The Development of Dyes by the "Purple People," the Phoenicians

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The Development of Dyes by the "Purple People," the Phoenicians


Though the Phoenicians were among the most influential peoples of ancient times, becoming merchants and explorers who settled the western Mediterranean and beyond, there was—strictly speaking—no such place as "Phoenicia." Rather, the homeland of the Phoenicians was a coastal strip centered on what is today Lebanon, a chain of city-states dominated by Tyre and Sidon. As for the name Phoenicia, it comes from the Greek Phoinike, which shares roots with the word phoenix—a term that to the ancient Greeks connoted blood-red or purple. The latter was the color of a natural dye developed by the Phoenicians, who became so closely associated with it that their name reflected the fact.


Today virtually all clothing dye comes from synthetic sources, but this is very much a latter-day development; prior to the mid-nineteenth century, all fabric coloring came from nature. So too did textiles, the first examples of which—found in the Judean desert—date to the seventh millennium b.c. Flax, hemp, rush, palm, and papyrus all became material for clothing in the Near East during the period from c. 6000-c. 5000 b.c., and in the centuries that followed, the peoples of the region began using wool and other animal fibers.

The first Near Eastern reference to dyes comes from c. 3000 b.c. (Chinese sources on the subject are even older), and the coloring agent mentioned was madder. This is a plant that grows in northern Africa and southwestern Asia, and which contains in its roots coloring that varies from a pinkish to a brownish red. The oldest known garment colored with madder is an item of red linen from the tomb of Egypt's "boy king" Tutankhamen (d. 1323 b.c.)

Probably the next type of dye to appear, around 2500 b.c., was indigo. Though the ingredient indigoten can be found in a number of plants, its principal source is the legume Indigofera tinctoria, which probably originated in the Indian subcontinent (hence its name) and spread westward. Using sodium hydrosulfite, a caustic soda, to ferment the leaves of the indigo plant, dye-makers extracted a bluish paste that they then processed into cakes and ground finely. Examples of indigo-dyed garments have been found in excavations at Egyptian Thebes.


To the east of Egypt, facing the Mediterranean from the east, was a narrow strip of land just 200 miles (322 kilometers) long and 30 miles (48 kilometers) wide—much smaller, in fact, than modern-day Lebanon. This was the homeland of the Phoenicians, a Semitic people related to the Canaanites of the Old Testament. In the Bible they were called Sidonians, a reference to one of their leading cities, but in Greek literature—where their earliest mention can be found in the writings of Homer—they are identified with the name by which they are known today.

The Phoenicians are almost unique among ancient peoples in that they did not maintain an army or attempt to conquer other peoples; rather, their focus was on trade, which they expanded primarily by means of sea routes. Geography suited them for this endeavor. Though their soil was not bad for agriculture, the mountain ranges to the east meant that the available area for raising crops or animals was limited. Furthermore, the country's famed cedars were ideal for shipbuilding.

The first major Phoenician city-state, Tyre, was established in about 2000 b.c., and over the next centuries other port cities such as Sidon, Byblos, Tripolis, and Berytus emerged. Egypt invaded in c. 1800 b.c., and maintained control over the land for about four centuries, until the Phoenicians took advantage of Egyptian involvement in a war with the Hittites of Asia Minor to establish their own independence. The region truly came into its own as a trading power after about 1200 b.c., when attacks by the Sea Peoples—a mysterious nation that disappeared from history as suddenly as it appeared—broke the power of Ugarit, a Syrian port that had dominated trade in the Levant up to that time.

One of several distinguishing characteristics of the Phoenicians was the ability of their craftsmen: thus when Israel's King Solomon (r. c. 960-922 b.c.) was building his temple in Jerusalem, he brought in Phoenician workers. The Bible also indicates that Phoenicians were talented at working with bronze, and extensive evidence exists of Phoenician carving and glassmaking (they may in fact have been the first to make glass). But long before these appeared, there were the colored garments for which the Phoenicians later were named—garments that numbered among the first major Phoenician export products.

