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Young Reader's World

Millennia of Murex

One of the most unlikely “marriages” ever arranged is the one between the Chinese silk moth, Bombyx mori, and Mediterranean sea snails of the murex family. This snail produces a pigment (coloring matter) that, when brought together with silk, led to the world’s longest-lasting fashion statement.

Detail from an 11th-century Byzantine robe shows griffins embroidered on a delicate silk woven of murex-dyed threads. It was in the eastern Roman empire of Byzantium that the symbolic power of murex purple reached its apogee.
See the griffens, mythical creatures with the head of an eagle on the body of a lion? This fragment from an 11th-century Byzantine robe shows them embroidered on a delicate silk woven of murex-dyed threads. The symbolic power of murex purple reached its apogee in the eastern Roman empire of Byzantium.

Written by Philippa Scott

Murex first gained fame as the basic ingredient in “Tyrian purple,” a dye named for the city of Tyre, located in what is today Lebanon. More than 3,000 years ago, Tyre was the center from which the seafaring Phoenicians controlled a trade in luxurious murex-dyed silks. Centuries later, the dye was known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple” because Roman and Byzantine emperors decreed that only members of the imperial family could wear the color.

The search for long-lasting, brilliant textile dyes is an ancient one. Early dyers experimented with plants, colored earths, stones with metallic oxides, insects, blood, seaweeds and shellfish. Shell mounds, pits full of shells, and stretches of seashore made up of millions of crushed shells are continually being discovered, forcing archeologists and historians to reassess dates and boundaries for possible murex industries. Historians once believed that the story of murex purple dyes began around 3000 BC with the Minoan civilization of Crete. The Phoenicians then advanced the process. Recent finds, however, suggest that the use of shellfish dyes developed in what is today Qatar, on the Arabian Gulf, at the same time that it did in the Mediterranean and the Americas.

To paint this fresco of a bull-leaper, a Minoan artist of approximately 1500 bc used murex dye in his palette.
This fresco of a Minoan bull-leaper, vibrantly colored by an artist using murex dye, is around 3500 years old.

Excavations at Minoan sites have uncovered houses decorated with frescoes that used murex purple as paint and earthen floors that contained crushed murex shells. The shells also appeared as a design motif on pottery and on carved gemstones. The fresco scenes tell us that the Minoans wove fine wool cloth that was dyed different colors and that had distinct patterns. The extensive Minoan trading network worked on a barter system, and cloth was one of the most important trade items. A key trading partner was Egypt, whose people had more than 70 formulae for dyeing wool, most of which involved purple.

From the 15th century BC or earlier, murex dyeing was also carried on at Ugarit, a port city on the north coast of Syria. Excavated finds here include lots of crushed shells and part of a pot still stained with purple. Surviving texts describe a thriving trade in purple wool and purple cloth.

But it was the Phoenicians who were destined to be deeply linked with murex purple dye. The name “Phoenician” is derived from the Greek phoinix, meaning “purple-red.” Murex comes to us from Latin, derived from the Greek muax, or “purple fish.” The sea meant trade, and by the eighth century BC, the Phoenicians were established as traders, craftsmen, daring seafarers and wealthy businessmen.

On the supply end, the “marriage” of silk and murex occurred relatively early. Strands of Chinese silk have been identified in the hair of an Egyptian mummy dating to 1000 BC. This was long before an established trade network existed. The Chinese, who kept close account of all silk production outside their borders, recorded that Syria was a silk producer by the fifth century of our era.

The commercial success and appeal of murex was based on solid science. Silk, which is as strong as steel when measured weight for weight, is also highly absorbent. As a result, it is easier to dye than any other fiber and requires less dye to achieve deeper colors. Depending on the dye mixture and the length of time in the dye, the colors ranged from ultramarine blues and purples to gentle lilacs, mauves and pinks. The Phoenicians justified the high prices they demanded for murex because so little pigment was obtained from each shellfish. (See sidebar “How Murex Works.”)

A Minoan earthenware jar, dated between 1450 and 1400 BC, depicts an octopus and semiabstract murex trunculus shells.
This Minoan earthenware jar, dated between 1450 and 1400 BC, depicts an octopus and semi-abstract murex trunculus shells.

When Alexander the Great, the ruler of Greece and much of what is now the Middle East, captured Susa (in today’s Iran) in 331 BC, his troops found many purple robes in the royal treasury. At first the Greeks thought the colored robes ostentatious, or gaudy, but they soon learned the dye process. Purple dye works have been excavated in Corinth, Greece, and murex shells were depicted on some Greek coins.

By the time the Roman leader Julius Caesar returned to Rome from Egypt in the mid-first century BC, the number of purple stripes or emblems on any Roman male’s outer garment was an indication of his rank, authority and prestige. The Roman emperor Nero, who had a habit of taking things to extremes, wore all-purple robes and issued a decree declaring death the punishment for anyone who dared wear the color. Now that is taking fashion seriously!

But it was in the eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium that the murex purple fashion reached its all-time high. When Emperor Constantine established his new city, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), in 330 of our era, the Byzantines embraced purple. Ancient Phoenicia and Syria became Byzantine territories. Syrian merchants were granted special privileges because they supplied the imperial weavers with purple-dyed silk. The Byzantine silk industry was strictly regulated, and those who broke the laws regulating the sale, production and wearing of purple were severely punished. Throughout the Mediterranean world, until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, purple meant glamour, royalty, aristocracy, wealth and power.

Some have attributed the collapse of murex purple to overfishing and to the seventh-century Arab conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean. But most scholars blame the Turks. Historian Stephen Runciman, in his Fall of Constantinople, wrote that two great secrets were lost when Constantinople fell: the military formula for making “Greek fire” and the dyeing techniques of Tyrian purple.

Other factors also led to the death of murex, including the sacking and looting of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1202. As always in conquest, skilled craftsmen were part of the booty, and it was around that time that the Italian silk industry began to flourish. It is also true that for the Turks and the Arabs, purple did not carry the same meaning as it had for the Byzantines. Muslims saw green and red as the colors of life and royalty. Ottoman superstitions held black and purple to be unlucky colors. However, the Ottoman Turks continued to manufacture Byzantine-style silks for the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Murex snail shells are of interest not only to collectors, but also to historians, as shown in this etching from an early 20th-century history book about Egypt.

In 1467, a decree issued by the pope in Rome stated that the murex purple, previously used on robes worn by cardinals (high-ranking clergymen), should be replaced by scarlet, a color used by Europe’s kings. This shift lowered revenues from the Ottoman murex trade. And another blow to the murex industry was just about to fall.

The European discovery of the Americas in the late 15th century introduced Europe to cochineal, a crimson dye obtained from the insect of the same name. It was less expensive to produce than murex and dyers began mixing it with indigo, a blue dye obtained from plants, to obtain shades formerly obtained from shellfish.

Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old English chemistry student named William Henry Perkin accidentally fabricated the dye mauveine. He called the synthetic coloring “Tyrian purple” because he thought, mistakenly, that he had rediscovered the dye of the ancients. When Queen Victoria chose mauve for her Jubilee dress in 1887, she was perhaps the first monarch ever to wear silk that had been dyed to that shade without using either the murex or cochineal.

Fashion being a fickle game, the murex market that had been so stable for thousands of years finally faded. The marriage was over. The silkworm had spurned the shellfish, first for an insect, and finally for a chemist.

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Philippa Scott

London-based free-lance writer Philippa Scott is a textile historian and author of several books, including The Book of Silk (2001, Thames & Hudson).