As Malta celebrates the feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck, Charles Flores speaks to Mark Gatt, author of Pavlvs – the Shipwreck 60 AD.
I enter Mark Gatt’s Qawra home feeling somewhat bemused. Here I am, a declared sceptic but with an open mind, meeting a man whose dedication to the Pauline cause and Malta’s starring role in it has been clearly and physically manifested in both his scuba diving story and personal belief.
Mr Gatt is a man on a mission. His Pavlvs – The Shipwreck 60 AD, published by Allied Publications two years ago, was the result of a wondrous underwater discovery he made four years earlier while scuba diving just off Salina Bay – the remains of a huge Roman-period lead anchor stock embossed with the names of the Egyptian gods Isis and Sarapi(s). Was this discovery, after all, proof of both the Gospel account and, at long last, the real, confirmed site of St Paul’s shipwreck? I decide to prod the author from this angle.
“There can never be final and unequivocal proof,” he tells me, no doubt only too familiar with my chosen strategy. “Not only are we talking about an event that took place almost 2,000 years ago, but there can hardly be any material evidence left in situ. It is more a question of searching and comparing, of ongoing analysis and practical deduction.”
But we have St Paul’s Bay, St Paul’s Bay islands and the St Paul statue on them, I insist with a touch of intended drama, and you come up with an anchor from the seabed off Salina Bay. That makes it two sites. Then we have also had people suggesting St Paul had been shipwrecked in the south of Malta. Three. Not to mention the islands of Meleda and Cephalonia claiming to have been the real place of St Paul’s shipwreck as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapters 27 and 28). Five. Gotcha, I think.
Mr Gatt smiles back. The former judoka who switched to scuba diving after sustaining an injury in 1986 when he was still 26, seems unperturbed by my touch of irony.
“St Paul’s Bay is traditionally accepted as the place where the shipwreck took place. The Pauline culture as encouraged and promoted by the Knights of St John gave credence to the two popular sites in Malta connected with the great Apostle – the bay itself and the grotto in Rabat. Very few Roman artefacts were ever found at St Paul’s Bay, but several discoveries of Roman remains were made at Salina Bay. These are two bays separated by the Qawra promontory, possibly the ‘two seas’ referred to in the account of the shipwreck.
“Then there is the chapel of San Pawl Milqi much nearer to Salina Bay. The chapel was built on the ruins of a Roman villa, while the Maltese term for the chapel has some interesting possible interpretations. One of Malta’s great Biblical scholars, P.P. Saydon, once wrote the site would one day be discovered.”
And the south?
Here Mr Gatt is emphatic. He insists that Robert Cornuke, Biblical investigator and author of The Lost Shipwreck of Paul (Global Publishing Services, 2003) was completely off the mark when he declared the Sikka tal-Munxar just off St Thomas Bay as the shipwreck site.
“Most experts have agreed Cornuke’s claim is ludicrous,” Mr Gatt says, visibly annoyed, “and it is what initially fired me up to start writing my book about the anchor’s discovery.”
And Meleda and Cephalonia, I venture?
“The Meleda case rested solely on the poisonous snakes issue, but has long since been well and truly buried by many historians and researchers, no less than by our own Mario Buhagiar. Two thousand years ago Malta could still have had some specimens of poisonous snakes left over from the great geological turmoil in the region that had eventually turned it into an island. Għar Dalam is full of remains of species that no longer exist here. Cephalonia was a non-starter.”
I begin to warm up to the man’s consuming passion. Having read his book, I know the author has admitted to some “artistic enhancement” of the story.
“My account of the Acts of the Apostles is chronological,” he replies. “There is nothing in it that in any way goes against what is written, but it is also possible that the Acts themselves could have originally had some artistic enhancement. There is, however, absolutely no doubting the correctness of the nautical details they contain.”
The discovery of the anchor changed Mr Gatt’s life, both spiritually and intellectually. From a sub-aqua judoka he became an avid researcher, a diver with a purpose, that of furthering the Pauline culture based on significant discoveries and an academic approach that can put Pauline Malta on the world map.
“Mine was not a rude awakening, but a wonderful experience. The whole episode of my connection with the anchor has led to some of the most exciting moments so far in my life. It is when doors were suddenly being opened to me, when I had former Prime Minister and President Emeritus (then President) Eddie Fenech Adami believing in my project and encouraging me, and when Pope Benedict XVI expressly requested to see the anchor during his visit to the island.”This gets me going. The Pope wanting to see the anchor?
Mr Gatt explains how his German author friend, Michael Hesemann, had told him of one particular coincidence in connection with the anchor. It was actually discovered the very same morning that Benedict XVI celebrated his first Holy Mass as Pontiff. The significance of the occasion could hardly be more striking – a new Pope and the discovery in Malta of what was possibly one of the four anchors referred to in the Gospel account of the shipwreck of the Egyptian grain ship carrying St Paul and 275 other persons.
“When Michael told me the Pope was to expressly ask to see the anchor, I did not believe him,” Mr Gatt continues, “but he was insistent. After all, he is a close friend of the Pope. I did not know what to do with the information. People here would have thought I was crazy, so I just informed a couple of superiors (he is a committed Civil Protection Department volunteer) involved in the preparations for the Papal visit. When the request came in, things had to happen fast for the anchor to be moved up to Rabat from Vittoriosa.”
It is a moment in Mr Gatt’s life that he will never forget.
“The Pope walked up to the anchor, which, by the way, is referred to in the German Media as Benedict’s Anchor, and he asked me, “Is this coming from an Egyptian grain ship?” He wanted to see the anchor’s embossed names of the two Egyptian gods which have survived thanks only to having been hidden face down in the sand for the past 2,000 years.”
Mr Gatt is certainly not resting on his laurels. For the past five years he has been working on obtaining the right funds for the production of a TV documentary for the international market.
“I know there is huge international interest in the project, with both History Channel and National Geographic Channel awaiting my re-emergence from the bureaucratic jungle of Malta. For an experienced diver, I am still drowning in a sea of bureaucracy, but very much like all those on St Paul’s ship I am still hoping to prevail with my project.”
Does he see himself as the Indiana Jones of the St Paul’s shipwreck adventure?
Mr Gatt is adamant there is neither a Pauline Holy Grail to be found nor an Indiana Jones character to find it.
“I have been lucky in making what has been described as a tremendously important discovery of a Roman-period anchor that continues to attach Malta, and Salina Bay in particular, to the story of St Paul’s shipwreck. I am also humbled by the support that I have received from local and foreign scholars and researchers.”
A sniff of the family’s dinner filters up to Mr Gatt’s office where we sit. I know it is time to leave, fully aware he could have gone on till dawn.
His wife Pauline (what other name?), his daughter Daphne, and Bruce, their no less hospitable labrador, are waiting downstairs, hungry no doubt. The boys, Luke and Daniel, are out.
I may not leave the Gatts feeling as if I had just been on the road to Damascus, but I certainly feel soaked in the author’s contagious enthusiasm.