Why Were The Sailors Afraid Of The Syrtis Sands (Acts 27:17)?


syrtis sandsIntroduction

But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon. So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive. And running under the shelter of an island called Claudia, we secured the skiff with difficulty. When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven” (Acts 27:14-17, NKJV).

Luke makes it clear that they are afraid of being run aground on the Syrtis Sands. But why would they be afraid of being run aground? In order to answer that question, this essay will ask the questions: Where and what are the Syrtis Sands? The ancient sources will show that the Syrtis was not a dry desert but two bodies of water, the “name of two dangerous, shallow gulfs off the coast of North Africa” (Olson 1992:4: 286).

The Ancient Sources

There is a long history of ancient accounts that give descriptions of the Syrtis Sands. One description of the sands is from Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-3rd century BC). In his legendary book, the Argonautica, also known as Jason and the Golden Fleece, he describes a ship that was near the land of Pelops [present day Peloponnesus] that was hit with a “deadly blast of the north wind [that] seized them in mid-course and carried them toward the Libyan sea for nine whole nights and as many days, until they came far into Syrtis [the legendary shoals and desert coast of Libya where ships become stranded], where there is no getting out again for ships, once they are forced to enter that gulf. For everywhere are shallows, everywhere thickets of seaweed from the depths, and over them silently washes the foam of the water” (4.1231-1235; LCL 429, the footnotes are in brackets. For a full discussion of the Syrtis episode, see: Clare 2002: 150-160, 222-24; Williams 1991: 163-73).

Strabo, an ancient Greek geographer from Pontus who lived at the end of the first century BC and beginning of the first century AD, describes the location and dimensions of the Greater and Lesser Syrtis in his Geography (2:5:20; LCL 1: 473, 475). Olson observed that “the Greater Syrtis covered an area approximately 450-570 miles in circumference, and 170-180 miles in breadth” (1992:4:286). The Lesser Syrtis is the western of the two bodies of water, and he writes: “Of the Syrtes, the lesser is about 1,600 stadia in circumference; and the islands Meninx [also known as Girba] and Cercina lie at either side of its mouth.” Today, it is called the Gulf of Gabes, located off the south eastern coast of Tunisia.

Elsewhere he describes these two bodies of water in these terms: “The difficulty with both [the Greater] Syrtis and the Little Syrtis is that in many places their deep waters contain shallows, and the result is, at the ebb and the flow of the tides, that sailors sometimes fall into the shallows and stick there, and that the safe escape of a boat is rare…


Why Were The Sailors Afraid Of The Syrtis Sands (Acts 27:17)?

The Poached Egg

Recommended Resources: Luke: Historian & Theologian | History, Literature, and Society in the Book of Acts