B. Tradition Attributing to the Phoenicians the Discovery of Purple Dyeing

The belief in the Phoenician origin of purple dyeing, so widely current in antiquity, repeatedly occurs in writings on purple even in recent times. An illuminating hint thrown out by Pietschmann, who cannot be certainly suspected of a tendency to belittle the achievements of the Phoenicians, the subjects of his great history, does not seem to have generally met with the appreciation it deserves. 


“Many of the results of the culture of the Orient, which the people of the West first became aware of through the mediation of Phoenician traders, and some skills which the Phoenicians only learned from foreign peoples, but in which they finally achieved independent proficiency, are from the ancients Wrongly regarded as achievements and inventions of the Phoenicians …. It is still uncertain whether those arts which, according to the judgment of the ancients, the Phoenicians were best at, the preparation of the purple color and the coloring with it were first practiced in Phenicia . ” 82 “Viele Ergebnisse der Kultur des Morgenlandes, die den Völkern des Westens zuerst durch Vermittlung Phönizischer Handelsleute bekannt wurden und manch Fertigkeiten, welche die Phönizier zuerst fremden Völkern nur abgelernt, in denen sie es jedoch schliesslich zu selbstständige Tüchtigkeit gebracht hatten, sind von den Alten mit Unrecht als Errungenschaften und Erfindungen der Phönizier betrachten worden…. Unsicher ist selbst ob diejenigen Kunstfertigkeiten, auf welche nach dem Urtheil der Alten die Phönizier sich am besten verstanden haben, die Bereitung der Purpurfarbe und das Färben mit demselben zuerst in Phönizien ausgeübt worden ist.”1


George Tryon had the right instinct when he wrote: 

“It is probably that all ancient peoples inhabiting sea-shores have become accidentally acquainted with this property common to so many molluscs at a very early date.”2

 The natives exercising purple-dyeing with Purpura patula and Purpura lapillus on many coasts of Central America are hardly the debtors of the Phoenician still less of the Spanish conquerors, for, as E. von Martens rightly observes,3 purple-dyeing had long died on the Mediterranean coasts by the time of the discovery of America. The tradition crediting Phoenicia with the invention of purple-dyeing is probably true only in the limited sense that it was on the coasts of that country that the art was brought to its technical perfection. Of this we have evidence in the high esteem in which Phoenician purple was universally held. Strabo states that the Tyrian purple was prized above all others. Laconian purple also enjoyed great fame, but not on a level with the Phoenician. It should, however, also be noted that the excellence of the purple of that provenance was partly ascribed to the intrinsic qualities of the purple snails living in the Phoenician waters.4

With this should be compared an homily by R. Levi in Midrash Rabbah Genesis, 90, which reckons חלזון, or the purple mollusc among the characteristically Palestinian articles sent by Jacob as a gift to Joseph. In thus singling out the purple mollusc the Agadah reflects, I think, the belief, current in its time, in the exceptional qualities of the Palestinian, or more properly Phoenician murices and Purpurae.

When once we have considered the unlikelihood of the Phoenicians having been the only discoverers, it may, perhaps, not be venturing too far to ask whether the Phoenicians were discoverers at all, or, in other words, whether they had not themselves borrowed from some other nation the secret of purple-dyeing. Pietschmann has very nearly said as much: 


“The terms that are common in Hebrew for the purple colors are hardly of the Canaana origin.” “Die Benennungen welche in Hebräischen für die Purpurfarben üblich sind, sind schwerlich Kanaanaischen Ursprung.”5


The historian of the Phoenicians, however, has omitted to state his reasons for this assertion. The names to which he refers are of course Tekhelet and Argaman. Aramaic תכלת and ארמנא, Assyrian,takiltu and Argamannu. Why may not תכלת in particular be purely Semitic? The most plausible etymology of ארגמן or ארגון is that connecting it with the Sanscrit ragamen and ragavan, both adjectives derived from raga = red 6(Bernay’s in Gesenius’ Thesauriis Addit.I.). The etymology of Tekhelet has been less satisfactorily explained. If, however,ארגמן comes from India, may not תכלת, its regular companion, trace its origin to the Sanskrit kala, dark blue, indigo blue? The Indians ranked high as dyers.7 Whether they exercised purple-dyeing I have not yet investigated. Ctesias states that the Indians exhibited wonderful skill in imitating the colour of purple by means of vegetable dye-stuff.8

