In a corner of Qatar, that small peninsula attached to Saudi Arabia, there is a place often described as a “natural treasure” whose name is not only charming, but also has an exciting history: the Purple Island.
Today it is highly prized for remaining green all year in a country that registers less than 71mm of annual rainfall.
It is completely surrounded by mangroves, and is home to a wide variety of birds, including flamingos, and marine animals, as well as small beaches and natural salt ponds.
But it’s also home to some fascinating ruins, as well as the remains of some molluscs that gave it its name around 2000 BC and were the origin of a fascinating industry.
They were small sea snails with which one of the oldest, most expensive, prestigious and most vivid color dyes was produced.
In fact, the Purple Island, to date, is the oldest known site of production of that magnificent color.
It is the royal or imperial purple, which is known as the purple of Tire, a Phoenician city -today Lebanese- that became the center of the dye industry.
The purple-dyed cloth of Tire made the Phoenicians famous; some historians claim that the name Phoenicia means “land of purple.”
They exported it to their colonies, particularly Carthage, from where its popularity spread and it was adopted by the Romans as a symbol of authority and imperial status.
A stinking luxury
That purple, however, was a paradox, a contradiction made 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 notoriously stinky: though it symbolized a higher order, it reeked of a lower filth.
Tens of thousands of dissected hypobranchial glands, ripped from the calcified whorls of crushed, putrefying sea snails (Bolinus brandaris) and left to bake in the sun, were needed to color a small swatch of cloth.
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, long after being dyed, retained the stench of the excretions of the marine invertebrate. But unlike other textile colors whose brilliance faded quickly, Tyrian purple’s brightened with weather and wear, a miraculous quality that brought an exorbitant price tag.
A price edict from AD 301 in the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian says that a pound of purple dye cost 150,000 denarii, or about three pounds of gold (that would be about $85,000 at today’s gold prices!)
The demigod and the nymph
Such a precious color must have had a legend in keeping with the lineage of those who could afford to wear it. And the second-century Greek grammarian Julius Pollux gave it to him.
In his “Name Day” he recounted how one day the demigod Heracles (the Roman god 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 muzzle of the dog stained purple, she asked the great hero to give her a garment of that beautiful color.
By the time Pollux penned that legend, purple had been a symbol of majesty and enduring power in ancient Greece for centuries, though this was not always the case.
In the 5th century BC, the Greeks considered expensive clothing to be barbaric and not in keeping with their identity.
Furthermore, the color was associated with the Persian monarchs who wore it and who had become a symbol of tyranny and decadence after the Greco-Persian wars (492-449 BC).
But the phobia of purple was overcome and, in the middle of the following 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 began to be strictly controlled by legislation. The higher the social and political rank, the more blankets of that color the dignitaries could wrap themselves with.
Cleopatra loved it, and when Julius Caesar traveled to Egypt to visit her court, he was so fascinated by the shades of purple he saw that he returned 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 purple. «It is for this color that the fasces and the segures of Rome make their way in the crowd; it is this that affirms the majesty of childhood; this is what distinguishes the senator from the man of equestrian rank; prayers are directed by people dressed in this color to appease the gods; he enhances any garment, and in his triumphal garment is seen mixed with gold ». But you had to use it carefully.
King Ptolemy of Mauretania’s decision to wear purple on a visit to Emperor Caligula cost him his life, according to the Roman historian Suetonius.
When, in AD 40, he entered the amphitheater during a gladiator show dressed in a fine cloak of that color that attracted everyone’s admiration, 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 deep red hue of congealed blood, the more precious it was, supposedly having divine connotations.
And it turns out that the famous purple of Tire was not an exact color. It varied significantly depending on where the snails came from, the mordant used, and even what time of day it dried.
As the Roman Vitruvius details in his work “De architecture”, when speaking of the color “which among all is the most appreciated, excellent and charming”, in the regions closest to the north “it is black”, to the west, “lead blue », while «in the quinoctial regions, east and west it is violet. But in the southern regions it has a red character”, because it is “closer to the Sun”.
In short, it used to be any shade between pale mauve and purplish-black. But whatever its nuance, its importance in the ancient world was such that it appears not only in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, but even 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’.