C. Egypt and Purple Dyeing

Whether purple-dyeing was practised in Pharaonic Egypt is a deeply interesting question, easy to ask but hard, very hard, to answer. Facilities for purple-dyeing would be offered by both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Future research by specialists may, let us hope, succeed in throwing light in this direction. It is, however, I surmise, not very likely that the answer will be discovered in the Egyptian texts themselves either affirmatively or negatively. At best we shall have to be contented with a more or less high degree of probability. Should this, however, point in the negative direction, the general belief in the hoary antiquity of the Phoenician pre-eminence in purple-dyeing will have thereby received at least a mild shaking. From very early times Phoenicia is known to have been under Egyptian influence, and it is only reasonable to suppose that she must have in some way reciprocated. From 1600 to 1350 Egypt exercised dominion over Phoenicia. An inscription on the tomb of Rekhmara, governor of Thebes, under Thothmes III (18th dynasty) represents the former as receiving the homage of Phoenician princes in the name of the Pharaoh.1 Phoenician art from the earliest times exhibits traces of Egyptian influence. An old Egyptian text (about 1400) refers to Sidon, Sarepta and Tyre (Dar); of the latter it says that she is “richer in fish than in sands.”

Dr. Alexander Dedekind, the well-known Egyptologist and porphyrologist appears to advocate the view that purple dyeing was practised in ancient Egypt. The hieratic papyrus No. 3933 at the Vienna Imperial Museum contains a list of various precious articles with their respective prices. One line reads: “qema nofrzay, “etc. Zay is a word which occurs a number of times in the Egyptian texts. Dr. Dedekind tries to show that it denotes purple, i.e. cloth dyed with (marine) animal secretion. He thus translates the above line: “beautiful cloth of purple,” etc. The learned Egyptologist further points to Papyrus Sallier, No. 2, British Museum, containing a poem in which are discussed the disadvantages of the various crafts and occupations. Of the dyer the poet says:”His hands stink; they have the stench of rotten fish; the dyers sully all garments.” This, Dr. Dedekind holds, distinctly applies to purple dyeing, for, as implied in Pliny and Strabo, and as corroborated by a series of experiments extending from William Cole to Professors Dubois and Friedlaender the purpurgenic matter emits an offensive garlic like smell in the course of its photographic development.2

Dr. Dedekind, moreover, draws attention to a number of Egyptian articles at the Vienna Museum which, according to him, are dyed or painted with purple pigment. Thus the garment of a certain Zaher or Zehir, priest of Amon at Thebes, has been identified as purple by Dr. Dedekind aided by Herr Ernest Berger of Munich, an eminent painter known for his researches into colour in antiquity. But this and similar facts really do not go to the root of the essential point. Given the correctness of the identification, there is nothing to indicate that the garment in question was dyed in Egypt. Purple garments might well be worn in Egypt without there being a single purple factory in existence in the country. Should it even be absolutely proved that at this or that period purple dyeing was not practised anywhere in the land of the Pharaohs, it would not in the least follow that purple cloth was not then to be found within the Egyptian frontiers. Zaher or Zehir, though a priest of Amon, might wear without prejudice to his sacred office a garment made and dyed abroad. It is possible that during their ministration in the temple, Egyptian priests would take care to exclude from their attire articles of dress of foreign make, though 1 cannot recall anything giving the palest colour to an assumption of this kind. But then there is no indication that the garment in question formed part of the priest’s sacerdotal wardrobe. Very probably it did not; in early Egypt fine white linen to the exclusion of colour of any sort was the rule for the priestly dress during officiation in the sanctuary.3

Apart from all this, the evidence adduced in favour of the garment being genuine purple, or, to use the technical expression, “Purpura blatta or oxyblatta,” is not very clear to me. This, if I have rightly understood Dr. Dedekind, is based upon identity of nuance with a certain textile at the Naples Museum dyed with the flower of Murex trunculus. But identity of nuance is no proof of identity of dyestuff. Again, there is another difficulty which baffles me. Dr. Dedekind defines the colour as “rosa.” But with the dyestuff furnished by Murex trunculus we have learned to associate rather dark violet shades.

The rosa garment of the priest of Amon, it may be added, is not, according to Dr. Dedekind, the only specimen of purple at the Egyptian Museum in Vienna. The learned Egyptologist speaks also of red purple dating from the XXIst dynasty of “planches de bois peintes avec Argaman dans la collection des antiquités égyptiennes de la cour impériale (wooden planks painted with argaman in the collection of Egyptian antiquities of the imperial court ),” of a number of Egyptian paintings “en pourpre rouge foncé,” exhibited in Room VI, and of decoration “avec la couleur de sang figé (with the color of frozen blood).”4 These paintings and decorations, carrying within them, I expect, evidence of native art, have, I think, a greater bearing than the purple fabrics upon the main question with which we are concerned, but then painting and dyeing are two separate departments. After all, it is only chemistry that can ascertain by an analytical process whether these fabrics and paintings are genuine purple.

To return now to the hieratic papyrus No. 3933 of the Vienna Museum. If zay means purple in the proper sense of the word, it still fails to afford us a clue to the solution of our problem. What it does then show is that purple fabrics were to be found in pharaonic Egypt. That such was the case in the latter country at a time when purple factories existed somewhere in Asia or in Africa is exactly what we should have divined, though the light from the papyrus is most welcome. Dr. Dedekind, in that exceedingly instructive article, brings to our notice the interesting fact, revealed by Papyrus Harris No. 1, that the vast treasures of Ramses III also included purple. I may add that the earliest known mention of תכלת takiltu occurs in a list of precious articles sent to Egypt by Dusratta, King of the Mittani, as dowry to the Egyptian prince who was about to marry his daughter. This shows at any rate that Tekhelet was highly prized in Egypt in the age of Amenhophis III.

