were several harbours suitable for the wintering of the ships, such as the harbour of old Epidaurus, the harbour of Gruž, the harbour on Šipan, and several harbours on the island of Mljet, which is located in the Dubrovnik archipelago as the westernmost island of the so-called group of Elaphite islands.
THE ISLAND OF MLJET
The distance between Mljet and Dubrovnik is about 30 km as the crow flies. It is a long and narrow island. Its length is 38 km, while its width is uneven, the smallest being 2.1/2 km. Lengthwise; it is located in the east-west direction, parallel to the Pelješac peninsula, forming the Mljet Channel between its mainland and Pelješac, which is protected from southern winds. To its west lays the Lastovo Channel, to the south the open seas of the Adriatic, and to the east the Bay of Šipan. There are several inhabited villages that have all been built on the south side of the island during Antiquity, while almost all of their ports are located on the northern, uninhabited coast. The purpose of this was to defend against pirates who easily sailed into Mljet's ports and abused its inhabitants in various ways, killing many of them or leading them into captivity. The ports situated from the east to the west are as follows: Okuklje (the port of the village of Maranovići), Prožura (the port of the eponymous village), Sobra (the port of the village of Babino Polje), Kozarica (the port of the village of Blato), Polače (the port of the village of Goveđari), and in the north-western part of the island there is the port of Pomena with a newly-built tourist resort. The latter is the largest and the safest one. Mediterranean climate, which is conducive to the cultivation of various vegetables and fruits, particularly lemons and oranges, is prevalent on the island. The surrounding waters are very rich in fish of every kind. The island is entirely covered with a variety of Mediterranean forest trees, and this combination of greenery and the vicinity of the sea makes it seem like a Heaven on Earth. This especially pertains to the coastal and underwater region of the lakes Veliko and Malo jezero in the south-western part of the island, where in ancient times a votive church of St Mary and a Benedictine monastery have been built on a picturesque islet. The western part of the island, together with the lakes Veliko and Malo jezero, was declared a protected nature park.
THE HISTORY OF THE ISLAND
The history of the island is only partially explored. The first known inhabitants were the Illyrians who formed a common ethnic group with the inhabitants of the neighbouring Pelješac peninsula, as well as those from the valley of the Neretva River and the islands of Korčula and Lastovo. These inhabitants were known as belligerent pirates who plundered Greek and Roman ships which sailed on the main sea route along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, in the direction from Aquileia to Apollonia in present-day Albania and vice versa. Sailing into the ports of Mljet in ancient times was almost inevitable because they provided a safe anchorage for the night or during inclement weather, and the harbour of Polače even served as a ship wintering location during the winter months when far-distance sailing was not regular. This is corroborated by underwater archaeological research which confirmed Mljet as the largest underwater archaeological site on the Adriatic coast. In order to protect the sailing route in the Mljet Channel, the Romans commenced a massive military campaign against the inhabitants of Mljet and Korčula during the reign of emperor Augustus, in 35 B.C., in which they conquered the belligerent inhabitants, set up Roman administration on those islands and gradually Romanised the population, not only that of Mljet and Korčula but that of Pelješac and Neretva Valley as well. After the 7th century, the island was conquered by Croats who permanently inhabited it from that time.
THE HARBOUR OF POLAČE
This harbour was named after the monumental building dating from the Roman Empire, which the locals called “palatium”, or in Croatian “polača”. Polače with its “palatium” and two early Christian monumental dual (twin) churches is considered the largest constructional undertaking in Dalmatia after Diocletian's Palace in Split. Polače is also the largest harbour that is naturally and optimally protected from all types of winds, not only on the island of Mljet, but on the east Adriatic coast in general. In the south-west direction it is protected by its own mainland, and to the north-east by four smaller islands. They are named Moračnik, Ovrata, Kobrava, and Tajnik. They rise from the sea as a natural breakwater to prevent the breach of northern and northeast winds into that harbour. The harbour can be sailed into from three entrances, i.e. from the east, north-east and north-west. The harbour is deep enough that even the largest currently existing ships can sail into it. Its sea surface measures approximately 5.6 km in length and 3.9 km in width. The information about its oceanographic and meteorological benefits are mentioned in the following dissertation of this Collected Works, authored by two professors from the Dubrovnik Maritime College, Miloš Brajević and Ivica Đurđević Tomaš. In addition to the natural features that characterize a well-protected harbour, it should be pointed out that this harbour also has a source of drinking water, which is a rarity on islands. The part of the coast along the ruins of a Roman palace and the source of drinking water has recently been urbanized –a pier was built for ships of all sizes.
Nowadays, two layers of that urban core are visible. One of them is new – its construction started during the Austrian administration somewhere around 1850 and is still ongoing. This collection of buildings gives the impression of a small Adriatic fishing village that gradually developed into a tourist resort owing to the effort of its residents. The second layer consists of ruins containing colossal remains of a magnificent edifice from the Roman period – a monumental palace and two early Christian twin churches. Judging from the preserved ruins, the size of the churches can be considered consistent with that of a religious community consisting of 1,000 to 2,000 believers. From that, we can extrapolate that one of them served as a cathedral, as we can assume that Polače was once a seat of the diocese.