Apparently the Phoenicians adapted existing technology to color cloths blue with indigo, whereas red came from the kermes, a parasitic insect that lives in oak trees. (The term crimson comes ultimately from the Arabic word for this tiny creature, qirmiz.) But though the Greek word for the Phoenicians suggests the color red, in fact the most famous of all Phoenician-produced colors was purple, or more properly Tyrian purple.

In producing both red and purple, the Phoenicians went a step beyond vegetable dyes to produce colors from animal life. Purple came from the murex or Murex brandaris, a variety of mollusk found in the Mediterranean. The Minoans in c. 2500 b.c. had been the first to use murex for making dyes, but the Phoenicians greatly expanded on the practice—as was evident from the many heaps of murex shells found by modern archaeologists at Sidon.

Each murex produced just two drops of dye, and to make a single gram (0.035 ounces) of coloring required between 10,000 and 20,000 murex. The mollusk was thus worth more than its weight in gold, and garments colored in Tyrian purple were extremely expensive. Hence the idea of "royal purple"—the concept that because of its value, the color was to be worn only by royalty. Also the basis for the Phoenicians' trading empire, Phoenician mariners began searching for beds of the precious murex shell all across the Mediterranean.

During the period from c. 900-c. 600 b.c., the Phoenicians established a number of overseas colonies, which though they began partly as sites for gathering murex, in time also became warehouses for storing goods, as well as trading posts for ongoing business with the local peoples. Far across the Mediterranean, Phoenician traders founded their most important colony at Carthage in what is now Tunisia, as well as cities on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia off the coast of Italy.

They also established cities on the European continent, including Marseilles in France and the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Cadiz, Malaga, and Algeciras. Further away, at the edge of the known world, were what the Phoenicians called "the tin islands": Britain, as well as the region of Britanny on the northwest coast of France. The Phoenicians brought in purple cloth and traded it with the locals for tin, essential for making bronze. Thus it could be said that the Phoenicians' purple garments were the ultimate cause behind their wide-ranging expeditions, which in turn influenced the spread of their greatest contribution, the alphabet.

The Phoenicians, however, ultimately became victims of superpower conflicts in the region. Assyria had begun threatening Phoenician lands as early as 868 b.c., and the Assyrian monarchs Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 b.c.) and Sennacherib (r. 704-681 b.c.) led successful assaults on the city-states. Later, when Babylonia replaced Assyria as the dominant empire, Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 b.c.) crushed Tyre.

Still later, as part of the Persian Empire, the Phoenician fleet helped wage war on the Greeks during the Persian Wars (499-449 b.c.) More than a century after that, the armies of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) conquered the Persians' empire, and Phoenicia passed into Greek hands in 333 b.c. Like much of the Middle East, it then fell under the Seleucid Empire before becoming part of the Roman province of Syria in 64 b.c.

As for dye-making, the ancient world saw developments in the use of safflower for red and yellow vegetable dyes, the insect dye lac in red Persian carpets, and a blue dye called techelet from the sea creature known as the chilazon. By c. a.d. 1300 a new purple dye known as archil, the product of lichen species, had taken the place of murex as a source of purple. Then in 1856 an 18-year-old English student named William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) produced the world's first synthetic dye, a tar-like black solution that when applied to silk produced mauve—that is, a light purple.


Further Reading


Barber, Elizabeth J. Wayland. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Odijk, Pamela. The Phoenicians. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1989.

Internet Sites

"The Ancient Phoenicians." St. Maron Parish of Cleveland. (November 15, 2000).

A Bequest Unearthed, Phoenicia. (November 15, 2000).

"Guide to Dyes." Rugnotes. (November 15, 2000).

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The Development of Dyes by the "Purple People," the Phoenicians

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The Development of Dyes by the "Purple People," the Phoenicians