If both Tekhelet and Argaman are of Indian origin, then it would certainly not be an improbable supposition that the Phoenicians obtained the thing exactly from the same source from which they got the name. This they may have done when still living on the Persian Gulf, prior to their immigration into Syria. The Indians may have meantime abandoned the use of marine animal dye-stuff for some reasons no longer ascertainable. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the Phoenicians only borrowed the name but not the thing, simply adapting to the colours produced with the purple seasnail terms used in India, in their native forms, of course, for designating the corresponding colours obtained with vegetable dye-stuff; but even on this alternative supposition Phoenician dependence upon India in the dyeing craft will have to be conceded to some extent. The derivation proposed here for Tekhelet, however, is hardly of a nature to furnish a firm base for such far-reaching deductions; that of ארגמן, though plausible enough, is not entirely free from doubt. A Phoenician literature, of course, hardly exists. I have not made a search for Tekhelet or Argaman in Plautus, but it is very unlikely to occur there. In Sanchriathon and in Philo Byllus I have found no mention of purple. Closely as we have learnt to associate Phoenicia with purple I felt keenly disappointed on failing to find a single mention of either תכלת or ארגמן in the Phoenician inscriptions published in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum. Perhaps someone else will be more successful. I state this fact simply with the object of inciting others to a harder search, without in the least wishing to imply that the silence of the inscriptions affords a handle for casting doubt upon the reputed supremacy of the Phoenicians as purple producers.

A real difficulty is offered by Ezekiel 27, 7b: “of Tekhelet and Argaman from the isles (or coast lands) of Elishah was thy cover.” And this stands in an elegy on Tyre! Surely it is like bringing coals to Newcastle? 9Ezekiel, be it distinctly emphasized, does not in the slightest degree warrant the inference that the “isles of Elishah” were the only centrès of purple production, or that Tyre manufactured no purple at all. What the prophet does imply is that the “isles of Elishah” were the producers of purple par excellence and that their wares when imported into Tyre threw the native fabrics into the shade.

Similarly, in the first half of this verse Egypt is said to have furnished “fine linen” with embroidery. Now, we know that Egypt was preeminent in the production of fine linen. This analogy alone would sufficiently establish the inference drawn from the second half of the verse with regard to the “Isles of Elishah.”

Where are those isles or coast lands? Various identifications have been proposed the Peloponnesian coasts,10 Carthage, Sicily, etc. Recently it has been identified with Alsa or Alasia of the Egyptian texts. The latter, according to Professor Maspero, designates the northern part of Coilosyria. Professor Sayce draws attention to an hieratic papyrus, now in the Hermitage at St. Petersburg, showing clearly that, unlike Professor Maspero’s hypothesis, Alsa must have adjoined the Mediterranean coastland. In giving an account of an embassy sent by sea to the King of Gebal in the time of the high priest Ur-Hal the text states: “the Egyptian envoys were wrecked on the coast of Alsa where they were afterwards hospitably entertained by the queen of the country.”

The theory now most generally accepted is that Alasia is identical with Cyprus.11 It would thus follow that Cyprus held at one time the palm of purple manufacture. This would not at all conflict with what we otherwise know of Cypriotic art and civilisation. I know of no researches into the subject of Cyprus as a purple producer, but the following passage in Dedekind may, I think, be appositely quoted: 


“About variable purple substances . . . see my Parisian paper on Oxyblatta in the 3 series, 4 vol. of the ‘Archiven de Zoologie expérimentale et gén.,’ where I first drew attention to a variable purple on an Artemis statue from Larnakei (Cyprus), etc.”  “Über changeanten Purpurstoffe . . . siehe meinen Pariser Aufsatz über Oxyblatta in der 3 Serie, 4 Bd. der ‘Archiven de Zoologie expérimentale et gén.,’ wo ich zum ersten Male auf ein Purpur-changeant-Himation an einer Artemisstatue von Larnakei (Cypern) aufmerksam gemacht habe, etc.”12


Whether אלישה is to be equated with Cyprus or not, Ezekiel 27, 7b. admits, at least to my mind, of no other solution but that the universally renowned Phoenician preeminence in purple production is younger than Ezekiel (died. c. 571 BX ).

