Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Murex: The Imperial Purple Dye of Tyre

Dye Murex, Trunculariopsis (Murex) trunculus can be frequently seen on the muddy-rocky and/or algae covered intertidal-sub-tidal zones of the Mediterranean - Aegean system. A gland situated under the gills secretes a mucous liquid which may produce yellow, green, blue, red or the famous "royal purple" colors of the ancient Mediterranean peoples, according to the method used. (Photo credit: Mehmet Atatur http://www.treknature.com

For Kings only: the Tyrian Purple
The Emperors of Byzantium made a law forbidding anybody from using Tyrian Purple except themselves. The expression ‘born in the purple’ rose from this practice. But what is the amazing story behind these prohibitively expensive and legendary dyes today costing over 3 Million US$ a liter?

Three thousand years ago the Phoenicians controlled trade in purple dyed silks. The gland of the sea-snail Murex trunculus secretes a yellow fluid that, when exposed to sunlight, turns purple-blue. A similar dye, the Tyrian Purple was made from the Murex brandaris yielding purple red colors. Both dyes were extremely expensive. 

Ancient Phoenicia is renowned to have given the world the first phonetic (non syllable) based alphabet, a Mediterranean mercantile tradition with colonies like Carthage, and flourishing civilization the ancient Greeks owed a lot to. One lesser known contribution of the ancient "Lebanese" is the Purple Dye which came to be known as the Imperial Purple, that the Phoenicians of the city state Tyre extracted from the sea snail mollusks called Murex".The word 'purple' comes from the Old English purpul which originates from the Latin purpura. This in turn is derived from the Koine Greek πορφύρα (porphyra), name of the Tyrian purple dye manufactured in classical antiquity from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail such as Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris. This extremely expensive dye was prized since ancient times and by the time of the Romans, the noblemen had already used it to color ceremonial robes and that became a royal "tradition" around the world. The most unusual aspect of Tyrian purple is the extracted color itself and its variations. In solution, the snail secretion color is blue but as a dye in the solid state it is purple. Just in case you just have to touch up an original Roman textile you can get genuine Tyrian purple dyes for $3,900 a gram or more than $3,000,000 a liter (2)!

Silk and Murex Dye:
Among the more unlikely “marriages” arranged by human ingenuity is the one between the Chinese domesticated silk moth, Bombyx mori, and the Mediterranean sea snails Murex. The Murex dye, when brought together with silk, led to the world’s longest-lasting fashion statement.This fragment from an 11th-century Byzantine robe shows griffins embroidered on a delicate silk woven of murex-dyed threads. (6). Sion Switzerland, Église de Valère, Riggisberg (Philippa Scott, Saudi Aramco World)
Harvesting The Tyrian Purple Murex:
The mollusks needed by the Phoenicians were obtained with great difficulty. The Mediterranean sea has no tides and therefore does not uncover its shores at low water like the oceans. The mollusks prefer tolerably deep water and to procure them in any quantity it was necessary that they should be fished up from a certain depth: A long rope was let down into the sea, with baskets of reeds or rushes attached to it at intervals, constructed like lobster-traps baskets, with an opening that yielded easily to pressure from the outside, but resisted pressure from the inside, and made escape, when once the trap was entered, impossible. The baskets were baited with mussels or frogs, both of which had great attractions for the Murex /Purpuræ/, and were seized and devoured with avidity. At the upper end of the rope was attached to a large piece of cork, which, even when the baskets were full, could not be drawn under water. It was usual to set the traps in the evening,and after waiting a night, or sometimes a night and a day, to draw them up to the surface, when they were generally found to be full of the coveted Murex. (3).The snails were collected in large vats and left to decompose. 

Not much is known about the subsequent steps, and the actual ancient method for mass-producing the two murex dyes has not yet been successfully reconstructed; this special “blackish clotted blood” colour, which was prized above all others, is believed to be achieved by double-dipping the cloth, once in the indigo dye of H. trunculus and once in the purple-red dye of M. brandaris (5).

The Phoenicians established also a production facilities outside their traditional Lebanese shores, such as the one at Iles Purpuraires at Mogador, in Morocco.

Murex Purple dye and closely associated "royal" colors, so difficult to get in ancient times. There has been much speculation as to the precise colour the process actually produced by the Murex. Because of many variables in the process, Murex didn't produce any one colour. Sometimes the colour was the same as the flower “violets”, sometimes very similar to fuchsia. But garments of Tyrian Purple were supposedly produced by double-dyeing the fabric, which gave a darker colour. Consequently, the colour produced in that process wasn't “purple” as we understand purple but a dark crimson or even maroon (8).


Worth its Weight in Diamond

It is believed that it generally takes 12,000 snails to produce just 1.4 grams of this dye. Because of this, it was so expensive, that the historian Theopompus reported that,“Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver”. Yet, there was a craze for this dye as a status symbol. In fact the Emperors of Byzantium made a law forbidding anybody from using it except themselves. The expression ‘born in the purple’ rose from this practice.

