Mare Superum and St. Paul’s Shipwreck

The Strait of Otranto is today the generally accepted dividing line between the Adriatic Sea and its neighbor to the south, the Ionian, but discovering exactly where the strait stops and starts, like many a water boundary, depends on who you ask and when. This southern boundary, moreover, is relatively recent. In a certain sense the fuzziness of its southern confines is understandable when one considers the Adriatic in a historical context that might come as a surprise to the inhabitants of, say, Scandinavia: it was long considered a northern sea. This quality in fact was what first-century Romans thought most noteworthy when they occasionally named it the Mare Superum or “Upper Sea” instead of any of its other names. “Adriatic” in turn appears to have derived from an old Etruscan city, Atria, which was located in the far north near the mouth of the Po River.

Tracing the Ancient references makes it clear that the boundaries of this sea, while obvious where the land met the water in the north, tended to be quite variable and sometimes contentious to the south, extending with Roman colonial expansion first to the Gargano Peninsula and then onward to Otranto, Roman Hydruntum. As Rome’s colonial expansion did not stop there, however, but kept growing, so too did the sea’s supposed dominion, infiltrating the Gulf of Taranto and overtaking both the Sicilian and Ionian Seas. For Procopius of Caesarea, writing in the sixth century, the Adriatic’s southern reaches appear to have extended far into the wider Mediterranean while the sea’s defining geographical trait mentioned in his History of the Wars is not a north-south boundary but an east-west one, with the island of Malta as the defining line between what he calls the Adriatic Sea, which appears to encompass the central Mediterranean, and what he calls the Tuscan, which reaches around the Italian Peninsula up to Tuscany.[1] [I am considering adding a roughly sketched map here]

It is in this context that the geography of the disciple Paul’s experience recounted in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles 27:39 to 28:11 has often been explained: upon leaving Crete, the vessel in which he traveled was said to have encountered a storm on the Adriatic that drove it towards the Maltese coast. But here ancient conceptions of time and space have tended to confound as often as clarify. The Biblical account does not say how long they had sailed before they met the storm, only how long it drove the ship to and fro after they met it (fourteen days). If they had hugged the coast, as ancient navigators were wont to do, perhaps it skirted up and around rather than headed out to open waters, making landfall, after this storm, not on Malta, as is believed by some, but on Mljet, off the coast of Dalmatia, as others have claimed. The ancient coast lines were likely quite different than what we see today, and there is evidence to suggest that much of what is land in modern memory was then water.[2] It turns out, moreover, that the two islands are referenced in both Greek and Roman sources by the same name—Melita—and each island has a harbor named after St. Paul, along with local attestations to his stay there after a storm and a shipwreck. Both regional and international scholarly opinion has come to the aid of such claims over the centuries, swaying this way and that with the region’s geo-political tempests. And so when the Spaniards controlled Malta, English opinion placed the great saint’s landing on Mljet, but when England controlled Malta, new research proved he had landed on Malta after all.[3]

[1] Book III, Chapter 14 (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_the_Wars/Book_III#XIV)

[2] See Wilkes, The Illyrians, 1992, on the ancient coast and changes since.

[3] Ignjat Durdevic’s 1730 Venetian monograph places St. Paul’s shipwreck on Mljet. Ignjat Đurđević: Sveti Pavao apostol brodlomac (St Paul the Apostle Castaway), Miho Demović (ed.), Dubrovačke knjižnice, 2008.

Glagolitic Reflections

The so-called “Glagolitic Path,” or, as the locals name it, the Aleja glagljaša, runs for a little more than four miles through the idyllic countryside of Istria’s Mirna Valley Basin between the villages of Roč and Hum. Nowhere near so well-traveled as the coastal towns just to the west, it is no less picturesque. Hilltop villages speckle the landscape, which has a fairy-tale quality that has often induced in me the anxious sensation that some unexpected, stunning surprise lies waiting just over the next incline. It often does.

