Those who arrive for the first time at St Paul’s Bay can wonder: why this name?
This is a story that goes back to 60 A.D. At that time the shores of St Paul’s Bay, a Northeast village of Malta have testified something historically important. In fact, a big ship of Alexandria loaded with Egyptian grain was sailing along the Mediterranean destined for Rome.
However, because of the “mare clausum” (a latin terminology to indicate the closed season to shipping due to possible rough seas), the ship wrecked losing the precious cargo of grain.
How about the passenger?
Fortunately, all the 276 crew and passengers survived. Among them, there were the Apostle Paul, who was a Christian prisoner, with his companion Apostles Luke and Aristarcus.
In the picture below a mosaic about St Paul’s rescue on Malta, inspired by a fresco in the Vatican by Nicolò Circignani and given to Malta by Pope Benedict XVI.
At the beginning of the 1900, St Paul’s Bay was inhabited by a small fishing community, settled near the St Paul’s Shipwreck Chapel, situated in front of the Gillieru Hotel. In fact, close to the hotel there is still the little “il-Menqa” harbour used by fishermen to launch their colourful boats called “Luzzu”. Bugibba and Qawra were mostly inhabited by a few families who cultivated the fields around. Considering all the buildings and hotels that abound in this area, it is amazing to think that not even fifty years ago there were mostly open fields!
So why the village was called St Paul’s Bay?
It was widely believed that the place where the shipwreck happened was on the shores in front of the Chapel of Saint Paul’s Shipwreck, see pictures below. St Luke in the Act of Apostles referred that the shipwreck happened in “the place where two seas meet”. Therefore, the Pauline tradition considered the little islands in front of the Gillieru as the spot referred to by St Luke, so the islands were named St Paul’s Islands or in Maltese, Il-Gzejjer ta’ San Pawl.
A curiosity about the St Paul’s Shipwreck chapel. According to tradition, the Chapel stands on the site where the Maltese lit a fire so that San Paul and his companion could warm themselves up after the shipwereck. This is why it is also known as the Shipwreck Chapel or the Chapel of the Bonfire.
In the famous painting by Cassarino is visible a particolar scene: the fire and the snake who bit the Saint. Actually the Apostle Paul was immune to the venom and he didn’t have any conseguences. The people perceived it as the first miracle of Paul who conseguently removed the venom from the island’s snakes.
There is another scene of the life of St Paul in Malta that is represented in one of the three paintings. Paul healing Publius’ Father from dysentery. Publius was the Governor of Rome in Malta and he welcomed the Apostle in his villa, that is the actual chapel of St Paul’s Milqi in Burmarrad (see the pictures at the end of the gallery). Notice that the word “Burmarrad” means “a swampy area”, so it is more than possible that Publius’ Father got the dysentery and then was healed by Paul.
If you are curious to know why the Governor Publius was living in Burmarrad, click here watch the video and explore Sant Pawl Milqi, the Roman Villa 😉
This little chapel has a great story to tell! In fact, Grandmaster Wignacourt decided to demolish it and re-build it, enlarging it with 3 arcades, on each side.
AN ANCHOR, PROOF OF THE REAL PLACE OF THE SHIPWRECK
There have been many debates about which is real location of the shipwreck of the Saint.
However, rescue diver Mark Gatt, introduced me to a different theory about the possible Shipwreck site with a compelling proof.
Maybe the mystery is revealed!
Flora: “Mark according to your experience as a diver, which is the real place where St Paul might have been shipwrecked?”
Mark: “I really believe that the location of the shipwreck was in Salini Bay, in Qawra (St Paul’s Bay), for these reasons:
- On Sunday 24th April, 2005, at a depth of 36 metres outside Salina Bay I found a Roman period anchor with the inscription of two Egyptian gods, “Isis and Sarapi(s)”. The anchor is two metres and thirty centimetres long, made of lead and estimated to weigh some 700 kg, It is on display at the Maritime Museum in Birgu.
