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Volume 11, Number 7August/September 1960

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Tyrian Purple

Never before in history—or since—did a color bequeath so much glory to a nation.

One day while Hercules was strolling along the shores of Phoenicia with a nymph he loved, named Tyrus, his dog, who was running beside them, came upon a Murex trunculus, with head protruding from its trumpet-like shell. The dog quickly devoured the shellfish and came away with a mouth stained brilliant purple. Enraptured by the tint, Tyrus claimed a robe of that same striking shade as the price Hercules would have to pay for her hand.

Hercules, being Hercules, was able to gather from the Mediterranean waters enough mollusks to fulfill the wish of his ladylove. Thus goes the legend of the origin of Tyrian purple.

The true story of the purple-dyeing industry of Tyre also has its beginnings so far back in antiquity that they have become obscure, faded into the past along with the fabled cities and colonies of Phoenicia. Whatever the circumstances of the origin of the reddish-purple dye, the trade and prosperity of Phoenicia depended on it to a vast degree. Horites of Mesopotamia reached the Mediterranean and described the shoreland as "knaggi" which meant "belonging to (the land) of purple." This word became "kena" in Phoenician, "kena'an" in Hebrew and finally "Canaan," an Old Testament term for Palestine. It was the Greeks who applied to the Canaanities (with whom they first traded) the term Phoenicia, from the Greek "phoinix," meaning purple-red.

Probably, then, purple-dyeing had been established in Phoenicia about the 17th century B.C., when the term "purple" had already been linked to the inhabitants of Palestine.

Tyrian purple was praised by prophets and poets. Homer wrote his great epic poems during the heyday of Phoenicia and spoke of the brilliance and beauty of the cloths that Paris brought back to Troy from there. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel lamented the fall of Tyre, and spoke of—"perfect beauty" and of "purple and broidered work and fine linen . . ."

At certain periods of history, wearing purple was considered the prerogative of priests, senators and emperors. The term "born to the purple" to this day has the connotation of high or royal birth because during the Byzantine period empresses bore their royal offspring in special chambers draped in the opulence of purple cloth.

The island city of Tyre, known as the indomitable "Mistress of the Mediterranean," somehow survived for more than 2,000 years the waves of civilization and conquest that swept the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. And long after Phoenicia ceased to exist as a nation, the Syrians carried on the Tyrian purple-dyeing industry. In the first century, A.D., the Greek geographer Strabo, with less elegance than Ezekiel or Homer, referred to Tyre as a city made "unpleasant for residence" by the smell from the many dye works. Throughout the era of Rome's great empire, when silk was imported from China, it was sent to Beirut to be loomed, then on to Tyre to be dyed, with purple silk fetching the highest prices.

Much later, a 12th-century visitor speaks of the "purple dye" of the city and describes Tyre as "very commercial and one to which traders resort from all parts." Yet another pilgrim of that century writes that Tyre "surpasses in beauty all the cities of Phoenicia."

Pliny seems to offer the best account of the Tyrian method of dyeing, although the fine points of the process, which gave the Tyrians their unmatched superiority, is still anyone's conjecture.

The dye that made Tyrian purple unique was extracted from the meat of not one, but two distinct species of shellfish—the Purpura pelagia or Murex trunculus, and the Purfura lapillus or Buccinum lapillus. The Buccinum is found on rocks in comparatively shallow water, while the Murex prefers deeper water. In modern times it has been dredged from depths of 25 fathoms. Both shells have a wide mouth, like a trumpet, and a spiral form terminating in a small, rounded head. The Murex is much larger, however, and the shell more rough and spinous.

In ancient times, the waters of the Phoenician coast abounded with these now rare shellfish. Although they were to be found widely along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, it appears that only on the rocky part of the coast between Tyre and Haifa, near Mount Carmel, wefe they so abundant that, from a few drops of fluid per fish, so vast an industry was maintained.

The coloring matter is a creamy liquid contained in a vein of the mollusk, which must be taken alive for it rids itself of the juice when it dies. Moreover, the shellfish have to be collected at the end of winter or very early in the spring, before their egg-laying season, or they become weakened and depleted of their color-producing fluid.