The exterior appearance of the palace itself makes it seem more as an early Christian basilica than an imperial residence, and its size makes it a gigantic building in terms of Mljet, with its two towers and a hall facing the sea. The central part of the palace consisted of a single room (atrium) with an apse and two side rooms to its left and right longitudinal sides. The size of the central chamber was 26.17 x 12.20 m, and that of the larger adjoining one on the right western side was 13 x 9.86, while the one on the opposite side was just 6.30 x 5.24 m in size. The other larger room on the right side was 6.25 m long and 2.20 m wide. The other rooms were smaller. The porch, along with the entrance hall, was 19.21 m long and 4.35 m wide. The walls were over 20 m high in some places. In fact, the terrain was not level, so the builders adjusted the height of the walls to the configuration of the land. It seems that the building was built on a stone cliff that extends from the sea towards the hill which rises on the southwest side of the palace.
All ornamental stone sculptures from the churches and the palace were either stolen or destroyed, so now we do not know who built these buildings and when. Historian Jakov Lukarević from Dubrovnik claims that it was the Roman poet Oppian (Appianus), who was sent into exile on Mljet from Rome by the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus due to an offense. Since this emperor died in 211 A.D., if we were to accept Lukarević’s opinion, the construction of the palace should be dated somewhere around the end of the 3rd century, and that of the churches around mid-4th century, i.e. shortly after the Emperor Constantine declared the freedom to profess the Christian faith. Recently discovered stone sculpture in Vid (ancient Narona) indicates the excellent quality of temple and public building furnishings in the Roman province of Narona, to which the island of Mljet belonged, so it stands to reason that Palatium on Mljet and its early Christian churches were similarly furnished.
POLAČE DURING THE TIME OF PAUL THE APOSTLE
Some layers of buildings from the period of Paul the Apostle are not visible. If we were to undertake archaeological research, which is presently not even remotely on the horizon, maybe we could learn something more about the layout of the harbor during this time. The fact that during late Antiquity at least three very large buildings with partially preserved walls had been built adjacent to it allows us to conclude that there was an urban center that has ceded its place to new buildings at this location, even before their construction. The subsequent fate of the palace dating from late Antiquity and that of early Christian churches, as well as that of the remains of other buildings is not the subject of this dissertation, which aims to demonstrate that the harbor of Polače had all of the characteristics of a natural harbor that could be sailed into in any way possible and was especially suitable for the wintering of the ships, even in St Paul's time.
These are: spaciousness, natural protection from the waves and the winds, four suitable “gateways” through which the port could be sailed into, several sandy regions onto which ships could be drawn during the winter. In addition to that, drinking water and food were not a problem because those ships carried grains, so the crew could always have enough of that food for their needs. On the island itself there were all kinds of vegetables in winter time, from wild salads to cabbage. That was also the time when oranges and lemons ripened and the asparagus blossomed. It could also be assumed that sailors themselves caught fish, which was plentiful at all times along the island's coast. Seeing as the climate on the island is very mild, there was little need for firewood, and in the absence of dwellings, climate conditions were such that people could reside in dry stone dwellings, as well as in tents for shorter periods of time. Polače has these qualities even today because nothing has changed in this respect, except that the sea level rose by about 2 meters from the time of Paul's shipwreck to date. Taking this phenomenon into account, it can be assumed that the foundations of the tower and palatium porch walls were not submerged in the sea as they are today, but rather that they were on dry land.
That the harbour was actually used for the wintering of the ships is also indicated by a large number of ancient ship anchors and other bulk ship cargo which have been retrieved from its sea bed in recent years.
The existence of a fortified citadel that served as a residence for guards, soldiers, sailors, passengers, and as a ship cargo storage at the time of the St Paul the Apostle has not been confirmed, because that type of archaeological research of the terrain has not yet been undertaken in order to prove it. However, based on the buildings that were constructed three to four centuries after Paul's shipwreck, and which were extremely well built, it can be concluded that certain experience in construction laid in their roots, and that the harbour of Polače was built as a residential area with suitable residential buildings even in the time of Illyrians. This is further corroborated by the fact that this was a period when Mljet was the seat of the Roman governors with designated permanent or temporary military units.
Given the above, the island of Mljet can be and should be considered with scientific certainty as the island in whose waters St Paul experienced his shipwreck and as the location of his rescue, as well as the place from whence he left for Rome following his stay there during the three winter months. Consequently, based on the presented facts, this same scientific certainty must be applied to the notion that he sailed to Rome on an Alexandrian ship which has wintered in Mljet’s harbour of Polače.
The shipwreck of St Paul the Apostle on Croatian island of Mljet
Croatia, An Overview of Its History, Culture and Science