Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Among all the colors in the spectrum, did you ever wonder why purple became the color of royalty, imperial power, and wealth? When did that association begin? Which culture spawned the relationship and why?
This exact topic came to my mind, as I read the recent news of the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon a few weeks ago. Learning that the explosion originated from a warehouse alongside the port of Beirut made me think back to the LONG history, value, and importance of the ports and the warehouses in Beirut, as well as the MANY OTHER cities that dotted the coastline of Lebanon. The Lebanese coast was home to the PHOENICIANS since about the 1500s BC. Although there was not a specific kingdom called "Phoenicia", the so-called Phoenicians lived in a series of independent port cities that occupied a strip of land in current-day Lebanon. Such cities were Tyre, Sidon, Beyrouth (Beirut), Byblos, and Sumur, to name a few. In fact, both Byblos and Tyre were added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites in 1984 and their ruins can be visited today. The Phoenicians developed as a cultural entity in that region, sharing a common language (alphabet), trade, craft, and seamanship. They eventually (~9th - 6th c. BC) set up colonies and ports on coasts across the Mediterranean Sea, extending all the way to Northern Africa and the Iberian peninsula. So you may be wondering what 'Lebanese ports and warehouses' have to do with purple reign. The answer to that is the essence of this blog.
Masters of the Mediterranean
As I mentioned above, the seafaring, mercantile Phoenicians lived along the coast of modern-day Lebanon and established a VAST trading empire across the entire Mediterranean. The lucrative core of their trade centered on a vibrant purple dye and purple-dyed fabric that was worn and coveted by wealthy, powerful kings. The wealthiest classes and the nobility desired this dye and color SPECIFICALLY because it was so expensive and only they could afford it. By wearing clothing of this color, they were able to publically display their incredible wealth and status. The purple dye was unique to that area, as it was a product of humble sea snails, called Murex brandaris, that proliferated along the Mediterranean coast in the waters that abutted "Phoenicia." You may be wondering why this dye was so expensive. In short, because the extraction of the dye from the sea snail murex was a very lengthy, tedious, and intensive process. First, the tiny mollusks (less than a 1/4 inch each) needed to be baited and then harvested from submerged mesh traps. Then the mucous glands needed to be extracted from the tiny snails with metal tools. The glands then underwent several days of processing which left behind a compound that produced an indelible purple dye upon re-exposure to air and sunlight. Many warehouses were built alongside the ports to facilitate the processing of the snails and the production of the dye in quantities conducive to commercial trade. The coastal city with perhaps the greatest production volume was Tyre; hence, the dye was referred to as 'Tyrian purple.' The dye yield/snail ratio was very, very minuscule. So minuscule, in fact, that the mucous glands of MANY THOUSANDS of snails were required to produce a tiny fraction of an ounce of purple dye. Such a paltry amount of dye was barely enough to add a little color to the trim of a garment. To dye an entire robe would cost a fortune! Consequently, Tyrian purple dye was oftentimes worth more than its equivalent weight in silver or gold. This lucrative business was a boon for the Phoenicians.
The decimation of the murex populations, combined with an ever-increasing demand for the purple dye, prompted the preeminent Phoenician merchants, sailors, and settlers to look for and establish new coastal cities. This enabled them to facilitate and grow their trade. The new settlements were founded in regions where this type of industry could flourish. Archaeologists have found sizable quantities of crushed murex shells both in "Phoenicia", as well as in several Phoenician coastal cities of Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia.
The Phoenician coastal settlements flourished independently throughout the 1st Millenium BC, providing purple textiles and garb for the wealthy elite of both Egypt and Assyria until the area was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Thereafter, the Phoenicians succumbed to Macedonian rule, later to Roman rule, and ultimately to the Byzantines. Despite being ruled by other empires, the purple textile industry continued to prosper. Production of purple dye actually persisted in the Byzantine Empire until the sack of Constantinople in 1204 AD.
Imperial Purple Porphyry
Certainly, statues, monuments, and buildings built by the empire to endure the test of time could not be decorated with transient fabrics prone to disintegration. Serendipitously, a spectacular purple-colored volcanic stone called PORPHYRY, similar to the color of Tyrian purple dye, was uniquely discovered in the Mons Porphyrites area of the Eastern desert in Egypt by a Roman legionary during the early 1st century AD. At that time Egypt was under Roman rule. The legionary immediately sent a sample to the Emporer of Rome and sparing no time the Romans, and later the Byzantines quarried all of the porphyry and transported it to Rome, Constantinople, and other imperial cities across their empire extending through the 5th century. Imperial statues, furniture, sarcophagi, columns, floors, temples, palaces, churches, monuments, and more, were all decorated with this LASTING purple stone which they termed Imperial Porphyry. Similar to Tyrian Purple dyed clothing, the Emporers declared that only they can have access to and build with purple porphyry. Such purple porphyry artifacts left an enduring symbol of the abundant wealth and power of the Caesars.
Born to the Purple
The striking color seeped through the ranks of Roman politics. Togas of Roman Senators were trimmed in purple, whereas the individual occupying Rome's highest political office of Censor wore a completely purple toga. The imperial family often dressed in full purple robes and attire. They instituted laws that only certain people were permitted to wear the color purple. Imperial Romans and Byzantines were particularly enamored with flaunting their obscene wealth. They even created purple birthing chambers fully decorated with Imperial Purple Porphyry in which the empress gave birth to her royal offspring, eliciting the phrase to be 'born in the purple.'
"Long Live the Purple"
The indelibility of purple as associated with royalty lived on well beyond ancient times. Like the Romans, Queen Elizabeth I forbade all except close members of the royal family to don purple. The British Monarchy to this day flaunts plush purple velvet robes at coronations and purple suits, dresses, and gowns on formal occasions.
Purple remained THE COLOR to signify wealth and imperium, enduring the test of time now for 3 millennia. Although purple porphyry allowed for the long-lasting reminder of the significance of the color purple for the wealthy, and synthetic purple dye can now be easily manufactured at a nominal cost; it is important to remember where and how it all began. It all began with the Tyrian purple dye produced from the mucous glands of murex seashells by the Phoenicians in warehouses alongside the port cities of modern-day Lebanon!