- Dalia Ventura
- BBC News World
In Qatar, there is a place often described as a “natural treasure” whose name is not only enchanting, but also has a fascinating history: the Purple Island.
Today, it is highly prized for remaining green year-round in a country that records less than 71mm of rainfall per year.
It is completely surrounded by mangroves and is home to a wide variety of birds, including flamingos, and marine animals, in addition to small beaches and natural salt flats.
But it also houses some ruins, as well as the remains of some molluscs that gave it its name around 2000 BC and that were the origin of a fascinating industry.
It was with small sea snails that one of the oldest, most expensive and prestigious dyes was produced.
In fact, the Purple Island is until today the oldest known place of production of this magnificent color: the royal or imperial purple, known as Tyrian purple, a Phoenician city – today, Lebanese – which became the center of the dye industry.
The purple dyed cloth of Tire made the Phoenicians famous. They exported it to their colonies, especially Carthage, from where its popularity spread, and it was adopted by the Romans as a symbol of authority and imperial status.
a stinking luxury
Purple was, however, a paradox, a contradiction turned into color.
Associated with royalty, exuberance and the elevation of intellectual and spiritual ideals, for many millennia it was distilled from a gland found just behind the rectum of spiny sea snails.
Not only was its provenance not the noblest, but it was also notoriously smelly, although it symbolized superiority.
Tens of thousands of dissected hypobranchial glands, plucked from the calcified whorls of sea snails (Bolinus brandaris) in putrefaction and left to dry in the sun, were needed to color a small tissue sample.
The process, moreover, was laborious and took at least two weeks to complete, as detailed by the Roman author Pliny the Elder in his Natural history🇧🇷
The fibers retained the odor of marine invertebrate excrement long after being dyed.
But unlike other textile colors whose luster quickly faded, Tyrian purple brightened with time and wear, a miraculous quality that led to an exorbitant price tag.
A price list from AD 301 of the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian says that a pound of purple dye cost 150,000 denarii or about 3 pounds of gold (that would be equivalent to about R$450,000 today).
The demigod and the nymph
Such a precious color must have a legend worthy of the lineage of those who could wear it. And the second-century Greek grammarian Julius Pollux gave it to her.
At the Onomastiche told that one day the demigod Hercules was walking along the seashore with a beautiful nymph he was courting when his dog began to gnaw on a rotten snail.
When the nymph saw the dog’s muzzle stained purple, she asked the great hero to give her a garment of that beautiful color.
At the time Pollux wrote this legend, purple had been a symbol of majesty and enduring power in ancient Greece for centuries, although this was not always the case.
In the 5th century BC, the Greeks considered that expensive clothes did not match their identity.
Furthermore, the color was associated with Persian monarchs, who wore it and became a symbol of tyranny and decadence after the Greco-Persian wars (492-449 BC).
But the phobia was overcome, and in the middle of the next century its popularity began to increase, which led to an expansion in the number of production sites in the Mediterranean.
Over time, the right to wear purple came under the control of legislation. The higher the social and political position, the more blankets of that color dignitaries could wrap themselves around.
Cleopatra loved it, and when Julius Caesar traveled to Egypt to visit his court, he was so fascinated by the shades of purple that he found himself returning home wearing a purple toga and decreed that only he could wear that color.
A few years after he was assassinated, Pliny the Elder wrote about the purple.
“It is this color that the bodyguards of Rome make their way through the crowd; it is this that asserts majesty; it is this that distinguishes the senator from the common man; for persons dressed in this color, prayers are addressed to appease the gods; it enhances any garment , and, in the triumphal garment, is seen mingled with gold.”
But you had to use it carefully. King Ptolemy of Mauritania’s decision to wear purple on a visit to Emperor Caligula cost him his life, according to Roman historian Suetonius.
When, in 40 AD, he entered the amphitheater during a gladiator show dressed in a beautiful mantle of that color that attracted the admiration of all. Caligula interpreted the gesture as an act of imperial aggression and had his guest killed.
That the color purple caused bloodshed is reminiscent of a curious fact: the more it resembled the dark red hue of clotted blood, the more precious it was, supposedly having divine connotations.
The famous Tyrian purple was not an exact color. It varied significantly depending on where the snails came from, the mordant used, and even the time of day it dried.
As the Roman Vitruvius details in his work Of Architecturewhen speaking of the color “which among all is the most appreciated”, in the regions closer to the north “it is black”, further to the west, “blue lead”, while “in the quinocial regions, east and west, it is purple. But, in the southern regions it has a reddish hue, because it is “closer to the Sun”.
In short, it used to be any shade between a pale lilac and a purplish black.
But whatever its nuance, its importance in the ancient world was such that it appears not only in Odyssey and on Iliad of Homer, but also in the Bible.
According to the Gospel of Mark, for example, Christ’s torturers tormented him in purple robes, to mock his status as “king of the Jews”.
Given their value, laundries were a good source of income for rulers, either to collect taxes or seize them.
When the Roman Empire began to decline and the legendary city of Tire was taken over by the Arabs, the imperial laundries moved to Constantinople.
After conversion to Christianity, purple was used to denote high priestly rank until, in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city.
Deprived of purple and its lace, Pope Paul II decreed in 1464 that the ink be replaced by the equally expensive crimson that was produced with the vermilion kermesa parasitic insect, and an alum mordant, whose mines in Italy he controlled.
Exact knowledge of the preparation of Tyrian purple was lost, to the fate of snails that were on the verge of extinction.
However, it already had deep roots and continued to be the color of royalty, the one with which the great masters exquisitely dyed the garments of human or divine beings in their works.
In 1856, an 18-year-old aspiring British chemist, the Briton William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovered, while trying to find a cure for malaria, an artificial residue that could rival the luster of Tyrian purple.
It was the first synthetic dye in history: aniline purple, malveine, mauve, violet or Perkin’s purple.
Once again, purple became the most prized color, but this time not so much for its monetary value, but because it sparked a revolution and was the start of the entire modern chemical industry.