For millennia, Tyrian purple was the most valuable colour, and a prestigious symbol of power and influence, on the planet. Then the recipe for making the dye was somehow lost.

       In 2002, at the site of Qatna – a ruined palace at the edge of the Syrian desert on the shores of a long-vanished lake – a team of archaeologists had been granted permission to investigate the site, and hunt for the royal tomb reputedly located there.

       After navigating through large hallways and narrow corridors, down crumbling steps, they came across a deep shaft. On one side there were two identical statues guarding a sealed door: They had found the royal tomb. Inside was a hoard of ancient wonders – 2,000 objects, including jewellery, and a large golden hand. But there were also some intriguing dark patches on the ground. They sent a sample for testing – eventually separating out a vivid purple layer from the dust and muck. After more than three thousand years of mingling with sediment, the Tyrian purple found in Qatna’s royal tomb was still intensely colourful.

       The researchers had uncovered one of the most legendary commodities in the ancient world. Tyrian purple forged empires, felled kings, and cemented the power of generations of global rulers. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was so obsessed with it, she even used it for the sails of her boat, while some Roman emperors decreed that anyone caught wearing it – other than themselves of course – would be sentenced to death.

       This noble pigment was the most expensive product in antiquity – worth more than three times its weight in gold, according to a Roman edict issued in 301 AD. Ancient authors are particular about the precise hue that was worthy of the name: a deep reddish-purple, like that of coagulated blood, tinged with black. Pliny the Elder described it as having a “shining appearance when held up to the light”.  

With its uniquely intense colour and resistance to fading, Tyrian purple was adored by ancient civilisations across Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It was so central to the success of the Phoenicians – it was named after their city-state Tyre, and they became known as the “purple people”. The shade could be found on everything from cloaks to sails, paintings, furniture, plaster, wall paintings, jewellery and even burial shrouds.

       In 40 AD, the king of Mauretania was killed in a surprise assassination in Rome, ordered by the emperor. Despite being a friend to the Romans, the unfortunate royal had caused grave offence when he strode into an amphitheatre to watch a gladiatorial match… wearing a purple robe. The jealous, insatiable lust that the colour ignited was sometimes compared to a kind of madness.  

       However, no one living today knows how to make it. By the 15th Century, the elaborate recipes to extract and process the dye had been lost.

Why did this alluring colour disappear? And can it be resurrected?

       In a small garden hut in north-eastern Tunisia, just a short distance from what was once the Phoenician city of Carthage, one man has spent most of the last 16 years smashing up sea snails – attempting to coax their entrails into something resembling Tyrian purple. Oddly, the most celebrated pigment the world has known began life as a clear fluid (mucous) produced by sea snails, which are part of the Murex family.

      Tyrian purple could be produced from the secretions of three species of sea snail, each of which made a different colour: Hexaplex trunculus (bluish purple), Bolinus brandaris (reddish purple), and Stramonita haemastoma (red). Once snails had been collected, either by hand along rocky coastlines or with traps baited with other snails – Murex sea snails are predators – it was time to harvest the slime. In some places, the mucous gland was sliced out using a specialised knife. One Roman author explained how the snail’s gore would then ooze out of its wounds, “flowing out like tears”, before being collected into mortars for grinding. Alternatively, smaller species could be crushed whole. But that’s the end of the documented evidence from history. Accounts of how colourless snail slime was transformed into the Tyrian purple dye of legends are vague, contradictory and sometimes obviously mistaken – Aristotle said the mucous glands came from the throat of a “purple fish“. To complicate matters further, the dyeing industry was highly secretive – each manufacturer had their own recipe, and these complex, multi-step formulas were closely guarded. “The problem is that people did not write down the important tricks,” says Maria Melo, a professor of conservation science at NOVA University of Lisbon, Portugal.

       In antiquity, Tyrian purple was not just renowned for its colour. Dyeworks were hotbeds of rotting fishy flesh, with the added piquancy of urine – often used to help pigments stick. Whole neighbourhoods could become enveloped in this putrid aroma, and cities where it was manufactured were considered unpleasant places to live. The smell would permeate deep into the fibres of cloth stained with Tyrian purple, lingering long after it was purchased. Since the wealthy had exclusive access to this shade, it may have been advisable to stay downwind of them. 

       The most detailed record comes from Pliny, who explained the process in the 1st Century AD. It went something like this: after isolating the mucous glands, they were salted and left to ferment for three days. Next came the cooking, which was done in tin or possibly lead pots on a “moderate” heat. This continued until the whole mixture had been boiled down to a fraction of its original volume. On the tenth day, the dye was tested by dipping in some fabric – if it emerged stained with the desired shade, it was ready. 

       Given that each snail only contained the tiniest amount of mucous, it could take some 10,000 to make just a single gram of dye. Mounds of billions of discarded sea snail shells have been reported in areas where the dye was once manufactured. In fact, the production of Tyrian purple has been described as the first chemical industry

       In the early hours of 29 May 1453, the Byzantine city of Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans. This was the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, and its disappearance took with it the secrets of Tyrian purple.

       Today, we seem to be close to reviving the production of Tyrian purple, although whether it is the same color as the original is a topic of much discussion. However, Tyrian purple is again under threat. Today the challenge is not invasion, or secrecy surrounding how it’s made, but extinction. Murex sea snails are under threat from a barrage of human influences, including pollution and climate changeStramonita haemastoma, which lends the colour a reddish tint, has already vanished from the eastern Mediterranean. So, whether or not Tyrian purple has finally been revived, one thing is certain: it could easily be lost all over again.

       Rumor has it that Donald Trump has diverted a large amount of his campaign funds to buying the secret of Tyrian purple production so he can use it for his inaugural robes in 2025!!!

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