In this wide, relatively open, sunny expanse the waters of the Mirna (or “peaceful”) River gather together before making their way down to empty, also quite humbly, into the Adriatic some twenty-five miles to the southwest near the town of Novigrad. Local legends suggest that the river was named after the wife of the giant Dragonja, who, when out tilling his fields one day, dug an especially deep trench all the way from the heights of the Ćićarija plateau to the sea. It is unclear from the stories whether Dragonja was happy or frustrated that the water that filled in his furrow moved slowly and steadily, for which quality he gave it his wife’s name.

The Path, which is probably best understood as a public art project or perhaps a modest ethnopark, was created between 1977 and 1983 to commemorate the heritage of Glagolitic writing, which featured prominently in the religious and cultural history of Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, and Dalmatia. As I note this, using words like “commemorate” and “heritage” and “featured,” it occurs to me that some might be inclined relegate the script, with its exotic sounding name and, to them at least, obscure history, to the category of bygone curiosities, artifacts of material culture significant primarily for their developmental value. It is a common way of thinking and categorizing among scholars of cultural history. We read and consider every artifact along historical timelines, it is true, and the categorizing and interpreting impulses tend to make everything of equal interest, a little like the underwater archeological prism I have noted elsewhere. But then some things catch our attention by jumping out of line, as it were, suggesting in fact that they might be of interest somehow outside history, not just because they are part of a chronology and lead to some subsequent stage but for other reasons that seem to speak to us directly, outside the context of our search for items of “developmental significance.” On this basis we sometimes switch our approach completely, seeing wonders and masterpieces in these exceptional cases, thinking that because they speak so to us they must also speak to others in the same way and not just in our own time. Perhaps, we think, they are of some intrinsically human interest.

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin accounted for this phenomenon by suggesting that some cultural inventions incorporate not just content but “potential” inside them, such that they can live on beyond the time in which they were created and continue to grow, as future generations open them up and find new things that past generations might not have seen, all while continuing to recognize that the things earlier generations saw must also be “in there.” It is a brilliant solution to the generations-old question of how multiple interpretations of one and the same cultural artifact can be equally valid.

I suppose from a certain perspective, Glagolitic must appear as what Jan Morris, in her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere calls “another kind of arcanum” (155) whose presence “so close to the city center of Trieste” is “like an unsuspected spell or exorcism, left in the attic.” It is thus mysterious and exotic, a remnant of a dark past that lingers in unknown places, hidden amid the dust of forgotten documents, and then creeps out to dazzle us with its unexpected shapes and squiggles when we are busy looking for something else. Or perhaps we must travel far to find it, venturing down into peripheral or interstitial territories about which we have only heard stories. Thus Glagolitic is “like no other European writing” and “for centuries… defied the intrusion of the Latin alphabet” (Ibid., 156). This is basically true. It is also thick with perspective, partly Morris’s (whose subject is Trieste, after all, not Istria, let alone the eastern Adriatic), partly that of the members of the Istrian émigré community who made their home in Trieste following their departure from Istria after World War II. I have felt the thickness of this perspective, its palpability, which is based on real and hard-lived experience, and so I cannot say that it is wrong. But it is certainly limited and incomplete.

While many outsiders know about the use of two writing systems in the Balkans, Latinate and Cyrillic, fewer are aware of Glagolitic, which is in fact older than the latter though not so old as was once believed. For hundreds of years Glagolitic was thought to have been invented in the fourth century by St. Jerome, whose now legendary birthplace somewhere on the border between Dalmatia and the Pannonian plain combined effectively with his spiritual authority as the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible, on the one hand, and the most learned of the Church Fathers, on the other, to shore up support for the alphabet’s continued use over the centuries, particularly as part of the liturgical language. In addition to “Illyrian” and “Slovenish,” the script is thus often referred to in medieval manuscripts as “Hieronymian,” after Jerome’s Latin name, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus. Jerome’s skill with numerous languages and the fact that the letters of Glagolitic appear to derive from a variety of ancient scripts, including Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Samaritan, and Coptic, helped to keep the story alive, and it is easy to sense the power of the tradition behind doing so, as the clerics told themselves and others that they were continuing along the path forged a thousand and more years before, preserving the great Jerome’s legacy in its purest form, the system of writing down the sounds of their language that he had created. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.