Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Famous Phoenician Dye

Tyre under Siege
In the region of Levant, which now composed of Lebanon and Syria, was once home of the wealthy mercantile and maritime people called the Phoenicians. There people expanded their sphere of influence throughout the Mediterranean and onwards. As skilled merchants, they became wealthy and envied. And as businesspeople, they had the eyes to develop their resources into the most sought after products in the ancient world. Among their most priced and treasured products was the famous Tyrian or the Phoenician dye.

The Phoenicians were a remarkable people that occupied the areas of modern day Lebanon and Syria, otherwise known as the Levant. The Phoenicians were Semitic speaking people. Other civilizations called them the Phoenicians, which came from the Greek word Phoinix that meant purple. But they called themselves the Canaanites, which in the Semitic language meant also purple people. The Phoenician did not have a unified homogenous Kingdom. But rather, the Phoenicians were scattered into smaller city-states like Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon. The Phoenicians were famous sea fearing people. They developed ships and navigational skills that allowed them to travel throughout the Mediterranean basin and even across the Straits of Gibraltar then reached as far as Great Britain. With their great maritime skills, they also became acclaimed for their business mindedness. They were well-known as traders with honesty and trustworthiness. They also knew how to manage their few natural resources into the most sought after, priced, and treasured commodities for ages. The cedar wood that grew abundantly in lands of Lebanon were traded by the Phoenicians at a high price for its rarity and strength.

But what truly became the most valued and renowned product that the Phoenicians had was their famous purple dye. The dye, which they produced, became the hallmark of their civilization to the point that its purple color was the basis of their name. The shallow waters on the shores of the Levant was abundant with mollusk species called Murex Trunculus. But few meters away, with sea having a depth of 10 to 15 meters, species called Murex Brandaris. Both species were processed to make the famous dye of the Phoenicians.

The story of the purple dye of the Phoenicians was credited to a legend. According to the story, the Phoenician God Melqart was having a stroll in the beach with his love, the sea nymph Tyrus. While the couple was walking on the sand, Melqart was hit with the idea of giving a gift to his love. He ordered his dog to scavenge for something special to give to Tyrus. After quite some time, Melqart’s dog returned. To the shock of the God, he saw his dog spewing blood from his mouth. With closer inspection, the blood did not came from any wounds. Rather, it came from a snail that the dog had in its mouth. The saliva and water mixed with the snail inside the dog’s mouth and produce a reddish substance. Melqart then used the snail to make a dye, which he used to a dress to give to Tyrus.

Indeed, the color of the dye produce by the Phoenicians were beautiful but it was painstakingly made. Much of the knowledge on the process of making the famous dye were scant, and the best record came from the Roman Pliny the Elder. According to Pliny, the process of making the dye begun in the time when the snails or mollusks were secreting which was before spring. Laborers would gather many snails as they could. In order to produce a sizeable amount of die a lot of snails were needed. In Sidon, a hills of shells was found. In Tyre, a deep pit of shell was discovered. Both were evidence of the amount needed to produce the purple dye in a quantity enough for domestic as well as foreign consumption. After gathering, the veins of the snail were painstakingly taken and collected in a vat. Then, salt was added. The amount of salt added must be about 20 ounce for every 100 pounds of veins. The vein with salt was then left three days precisely. Then water would be added and placed in a tin or a stoned vessel were it would be boiled under medium heat. For ten days, the mixture was boiled. Impurities were removed from the mixture. Through the ten day process, the approximate 800 pound mixture from day one of the boiling would have been reduced to just 500 pounds. A fleece would then be used in order to check the quality of the dye. All of this process was done indoors as sunlight could alter the color of the dye. Also, the dyes were had to be used immediately because if it was stored, it would spoil and colors would be ruined. Thus, production of the dye was seasonal, labor intensive, as well as time consuming.

Because of its seasonality and time consuming labor, the purple dyes of Phoenicia were in high demand in a high price. Purple dyed textile from Phoenicia were also equally highly appraised. Only kings, officials, and the wealthy were capable of acquiring such luxuries. During the time of King Solomon, purple textile of Phoenicia were offered as a gift. Because of their wealth and dye, the Phoenicians were targeted by great empires. The great Assyrian empire was just among them. When the Phoenicians were under Assyrian domain, purpled dyed cloth were so much valued that it was accepted as a tribute by the Assyrian Kings. Even during the time of the Roman Empire, purple cloth of Phoenician remained highly valued. The Roman Emperors flaunted their purple cloth, exhibiting their power and wealth. It gave rise to what would be called the imperial or royal purple.

The treatment of the world to the purple dye of the Phoenicians was a testament to the glory and importance of the Phoenician civilization. Through its dye, color began to become status symbols. More importantly, the purple dye or Tyrian dye as some called helped to land the Phoenicians a place in world history.

Boardman, J. The Cambridge Ancient History Volume III Part II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Bonstock, J. “Pliny the Elder: The Natural History.” Perseus. Accessed September 20, 2014.

Grimbly, S. Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Marston, E. The Phoenicians. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2002.

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