The Purple Of Tyre

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Pablo Edronkin

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If we ponder a little about those animals that have proved to be very valuable to humans we would probably think about cattle, horses, or pets, but few know that a couple of rather smallish gastropods from Mediterranean shores have been as valuable as gold since ancient times.

Indeed: the 'Purple of Tyre', a product used to colour wool and silk for more than thirty centuries, has been one of the most expensive and appreciated harvests in the history of mankind: it is so expensive and beautiful that only the most affluent individuals have been able to purchase any sort of fabric or cloth treated with it, and since the time of ancient Greece, has been one of the most portentous symbols of royalty and nobility. According to an old Phoenician legend, one of their gods, Melqart, was strolling thorough a beach near the city of Tyre with his beloved Nymph, Tyrus and his dog. The animal was doing just what every dog does while visiting any seashore: running, barking and smelling everything.

Then, the dog took a bit on a Murex, a fairly common gastropod in the Mediterranean, and the animal's mouth became stained in purple almost instantly. Tyrus then did what is common in the case of many women: she asked Melqart to get her a dress in the same colour as the dog's mouth. And the Phoenicians went around telling this story to explain how they got the purple colour, but the tale is likely to be base on true facts, since the purple stain comes from a gland contained in the bodies of two gastropod species: Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris. If the hypobranchial gland is harvested from these animals, one to three drops of a yellowish fluid can be extracted, and when exposed to the air, the liquid quickly adopts a deep purple hue.

Mass production of this hue requires harvesting massive numbers of both Murex species. Then, the soft tissue of the animals must be boiled in water for a number of days, and the whole process leaves such a horrible stench that the factories where this was done were always placed in places where winds would not take the emanations into urban areas. Approximately a hundred thousand molluscs are required to produce about one litre of purple liquid worth about fifty thousand euros in today's money. In other places across the Mediterranean, such as in Malta, purple hues were also produced, but none ever reached the same quality standards as the purple of Tyre.

So, a toga or a piece of cloth big enough to cover a human body could easily reach a cost equivalent to its own weight in gold, and it wasn't long until affluent Greeks and Romans began showing their purple dresses as status symbols. Even today, the purple of Tyre is associated with extreme wealth and riches, with royalty and nobility; but maybe, the most intriguing story about the purple colour comes from historical chronicles that state that Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, had a ship with its entire sails coloured with the Purple of Tyre.

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