Ancient Phoenix: The Harbor That Might Have Been

Explore a Pauline site on Crete with Dr. Mark Wilson


The west harbor at Phoenix. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Mother’s Day found me in the Tsiknakis country bakery on the island of Crete. I was eating a muffin and drinking a cappuccino while sending good wishes to my wife Dindy via Skype. My morning started at Fair Havens—Kalloi Limenoi—where I took photos of the harbor where Paul’s ship had stopped on his voyage to Rome (Acts 27:8–12). The ugly facilities of a modern oil terminal failed to dispel the magic of the location. Here Paul had tried to persuade the ship’s owner, its captain and his guard that continuing on their voyage could prove fatal. However, the promise of a large payout, if successful, caused them to ignore Paul’s warning. What did Paul know anyway? Quite a bit actually: He had already experienced three shipwrecks and had spent a day and night adrift at sea (2 Corinthians 11:25–26).
My drive westward had taken numerous turns along a spectacular coastal route beneath Crete’s White Mountains. A weather phenomenon related to these mountains is well known to meteorologists: northerly winds from the Aegean strike their northern face. After ascending to its peaks, the winds then flow down the southern slopes and cause intense turbulence in the sea below. A blast of air from the northeast—the Euraquilo—caused the tremendous storm that threatened Paul’s ship (Acts 27:13–15).

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The tower of the winds in Athens includes decorations of the personified winds on its eight sides.

The plan had been for Paul’s ship to winter in Phoenix, a port with natural harbors facing southwest and northwest. My own travel to Phoenix was easy: Disembarking by ferry from Hora Sfakion, I arrived at its eastern harbor, modern Loutro. I passed the ruins of ancient Phoenix as I followed the path to the other side of the peninsula. A half hour later I was drinking iced coffee in the Old Phoenix Hotel. A copper plate hanging on a wall caught my attention: It was a wind rose written in ancient Greek. A month earlier I had never heard of wind roses. But after reading a doctoral dissertation by Dan Davis on ancient sailing on the Mediterranean, I knew their purpose. Ancient sailors used these graphs, which name either eight or twelve winds, as primitive compasses to orient themselves on the open sea and to determine the direction for sailing. A wind rose naming the Euraquilo wind was found inscribed in a stone pavement in Thugga, Tunisia. The Tower of the Winds in Athens is the most famous example of a wind rose with personifications of the eight winds carved on its elegant friezes.
But Phoenix was not to be for Paul. The Euraquilo caused Paul’s ship to be blown south toward the island of Cauda, modern Gavdos. My hope was to visit Cauda also, but the ferry’s twice-weekly schedule did not fit mine. Cauda likewise failed to provide a refuge for Paul’s ship, which was cast adrift for two weeks with 276 persons aboard before wrecking on the coast of Malta (Acts 27).
As I looked back at Phoenix’s eastern harbor from the ferry returning to Sfakion, I got to thinking: What if Paul’s ship had made it there? He wouldn’t have had an angelic visitation announcing the salvation of all on board. Paul wouldn’t have received the hospitality of Malta’s governor Publius or healed his father. Phoenix represented those “might have been” places that I had never reached either. But Paul did eventually arrive at his goal: Rome. And I decided that I will arrive at my destination too, if I persevere and don’t dwell on the places that might have been.

Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and is the host for BAS’s tours of Turkey, including Abraham’s Country and the Ancient Civilizations of Turkey. Mark received his doctorate in Biblical Studies from the University of South Africa (Pretoria), where he serves as a Research Fellow in the Department of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology. He is currently Visiting Professor of Early Christianity at Regent University and leads field studies in Turkey for several universities and seminaries. He is the author of Charts on the Book of Revelation, the revising editor of The Cities of St. Paul, editor of Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor and the author of “The Book of Revelation” in the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Professor Wilson also served as a consultant for “The First Christians” in the History Channel’s “Lost Worlds” series.


More from Mark Wilson in Bible History Daily

The Serendipities of Archaeological Travel with BAS
Treasures in Clay Jars
Destroying a Temple
Money Talks through Ancient Coins
Of Pirates and Virgins: Greek and Turkish Scholars Colloquiating
Pella: A Window on Survival
Antipatris: Another Pauline Site Off My Bucket List
Who Governed the Roman Province of Lycia-Pamphylia?

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5 Responses

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for the article; very interesting about the historical details. I also appreciate your praxis of the vagaries of life at the end of your piece.

  2. Mel says:

    Could some of the 276 been slaves who were being transported for sale along with the rest of the “cargo”?

  3. carol j. says:

    Yet Paul’s ship sounds like an ancient age luxury liner.

  4. carol j. says:

    A reality-based question:

    What did those 276 people eat during their two weeks (plus) aboard ship, and how large a staff would it have taken to prepare the meals?

    How could an island–on which much of the foodstuff had to be stored, or even imported, to feed the local population–absorb and feed nearly three hundred additional persons during a lengthy unanticipated layover?

    Just wondering!

    Too, I have read that only cargo ships plied these sea routes, and that they had room to accommodate half a dozen– or slightly more– additional persons. Yet Paul’s ship sounds like

  5. Mihwa Beasley says:

    Charlie Beasley and I were on the way to pilgrim tour to jerusalem and s in Isael yrs. ago our boat have stoped in crete late evening, only things which I remember about in vocanic rocky stone shore….., there to Athen was journey in greece fir this trip.

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