Dyes ancient, Dyes modern

Until modern times, all dyes were made in a similar manner, from animal sources and more often, plant sources. For example, cochineal (which gives a crimson colour) was made from the scale insect Kermes vermilio. To make one pound of dye, 70,000 insect bodies were boiled, dried, powdered and boiled again in ammonia. The red dye was then extracted by filtration and precipitation by alum. Indigo was extracted from leaves of the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria).
In 1909, Paul Friedländer discovered the chemical structure of Tyrian Purple (now called 6,6-dibromoindigo) and by then, the nature of the dye industry had completely changed. New dyes were now being made from the by-products of coal extraction. The first of these was mauve, synthesized by the British chemist William Henry Perkin from coal tar in 1856. As these dyes were cheaper and offered a wider range of colors, the need for natural dyes disappeared. And that’s why the clothes we buy today and no longer priced on the basis of colour! (1)

"Born in the Purple": Aristocracy and Power

Born in Purple: Byzantium Emperor Justinian I dressed in a robe dyed with Tyrian Purple. Interestingly, unlike other dyes that faded in sunlight, Tyrian purple would become darker.

Imperial Purple: From Constantine: until the half of Fifthcentury, the emperors were buried in immense red porphyry sarcophagi . Marcian (450-457) was the last to be honored with such a burial. For many emperors this stone was the first thing they saw, and the prestigious title “Porphyry Born” common within the emperors of Constantinople, meant they saw the light in the magnificent room called “born in the purple room”. It was a squared room of the Imperial Palace, roofed with a pyramid, all covered with red porphyry, where the empress gave birth to the imperial heirs. (Photo credit: http://dragons-intl.com)


The Imperial Purple tie of Prince William is surely not a random choice, nor the robe of the Pope Benedict XVI. Traditions continue, even if they go unnoticed by the general public. Here, William in an official photo with bride-to-be Kate Middleton at Buckingham Palace, 2010. http://www.celebitchy.com. 


The oldest known murex-dyed textile is a fine wool tapestry woven during the fifth to fourth centuries bc in Persia. Originally a garment, it was later adapted—in a well-worn condition—as a felt-lined horse trapping, which was buried with its owner (Philippa Scott - State Hermitage Museum, Saudi Aramco World)

It's a purple world!
Beyond the Mediterranean, there are a number of other sea snails useful for dyeing but none equalled Murex. Some 140 species flourish off the shores of North and South America. Of these, Purpura patula, Purpura persica and Purpura aperta inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, and these are still valued today in Central America, where women use them to color yarn. Sun and saltwater cause the pigment to oxidize on the fibers into an attractive but uneven purple. Unlike the Mediterranean types of Murex, which must be crushed in order to obtain the tiny sac of pigment, the gland on the American shellfish is closer to the surface, and the creature can be persuaded to squirt its secretion onto the yarn. Afterward, the shellfish can be put back into the sea, given time to recover, and used again. Threads colored in this way tend to retain a fishy smell, however. The dyes in many pre-Columbian textiles and the purple paint in the Nahuatl codices have been analyzed and found to be shellfish purple.

In ancient Japan yet another type of shellfish was used. In the waters around Scandinavia and the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons called purple dye "fiscdeag" (“fish dye”), and in the seventh century the Venerable Bede wrote about red and purple dyes obtained from sea snails. In Australia, although there are equivalent shellfish, no evidence has yet been found that these were ever used for textile dyeing.(7) 

Phoenicia gave us more than the Purple Dye: Phonetic Alphabet, sea trade and Carthage.

According to legend the first purple dye was discovered by Herakle-Melqart city god of Tyre) who was walking along the Levantine shoreline with the nymph Tyrus. His dog found a Murex snail and devoured it, which left a beautiful purple color around the dog's mouth. Tyrus saw the color and told Herakle-Melqart she would not accept his courtship until he brought her a robe of the same color. So he collected the Murex shells, extracted the dye, and tinted the first garment purple.


Byblos, Sidon and Tyre were the main Phoenician cities and traded with many countries round the Mediterranean, especially Italy. The Phoenicians first traded in Italy with the Etruscan, a society of artisans skilled in the art of jewelry making. However, it was with the creation of Imperial Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. that the Murex’s purple dye began to be synonymous with power,wealth and position.
The exports of Phoenicia as a whole included particularly cedar and pine wood, fine linen from Tyre, Byblos, and Berytos (ancient Beirut), cloths dyed with the famous Murex Tyrian purple, embroideries from Sidon, metalwork and glass, glazed faience, wine, salt, and dried fish. They received in return raw materials, such as papyrus, ivory, ebony, silk,amber, ostrich eggs, spices, incense, horses, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, jewels, and precious stones. The name Byblos is Greek; papyrus received its early Greek name (byblos,byblinos) from its being exported to the Aegean through Byblos. Hence the English word Bible is derived from byblos as "the (papyrus) book." (3)