An error shared by many a noted authority is that Homer refers to the Phoenicians as famed for their purple fabrics. In so up-to-date a medium of information as the article “Phoenicia” in the latest edition of the British Encyclopaedia a statement is made to this effect, the source indicated being Iliad, VI. 289. In view of the excellence of the article as a whole, this, I believe, a single slip may well be pardoned, but a misleading statement in what may be termed a national work, constituting a glorious monument to British science and learning, ought not to be allowed to go unrectified. I have not found in Homer the slightest reference to Phoenicians as purple manufacturers, to say nothing of their supremacy as such. Iliad VI. 289 speaks of Sidonian women as exceptionally skilled at embroidery work (“Embroidered garments, the work of Sidonian women”). There is no allusion here to purple-dyeing or indeed of any sort, but simply to artistic needlework, a peculiarly feminine craft, especially in antiquity. Note this passage in Perrot et Chiprez: 


“It is most often embroidered with a needle, it is that the Latins called acu pingere; we do not understand how with the work of the ancients we could have executed in the fabric itself. All these figures which we have seen cover the Assyrian fabrics, in the bas-reliefs where the sculptors have copied them with such meticulous accuracy; with the needle, on the contrary, as the Latin phrase was so well expressed, one can easily achieve the same effects as with brushes; all it takes is skill and time. “ “C’est le plus souvent broder a l’aiguille, c’est que les Latins appelaient acu pingere; on ne comprend pas comment avec le metier des anciens on aurait pu executer dans le tissu même toutes ces figures qui nous avons vu couvrir les étoffés assyriennes, dans les basreliefs ou les sculpteurs les ont copieés avec une si minutieuse exactitude; avec l’aiguille, au contraire, comme s’exprimait si bien la locution latine, on peut asiement obtenir les mêmes effets qu’avec les pinceaux; il n’y faut que de l’adresse et du temps.”13

Compare Hebrew רקם and comp. רוקם וכו יומא ע׳׳ב ע״ב.

Incidentally we learn from Homer that in his time Sidon was the home of the highest skill of embroidery. That the coloured threads used in Phoenician embroidery work were of native dyeing does not at all necessarily follow. These may have been, in Homer’s time, imported from abroad Cyprus or elsewhere, just as at a much later time Phoenician purple wool would be worked into textiles in Assyria.14

The absence in Homer of all association of purple production with the Phoenicians tends, I think, to strengthen my contention that Phoenician supremacy under that aspect dates from a period later than Ezekiel.

Solomon orders from Hiram, King of Tyre, cedar wood to be used in the construction of the Sanctuary, but not תכלת, Tekhelet, or ארגמן, Argaman.15 On the other hand, he asks him to send him a “skilful man to work in Argaman and karmil and Tekhelet, etc.”16 “And he made the veil of Tekhelet, and Argaman and karmil and fine linen and wrought thereon Kerubim.”17 This is in consonance with the Phoenician excellence at embroidery alluded to in Homer.

In the corresponding account in Kings18 there is nothing answering to this, simply because Kings only deals with wood and mineral materials.



  1. Pietschmann, Richard, Geschichte der Phönizien, Berlin (1885), p. 239.
  2. Tyron, G. ibid., p. 43.
  3. Martens, E. von, “Purpurfarbereien in Central America,” Verhandlungen der Berliner Anthropologischen Gesellschaft, 22. Oktober 1898, p. 482-486.
  4. Pausanias, Percigesis of Greece. Book III, ch. 2. para. 6.
  5. Pietschmann, R., ibid., p. 239.
  6. תרגם may perhaps be the תפעל of רגם, red, bright, hence to enlighten, to illumine, to explain, to interpret. Cf..קידושין ל״א ע״ב ,לא צהריתו
  7. Lassen Christian, Indische Altertumskunde, Leipzig (1858), V.I, p. 277.
  8. Ctesias Cnidius, Ex Ctesia … excerptae historia, book XXL
  9. Curiously enough Professor Besnier in his really admirable article on “Purpura” in the Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines refers to Ezekiel 27 as one of the sources speaking of Phoenicia as mistress of the art of purple-dyeing.
  10. Halevi, Joseph, Recherches Bibliques, Paris ( 1895), pp. 260-264. Also Saglio, Edmond; Daremberg, Victor Charles, “Purpura,” Dictionnaire des Antiquités, Paris (1907), pp. 415-6.
  11. Driver, Samuel Rolles, Modern Research as Illustrating the Bible, London (1909), p. 32.
  12. Dedekind, ibid., v.I, p. 89.
  13. Perrot, Geoges, Chipier, Charles, Histoire de l’Art, dans l’Antiquité, Paris (1890), p. 877.
  14. Pausanias, ibid., Book V. ch. 12, para. 4.
  15. I Chronicles, ch. II, vs. 1, 2.
  16. Idem, Ch… II, v. 6.
  17.  Idem, Ch. III, v. 14.
  18. I Kings, Ch. V, v. 16; Ch. 7, v. 51.