In the same location off Qawra Point, in the early 1970s, was also discovered the largest anchor ever discovered in the world weighing 4 tons. It is showed at the same museum and close to the Isis Sarapis anchor.
- In Roman times Egypt was the main provider of grain for the Roman Empire. Isis and Sarapis were Egyptian gods revered also by the Romans. Seafarers were always very superstitious and these gods were believed to invoke protection. It is possible that the anchor was one of the anchors of the ship of Alexandria sailing on the trade route between Alexandria and Rome. Possibly the one Apostle Paul was sailing in!
- Diving in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Comm. Salvino Anthony Scicluna mapped various artefacts discovered around the Maltese Islands. He knew of a concentration of artefacts discovered outside Salina Bay. He believed that this could be the shipwreck site. This is documented in his famous “Scicluna Notes” which also include maps showing where various artefacts were discovered”.
Flora: “Actually I was wondering how the passengers, who had already spent 14 days and 14 nights drifting in a violent storm and a night spent to lighten the ship, could then have had the strength to swim and get out of the water from the rocky coast near the St Paul’s Shipwreck chapel”.
Mark: “While St Paul’s Bay’s shores are rocky, Salina Bay in Qawra was a safe sandy inlet, so it was easier for the survivors to swim ashore. Especially if you consider that the Gregale waves were hitting them from behind. I’ve tried myself to swim in Salina Bay in quite rough seas, trying to see what the chances would have been for the survivors, and thanks to the Gregale, it was easy in Salina Bay to make land safely”.
In the pictures below, Qawra Point and Salina Bay with Knights Salts Pans.
Flora: “So Mark which is the place described by San Luke as the place where two seas meet””
Qawra Peninsula and Salina Bay, the place where two seas meet.
(Photo by Anne Formosa, posted on Panoramio)
Mark: “I believe that the sailors on Apostle Paul’s ship would have found themselves very close to Qawra Point, so it’s more likely that St Luke was referring to Qawra Point (instead St Paul’s island) as the place where two seas meet”. To confirm this, in his famous research work James Smith wrote that 2000 years ago the land was more elevated and so the Qawra peninsula would have extended farther to the northeast where the sea is shallow. The sea level was higher, so the result would be that Qawra Point would have been more than a reef or isthmus”. Salina and Burmarrad were not yet silted because the Salini (salt pans) were built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century and hence Salina Bay would have been much larger, with the sea going in as far as we now have the parish church in Burmarrad”.
As you can see in the map below (courtesy of Tonio Farrugia) the Salina Bay could have been reaching the Burmarrad plain as a big Romans port area. This actually confirm the tradition that Publius welcomed the Apostles in his Villa in Burmarrad, click here.
At the end of my meeting with Mark Gatt I was really excited about his discoveries that I went to the Maritime Museum to see the anchor. It’s really incredible how the captain had managed to bring the ship close enough for all on board to make it safely to shore. Maybe because there was someone on that ship who had a mission to carry out and that not even a violent storm could stop him. Was it divine providence that brought Paul to Malta? The Maltese certainly believe so.
One thing is sure: Luke describes in the Act of Apostles (XXVIII) that they found an “unusual kindness” among the local people, I believe that the same it is still present in the friendliness of the Maltese.
To experience more about St Paul’s Bay, click here
Explore, Experience, Enjoy Malta with Flora the Explorer 😉
Thanks to Mark Gatt for this fascinating interview!
To know more about Mark Gatt’s discoveries you can read his book “PAVLVS, The Shipwreck 60 A.D“, Allied Publication – 2009. The book is available for sale at Heritage Malta shops in every Museum and at the Malta Aquarium souvenir shop. It is also available in a 52 min. DVD documentary film, produced by Mark. Interesting to see for its detailed information and for the exciting reconstruction.
The site of San Paul Milqi is open to the public one day a year on the 10th of February between 12.30 and 16.30, for more info click here
The Maritime Museum in Birgu, click here