The usual method of collecting them was by lowering baskets, at the end of long ropes into the sea. The bait was mussels or frogs, which the Murex would seize upon eagerly. The Murex was taken from the shell, and its pigment-rich vein swiftly extracted before the coloring matter could deteriorate. The smaller Buccinum, on the other hand, was crushed with its shell and the whole mixture, with salt added, was allowed to steep for three days. Then the pulp was simmered in a leaden vessel (brass or iron was carefully avoided, for such metals might alter the dye). These cauldrons were heated by pipes leading from a central furnace. After ten days of gentle boiling and repeated skimmings, the precious liquid was perfectly clear and so reduced in quantity that 8,000 pounds of pulp produced only 500 pounds of the dye. Raw wool was then tested in the dye until the proper dilution was obtained to produce the color.

One of the trade secrets of the Tyrians probably was the mingling of the dyes from the two different shellfish; for the Murex, if used alone, produced a dull, dark purple and the Buccinum, a red tone which faded easily. Buccinum red was less in demand—200 pounds of Buccinum dye brought only 111 pounds of the Murex. It was by immersing a cloth, first in the dye of the Murex and then in that of the Buccinum, that the dark, rich color known as Tyrian purple was obtained. It has been described as "the color of coagulated blood, but when held up to the light showing a crimson hue."

Whatever the particular shade, and however the Tyrians obtained it, none of their Mediterranean neighbors using the same species of shellfish, could match them. Tyrian purple was imitated at various places in the Middle East, Italy, North Africa, and in the Canary Islands, but nowhere could the color be equalled.

Was this partly due to the superiority of the shellfish along the coast of Tyre? Noted historians, like Philip K. Hitti, dismiss this idea by noting that the Phoenicians "discovered and imported the dye from as far as the port of Sparta and the neighborhood of Carthage and Utica."

Was it perhaps due to the brilliance of the sun that shone upon Phoenicia? This might have been a factor, for exposing the tinted cloths to certain degrees of light had a great deal to do with the hue. If a cloth was immersed in the fluid of the Murex or Buccinum and then exposed to a strong light, it turned successively green, blue, red, deep purple-red, and, finally by washing in soap and water, a permanent shade of bright crimson. The Phoenicians evidently not only put to good use the sunlight of their shores, but also profited by some secret, chemical knowledge. And probably as important as the trick of combining dye and sunlight, was the well-guarded skill of how to use mordants to set the colors permanently. It is well known that alkali from a certain seaweed, found principally on the coast of Crete, was employed in fixing dyes in some places. But whether or not the Phoenicians used it or what they did use, is not known. What is clear, however, is that the Tyrians could obtain dyes with their shellfish in various shades of pink, lilac and pale or deep violet, to supplement their wares of purple cloth.

As the first renowned maritime traders, the Phoenicians contributed inestimable benefits to civilization. From the cedars of Lebanon, they constructed magnificent fleets of trading ships. Intrepid adventurers, they dared the Pillars of Hercules and sailed their fragile boats bravely into the Atlantic; they were the first to visit Britain, perhaps Norway, and the first to circle Africa. Through widespread colonies in Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Egypt, Sicily, Malta, France, Spain and North Africa, some of its settlements, such as Carthage, eventually eclipsed the fame of their mother cities.

Wherever they went, the Phoenicians propagated the luxuries that made living more pleasant and comfortable, as well as the knowledge by which such material well-being was attained. As shipbuilders, navigators, merchants, miners, metallurgists, gem-engravers and engineers, they were the first great pioneers. They even spread use of the alphabet far and wide, opening unlimited horizons to the mind.

Whatever combination of inventiveness, industry and Nature's bounty may have spelled success for the manufacturers of Tyre, this much is certain—never before or since in history did dye bequeath so much to the glory of a nation. It was the humble treasure beneath the calm blue sea that lapped their shores which, as much as anything, brought fame and prosperity to the "land of the purple."

This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the August/September 1960 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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