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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Syrtis

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(Authorized Version ‘quicksands,’ Acts 27:17)

The Great and the Little Syrtis (Σύρτις μεγάλη καὶ μικρά) were the eastern and western recesses of the great bay on the North African coast between Carthage and Cyrenaica. Drifting before an E.N.E. wind (see Euraquilo), the crew of St. Paul’s ship knew that they were being carried in the direction of the Greater Syrtis (now the Gulf of Sidra), ‘the Goodwin Sands of the Mediterranean’ (F. W. Farrar, The Life and Work of St. Paul, 1897, p. 568). The best comment on Luke’s words is supplied by Strabo (XVII. iii. 20):

‘The difficulty of navigating both this and the Lesser Syrtis arises from the soundings in many parts being soft mud. It sometimes happens, on the ebbing and flowing of the tide, that vessels are carried upon the shallows, settle down, and are seldom recovered. Sailors therefore, in coasting, keep at a distance from the shore, and are on their guard, lest they should be caught by a wind unprepared, and driven into these gulfs.’

The name ‘Syrtis’ may be derived from the sucking action of the treacherous tides-‘Syrtes ab tractu nominatae’ (Sall. Bell. Jug. 77). But it is sometimes connected with the Arabic sert, ‘a desert,’ which would refer to the desolate and sandy shore that marked the neighbourhood of the Syrtes (W. Smith, Dict. of Greek and Roman Geography ii. [1868] 1081). Virgil (aen. iv. 41) speaks of the ‘inhospita Syrtis,’ and there were many ancient tales, probably not a little exaggerated, of armies on land and even ships at sea being overwhelmed by clouds of drifting sand (Diod. xx. 42; Sall. Bell. Jug. 78; Herod. iii. 25, 26, iv. 173; Lucan, ix. 294 f.).

The crew of the scudding ship avoided the foreseen danger by laying her to on the starboard tack, i.e. with her right side to the wind. Luke’s phrase, χαλάσαντες τὸ σκεῦος (‘lowered the gear,’ Acts 27:17 Revised Version ), only imperfectly describes this operation, as it leaves out an essential detail-the setting of the storm-sail. See J. Smith, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, 1880, p. 110 f., and W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, 1895, p. 328 f.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Syrtis'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/s/syrtis.html. 1906-1918.

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