The ancient Phoenician city of Tyre was named after after the rocky formation on which the town was originally built. Tyre means “rock”, adjective for Tyre is Tyrian. Tyre was a Phoenician island city founded around the third millennium BC and known as Queen of the Seas. In the 10th century BC, King of Tyre, Ahiram, joined two peninsulas by landfill and extended the city further by reclaiming a considerable area from the sea and built two ports and a temple to Melkart, the city's God.
Tyre grew wealthy from its far-reaching Phoenician colonies and its industries of purple-dyed textiles in the first millennium BC. The Phoenician expansion began about 815 B.C. when traders from Tyre founded Carthage in North Africa, of which Hannibal is the famous historical leader challenging Rome. 
Eventually Phoenician colonies spread around the Mediterranean and even the Atlantic, bringing to the city a flourishing maritime trade. In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great set out to conquer this strategic coastal base in the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Unable to storm the city, he blockaded Tyre for seven months. Alexander was so enraged at the Tyrians' defense and the loss of his men that he destroyed half the city. The Romans later built great important monuments in the city, including an aqueduct, a triumphal arch and the largest hippodrome in antiquity.
Taken by the Islamic armies in 634 Tyre strong fortifications enabled to resist to the Crusaders until 1124. After about 180 years of Crusader rule, the Mameluke retook the city in 1291, and then it passed on to the Ottomans at the start of the 16th century. With the end of the World War I Tyre was integrated into the new nation of Lebanon, a few miles north of the highly volatile border with Israel.

The legendary shell Murex.This is a specimen of Haustellum haustellum, sometimes named as the Mouse Murex also known as Snipe's bill Murex and Woodcock Murex, a denizen of the Indo-Pacific region(Photo: Mehmet Atatur: Trek Nature)


Murex dye with different shades: an example of Suzani Bokhara, Uzbekistan Silk on cotton, circa 1840. Trellis design on center field;murex dye used in flowers on border; irises, pomegranates and carnations throughout. 90 in x 57 ( http://www.estherfitzgerald.com)

But what is the secret of this color purple and why was it so unique in history?
There is simply no other color so closely attached to Greeks and Romans but royal purple very well known and as Porphyra (πορφύρα) . It was a custom during the early ages of Christianity, to write their most important manuscripts in gold or silver letters upon vellum stained with royal purple. These manuscripts were produced in this manner in order to be able to present the stronger proof of the high degree of respect with which they were made.(4)

The color of your robe indicates your social class
Today, clothes of all colors cost the same. But did you know that a few generations ago, the cost depended on the color of the cloth? This was because dyes were expensive to obtain. Tyrian Purple was a dye so expensive that only kings could afford it!

The imperial robes of Roman emperors were Tyrian purple trimmed in metallic gold thread. The badge of office of a Roman Senator was a stripe of Tyrian purple on their white toga. Tyrian purple was continued in use by the emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire until its final collapse in 1453. In medieval Europe, blue dyes were rare and expensive, so only the most wealthy or the aristocracy could afford to wear them. (The working class wore mainly green and brown.) Because of this (and also because Tyrian purple had gone out of use in western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476), Europeans’ idea of purple shifted towards this more bluish purple known as royal purple because of its similarity to the royal blue worn by the aristocracy. This was the shade of purple worn by kings in medieval Europe.

Shades of the Murex: Thistle Lilac, Mauve, Violet, Orchid, Magenta, Fuchsia, Dark Magenta, Purple, Plum, Dark Orchid, Dark Violet Indigo, Lavender, Wine, Heliotrope, Royal Purple, Mulberry, Aubergine… No matter what the name is they all have in common the blended colors of blue and red. (http://slovenian.wunderground.com/blog)

Jesus, too, is Born in Purple?: depicted and dressed as a Roman soldier but wearing royal purple and gold. He is "trampling" the devil (snake) as well as Rome (the lion), and is holding the scriptures which read "I am the way, the truth and the life." By the 5th Century, such a claim would have been acceptable. (photo credit: Alamo.edu)

The port city of Tyre (Today's Sour in South Lebanon) was the ancient capital of Phoenicia and was best known for the production of purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. The city's strategic and commercial value made it a target of many conquests, and several civilizations have left behind their architectural and cultural legacies. Roman ruins in the Al-Bas district include the largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome—or horse racing arena—in the Middle East, which held more than 20,000 spectators.(Photo credit 1996- National Geographic Society).

The first phonetic alphabet was the most important gift of the Phoenicians to the world. The Greek alphabet was directly inspired from these. Complicated and non practical Alphabets based on syllables rather than sounds were out.


1: Human Touch of Chemistry http://www.humantouchofchemistry.com/purple
2: www.most-expensive.com

3, 4: http://Phoenicia.org

5: Greek Heraldry Society 6: Philipa Scott: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200604/millennia.of.murex.htm:  

7: Philipa Scott, Saudi Aramco World, p. 30-37, July/August 2006.  

8: http://www.lexorandi.es/Aliturgico/colorviolaceo.htm

Krikor Tersakian, 2010 Montreal, Canada

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of information on the topic! Thanks for the effort and sharing!