Tunisian Man Rediscovers Secret of Priceless Ancient Purple Dye
A Tunisian man has been able to solve an ancient mystery. He has found a way to re-create an ancient purple dye that was once linked to ancient kings and emperors. Through a long process of trial and error he was able to make the “same” ancient purple dye from sea snails . He has turned this into a small business.
One day in 2007, Mohamed Ghassen Nouira, who manages a consulting firm, saw a sea snail with purple liquid coming from it on a local beach in Tunisia, and he was intrigued. He knew that this type of sea snail was used to make purple dyes in the past. Out of curiosity he decided to re-learn how to make this famous and valuable purple color.
Long-lost Secret of the Imperial, Ancient Purple Dye
Hurriyet Daily News quotes Mohamed as saying that ‘At the beginning, I didn't know where to start.’ This is because the secret of how to make the ancient purple dye was lost many centuries ago. Therefore, Mohamed had to experiment for a long time to learn how to make the dye. He is quoted by Yahoo as saying that ‘I would crush the whole shell and try to understand how this small marine animal released such a precious colour.’ He would often buy shells from local fisherman, and he turned an old kitchen into a home laboratory.
Mohamed Ghassen Nouira holding examples of his ancient purple dye ( Mohamed Ghassen Nouira )
There were no written sources on how to make the color. Mohamed told Phys.Org that perhaps ‘the artisans did not want to divulge the secrets of their know-how, or they were afraid to because the production of purple was directly associated with the emperors, who tolerated no rivalry.’ It was a symbol of power and status and that is why purple has been traditionally associated with royalty, through the centuries.
Phoenicians and Romans Created a Purple Dye Monopoly
The dye is also known as Tyrian Purple . It was first produced by the Phoenicians in what is now the Levant and they had a monopoly on the dye color for many years. It is believed that one of their purple dye factories, which dates from Biblical times, has been found near Haifa in Israel.
The Phoenicians brought the secret of how to make the dye to their colony of Carthage, in what is now Tunisia. After the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage, the Romans learned the secrets of the dye and controlled the lucrative industry.
George VI, King of England, chose the ancient purple power color for his official portrait. ( Public domain )
Ali Drin who works for the National Heritage Institute in Tunisia stated that the ‘Production of the dye was among the main sources of wealth for the ancient Phoenicians, and then for the Carthaginian and Roman empires’ reports Phys.Org. The Romans introduced private expenditure laws on key personal items to ensure that only the elite could wear purple as a way to maintain social hierarchy.
Justinian I wears Tyrian purple in San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna. ( Public domain )
Ancient Dye Making is Still Kept Secret Today!
Mohamed told Phys.Org that ‘Experts in dyeing, archaeology and history, as well as chemistry, helped and encouraged me, but nobody knew the technique.’ Two other people have re-learned how to make the dye, but they were not interested in helping Mohamed as they earn a great deal of money from making the precious purple. One told the Mohamed bluntly the process was ‘Not a cooking recipe’ according to Phys.Org. So, Mohamed had to proceed on his own.
For years, Mohamed used a hammer and a mortar to open the sea snails. These are spiny murex shells that are found in the Mediterranean at depths up twelve feet (4 meters). The dye was also believed to have been made from the shells of the Buccinum species. Mohammad had to get used to the terrible smells of the dead snails, during his work.
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Tunisia and the Return of the Ancient Purple Dye
All Mohamed’s hard work finally paid off. Now the Tunisian has been able to produce several grams of the purple and it is much sought after by researchers, collectors, and painters. Mohamed told Yahoo News that ‘The dye can cost $2,800 per gram from some European traders, and prices can reach up to $4,000.’
Mohamed requires a 100 kilograms of sea snails to make a gram which can take him two days. The process involves sorting and cleaning the shells and extracting the snail’s intestines, which, when oxidized, produce the purple dye. Mohamed also makes other dyes and he keeps his stock in a wooden box. One of his prized possessions is a dye sample from 2009 which he refers to as a ‘dear memento of my first success’’ as reported in Phys.Org.
He is very proud that he has revived the ancient tradition of his Carthaginian ancestors. He wants to pass on the secrets of his trade to his children. He hopes that the Tunisian authorities take a greater interest in his work because he believes that his dye-making process could become a tourist attraction. His greatest ambition is to see some of his purples exhibited in a Tunisian museum.
Top image: Mohamed Ghassen Nouira holding textile fragments made with his ancient purple dye using Murex sea snails from Tunisia. Source: Mohamed Ghassen Nouira
By Ed Whelan