Hercules gets the initial credit for discovering purpura. He was strolling along the seashore with a svelte nymph, Tyros, and his dog was trotting along ahead in the sand. When they caught up with the dog, its muzzle was smeared with a brilliant, deep red-purple colour—a colour neither of them had ever seen before. Tyros begged Hercules to make her a garment with that hue (in fact, she told him she wouldn’t be with him unless he produced it), so he began collecting shells from the beach.
Shells? Yes, the famous Tyrian purple dye was made from snail shells: from the murex mollusk (shown above), a type of sea snail. It would take 250,000 murex shellfish to obtain one ounce of Tyrian purple, so the dye was highly valued. Purpura (its latin name) became the colour of royalty. It was produced in the city of Tyre, by the Phoenicians (whose name came from the Greek word phoinos, meaning “blood red”). They had been producing dyes in Tyre, and beyond, since 1000 BC.
“The Tyrian colour is most appreciated when it is the colour of clotted blood,” Pliny wrote, “dark by reflected and brilliant by transmitted light.”
By 400 AD, the murex mollusk was on the brink of extinction—a colour vanished from the world, perhaps.
Can a colour really go extinct? What did murex purple really look like—was it worthy of all the praise heaped on it by the ancients? We live in an era where we take colour for granted. Ever since the eighteen-year-old chemist William Perkin synthesized mauve from coal tar in his London apartment, we’ve lived in a brilliant world, where nearly any colour we dream of can be cheaply created. But do organic colours possess something special? Do we even know what we’ve lost? Wikipedia, for example, tells us: “The true colour of Tyrian purple, like most high chroma pigments, cannot be accurately displayed on a computer display, nor are ancient reports entirely consistent,” but it offers swatches of “the sRGB colour #990024, intended for viewing on an output device with a gamma of 2.2. It is a representation of RHS colour code 66A .”
I’ve been haunted by this colour, or the idea of it, for some time, wondering if it still exists in the world—and sRGB colour 990024 did not really satisfy my thirst for Tyrian purple. Driven by curiosity, I set off for the Purpura islands (the Iles Purpuraires, in French), off the Atlantic coast of Morocco. The islands were once home to an ancient Phoenician dyeworks. My logical mind told me that the Phoenicians were long-gone and the factory probably was too, but I thought it was worth scouting.
Sandbars would be more accurate, I thought, when I finally glimpsed the islands. The thing about islands is that they change shape over time. You could practically walk to the main island, if it wasn’t being pounded by angry waves. Yes, there were the ruins of the ancient fort, and seagulls alighting upon them, against the Atlantic grey-blue. A wistful scene, from the shore, but this was 2008, and I learned that the island was closed because it was falcon-breeding season. That was OK, since it was clear there was no purple-related action on these islands, and there hadn’t been for centuries.
The Iles Purpuraires are situated at the port town of Essouira, and it was into Essouira’s medina that I ventured, to see if there was any intelligence to be gathered on purple-dye-producing snails. Essouira smells of the sea and of sewage; it is full of whitewashed buildings and bright blue shutters, a true port.
Accompanied by a French speaker, I ducked into antique shops in labyrinthian alleyways, hoping to see some purple. Finally, we found a rug connoisseur who had heard of murex-dyed purple. It is ancient! he said, his eyes lighting up. How ancient? Apparently, they had been using this colour as recently as the turn of the century.
The rug salesman and his son rooted through heaping piles of expensive rugs to find one that had been dyed with purpura. It reminded me of mullberries, and the juice that stained my fingers as a child when July and mulberry season came… But this rug spread out on the floor before me had likely faded; it was hard to know exactly what hue this rug was when it was crafted. So close to glimpsing Tyrian purple, and yet still far. Did anyone still produce murex? we asked. Well, perhaps there was a region eighty kilometres inland, Oulad-Bousbaa, where someone still knows how make murex. They collect the snails from the sea, and bring them to their village, the rug salesman explained, indicating to a hand-drawn map that showed what kinds of Moroccan rugs were produced in which regions.
I could feel this quest spinning out before me, the long road unfurling, and immediately felt tired. In Morocco, eighty kilometres is not a short way. You do not know how many hordes of goats or men aggressively selling geodes or kids selling weeds you will have to move through just to get to the next town. Both encouraged and discouraged, I left the rug shop having at least seen, and touched, something dyed with murex shellfish. (Probably. Another thing about Morocco is that truth is loose, in the marketplace.)
On the way out of Essouira’s souk, navigating among people selling argan oil and goatskin bags, the old men strolling slowly in their jellabas and the mint-sellers with cartloads of fresh mint, I spied a sign advertising Pigments Naturels. Intrigued, I ducked into the closet-sized stall. It was lined with glass jars bearing neat, home-printed labels. There, staring me in the face, was the jar labeled Murex. Could it be the real thing? It seemed much too easy. Also, the contents of the jar were a mysterious emerald green.
The salesman unscrewed the jar, and dipped his finger in. The green powder was iridescent, glittery. Sprinkling some on a piece of paper, he then put his finger in his mouth, wetting it with saliva. He smeared the wet finger across the paper: a magenta streak appeared. I was enthralled. It reacts to water, my friend translated. The shopkeeper pulled another jar labeled Murex off the shelf, and repeated the process: this powder turned into a brilliant turquoise. He explained that the male and female mollusks produce different colours of dye.
Pulling out a small electronic scale and placing it on the tile floor, the shopkeeper squatted down, carefully measuring some of both powders into tiny plastic baggies for me. I felt like I was making some kind of deviant drug score. Could it possibly be legit— could one really purchase the legendary dye in 2008 for the absurdly low price of 10 dirhams per gram? Oh yes, we still produce it from snail shells, according to the salesman: it’s a family business, with just a handful of people. I was (and still am) skeptical, but I also find it incredible that anyone would bother to manufacture fake murex purple dye. There were no other colour-seekers pounding down this guy’s door, and most people have never even heard of murex.
I’ll never know the true content of the colour I acquired that day, (unless you, dear reader, are a chemist who can analyze it for me—leave a comment below). However, I’m heartened to know that the legendary colour may still exist in the world—in the plastic baggies in my drawer, in the dry hills of Oulad-Bousbaa, or somewhere beyond.