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Mljet, the island of Melita in the Adriatic: does any ground for controversy remain?

The controversy as to whether the Apostle St Paul and his 275 companions were shipwrecked on Melita, an island in the centre of the Mediterranean, or whether it was the island of Meliten (today Mljet) off the coast of Dubrovnik in Croatia, has been raging for ages.

The first mention of this isle in the Adriatic Sea and its purported link with St Paul comes from around 950 AD when the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII (Porphyrogenitos) in his Of Ruling an Empire, mentions that the island of Melita (modern Mljet) could be the actual site of St Paul’s shipwreck.

The issue may have had religious and economic connotations rather than political ones. Some would argue that the declaration was meant as a challenge to the Western Church’s view that Malta was the actual site of the apostle’s shipwreck.

One has only to point out that Melita (Malta) was under Byzantine control at the time of its loss to the Arabs in 870 AD. The loss would have truncated the Pauline pilgrimage route at its very heart.

The Emperor’s efforts may well have been directed at reinstating a alternative for this all-important ‘stage’ (statio) en route to Rome.

The island of Mljet off the Dalmatian coast is about 37 km long and 3.2 km wide and has an area of 100 sq km. It has never had a large population and has about 1,200 residents today. The name Melita in both cases, means ‘honey’.

Mljet’s history knows its origins to the Illyrians, who occupied the higher parts of the island. The Romans were present with smaller settlements and in a villa located on the coastline. After 535 AD it passes under Byzantine control.

A succession of local rulers followed up to 1151 when the island was handed to the Benedictine order. The monks built the monastery on St Marija islet in Veliko Jezero. During the Napoleonic Wars the island came under French control and the monastery was confiscated. It was returned to the diocese in 1998.

The history of the island is otherwise quite unremarkable. The present population lives mainly on agriculture, fishing and tourism. It was even more sparingly occupied in Roman times, and during the island’s Benedictine sojourn.

Today the island has been declared a national park and only the eastern half is inhabited. The island is characterised by a number of large open bays and coves, mainly facing the north east. None of these offer proper protection to vessels, and thus the characteristic sight of boats brought up on land is one of the island’s main attractions.

Polace, to the northeast, is the largest and ‘safest’ harbour, surrounded by four islets (Tajnik, Moracnik, Ovrata and Kobrava) creating a semi-sheltered haven. Polace (meaning Palace) is probably the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on the island.

Two lakes used to provide fresh water to the islanders, but a channel dug up by the monks to link one of them to the sea have caused them to turn saline.

For some years now the Croatian archaeology superintendence has been conducting an in-depth archaeological survey of the island and its marine environs.

The published results seem to give a startling and definitive opinion with regard to the Pauline controversy. The survey concentrated primarily on the island’s first century AD remains.

The maritime investigation yielded artefacts dating from the first century BC and Late Antiquity.

Despite earnest investigation none of the shipwrecks investigated corresponded in size and tonnage to the massive Egyptian grain carrier mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles.

Other studies state that the mean sea level would not have allow passage for such a vessel.

An examination of submerged first century sites show that the sea would have been between 50 and 60 cm shallower. Other studies estimate a rise of circa 1.5 m up to 2 m.

Studies relating to the prevailing northeast wind (the bura) would have made passage from the south or southwest to the northeast impossible.

The land-based investigation concentrated on the first century settlement and villa. An inscription mentions a temple dedicated to Liber, the patron of wine, fertility and agriculture. The remains of a second century palace and a sixth century Christian basilica would be the only other sites of note.

The results show that there was little else on the island. The report suggests that it was occupied only periodically and that in winter it may well have been deserted.

The location would have created grave problems for 276 shipwreck survivors in providing enough food and lodging space. Moreover, there would have been no place to go to after the three days of hospitality offered by Publius ended.

The very important religious, political and administrative title of “first man of the island”, as Publius is referred to in Acts, would have been extravagant if given to the owner of the villa of the island of Mljet.

The title is known from inscriptions around the Mediterranean, as far away as Romania, and even from Malta itself. It had official and religious connotations relating to the cult of deified emperors. Malta, with its numerous temple sites, some even dedicated to the deified emperors, fits the equation. Mljet does not.

What made the archaeologists even more sceptical about Mljet being Melita comes from Luke’s mention of their departure on another Alexandrian grain carrier that had wintered at the island. Croatian archaeologists are ada­mant that this could not have been the case with Mljet since no such vessel could have wintered there.

Moreover, the grain transported on board would have had to be unloaded while the vessel was anchored onto more stable and protected quayside storage facilities. There is no evidence of any harbour installation at Mljet.

On the other hand, large harbour installations, storage rooms with buried dollia (large earthen containers used to store grain) were discovered at Marsa (Malta) during the 18th century, and more recently. The harbour of Malta was already catering for such services.

It must be remembered that the Mediterranean would be closed to navigation between October/Novem­ber and February/March. Acts mentions this, stating that the vessel was at sea quite late after the usual closure period.

Alexandrian grain carriers would sail from Rome to Egypt, Cyrenaica, Libya, and Tunisia, returning with this essential commodity, which the Roman government freely distributed to the population.

At least 150 such round trips were necessary every year. Enterprising merchants made a second round trip, as the state offered an incentive by insuring vessels venturing out during the winter months.

One must add that whenever quotas were not reached, people suffered famine. Civil insurrection and destruction of entire sections of Rome by fire were commonplace.

The Egypt-bound vessels would return via Crete and Sicily, possibly avoiding the Greek mainland. The idea that these ancient mariners were coast-hugging their way to Italy has been crushed through deep sea marine archaeological investigation.

Vessels leaving Tunisia, Libya, and Cyrenaica would sail directly for Malta or Sicily. This would place Malta at the very hub of the most important commercial enterprise and would explain the extensive quay and storage facilities discovered at Marsa.

The well versed captain of Acts tried to make a similar move on the island of Crete, abandoning a relatively exposed bay for the a safer wintering haven. This time round the manoeuvre fails completely as a strong east-notheast wind pushed them out to sea.

The sailors’ fear, Acts recounts, was that the ship would end up in unfamiliar territory. Landmarks (bays, high ground or harbour entrances) would become unre­cog­­nisable. This is what happens when they arrive at Melita (Malta). The possibility that a combination of winds and currents could have taken the vessel towards the Dalmatian coast has been debated by many. Most agree that this is highly unlikely. A thesis, published in 2000, did support this idea, but it suffered from one fundamental flaw: the notion that Roman vessels could not sail “close to the wind” or else “take advantage of a beam wind”. Recent research proves that first century vessels could do both.

Turning now to the vessel that accompanied St Paul from Malta to Rome, stopping over at Syracuse and then Naples in a voyage of a few days, the speed with which the vessel reaches Sicily can only imply that the Melita mentioned in the text is actually Malta, not Mljet.

A ship leaving Mljet would have made it first to Ancona. Going down the coast to Syracuse would not have been warranted, and would have taken several days.

The Croatian archaeological superintendence have concluded that Mljet could not have been the Melita mentioned in the Acts.

For them, the case is closed. Moreover, residents of the island of Mljet seem to find little or no objection to such a conclusion.

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