In support of Dr. Dedekind’s explanation of zay, the idea once occurred to me that it might be connected with zahi or dahi, a word designating the Phoenician in the oldest Egyptian inscription; zay would therefore mean the Phoenician stuff, somewhat as a well-known vegetable dyestuff, was called indikos by the Greeks and indicum by the Latins on account of its Indian provenance. No inference, however, could thence be drawn, either that purple dyeing was practised in Egypt or that it was not, in the period coeval with the papyrus in question. A principal variety of ancient purple was termed p. Tyria, whether dyed on the Tyrian coast or on the shores of the Adriatic. What the hypothesis would indeed warrant is that already at that early age Phoenicia was looked upon in the land of the highest contemporary civilisation and culture as the principal, if not the only, producer of purple a result which would, of course, clash with my solution of the difficulty presented by Ezekiel 27, 7b. In view, however, of the entire repudiation of it by Professor Maspero, I feel disinclined to base anything upon my proposed derivation for zay. The learned professor, replying to a query I had addressed him on the point, writes: 


“It is not certain that the word transcribed zai by Dedekind means purple, but it seems certain to me that it has no kinship with Zahi, the Phoenicia: the proper name contains a soft aspirated that the common name does not contain.” “Il n’est pas ceretain que le mot transcrit zai par Dedekind signifie pourpre, mais il me paraît certain qu’il n’a pas de parenté avec Zahi, la Phoenicia: le nom propre renferme une aspirée douce que le nom commun ne renferme pas.”


If, as Professor Maspero says, it is not certain that zay signifies purple, it is, however, absolutely certain that it denotes a very expensive stuff of some sort. May it not, I venture to suggest, with the greatest possible reserve, simply mean silk, zay being the sharpened Chinese sei; si compare the variants “sze”, “szu”, “sz” Korean sa, sil, sir? Compare the Teutonic say silk, German Seide.

The ancients obtained their silk from China. Serikon (silk) is connected with Eyfes, which probably means the Chinese, the people of silk, the root being Chinese “sei.”

If this be correct, it would furnish us with the highly interesting information that already in the earliest times silk was imported into Egypt, but how far this would go to indicate direct commercial intercourse between the celestial empire and the magic land of the Nile it would be hard to determine. A direct result of the acceptance of this meaning for zay would be the disarming of opposition to the rendering of משי in Ezekiel by “silk.” It is not impossible that שי is the Chinese si with preformaticum.

Recognizing, as I have said before, the important part which chemistry with its processes of analysis never dreamt of by Egyptian wisdom and magic must play in the solution of the question whether purple dyeing was anciently exercised in the land where stood the cradle of science, I applied to Professor Friedlaender, now professor of chemistry at Darmstadt University, who is known to have studied the relics of ancient purple under the chemical aspect. In his kind reply the eminent chemist says:


“Egyptian … I have not yet been able to find evidence in the large European collections, perhaps because the extraordinarily numerous remains from pre-Christian Egypt consist exclusively of dyed linen and cotton, but purple was apparently only dyed on wool and silk.” “Aegyptische … habe ich in den grossen europäischen Sammlungen bis jetzt nicht nachweisen können, vielleicht deshalb, weil die ausserordentlich zahlreichen Ueberreste aus dem vorchristlichen Aegypten ausschliesslich aus gefärbtem Leinen und Baumwolle bestehen, Purpur aber anscheinend nur auf Wolle und Seide gefärbtwurde.” 


It would be interesting to learn of what stuff the garment is made which has been identified by Dr. Dedekind as purple fabric.

With regard to Egyptian paintings. Professor Friedlaender is silent, nor, as it appears, has he yet studied the coloured textile extant in the Asiatic and African collections. A hard search in the museums in Egypt itself and in Constantinople might perhaps be worth the trouble.

Professor Friedlaender’s attempted explanation of his failure to find specimens of purple among the relics of ancient Egypt is worthy of very serious consideration. Pliny speaks of attempts at dyeing linen with purple pigment, but in terms hardly implying brilliant results.”5

Byssus, the finest sort of linen in the production of which Egypt excelled, also seems but rarely to have been dyed with purple.6

The dyeing of linen with even vegetable pigment seems to have been comparatively rare in antiquity. Down to as late a date as the Lex Valentina the choice of material lay between wool and silk. 


No private citizen shall have the right to dye either silk or wool with the colors purple,” etc.  “Fucandae atque distrahendae Purpurae vel in serico vel in lana quai blatta,” etc. 


That cotton was anciently dyed with purple dye-stuff does not seem very likely.

Linen, as is well known, was the material generally used for clothing in ancient Egypt. Now since that stuff was anciently regarded as not adapted for dyeing with purple pigment, the manufacture of purple one might feel disposed to argue would hardly gain a footing there. But the tables might easily be turned. Would Egyptian genius be powerless to discover some means for successfully dyeing linen with purple secretion? Linen being the national material of dress, such a discovery would almost be a necessity, if there really existed the same enthusiasm for purple as elsewhere, and we know full well what wonders the mother of invention can perform. These doubts of mine were strengthened on finding, in the course of my researches, the mention of linen Tekhelet in connection with the gifts sent by Hezekiya to Sanherib:


“30 talents of gold … garments of many colours, linen cloth of blue purple (kitu takiltu), cloth of red purple.”  “30 biltu huraso ….. lu-val-ti bir-mi ku kitu sabatu ta-kil-tu sabatu arga-man-nu.” 


B.T. Eydts, to whom the transcription is due, translates “30 talents of gold … garments of many colours, linen cloth of blue purple (kitu takiltu), cloth of red purple (sabatu Argamannu;).7

It would be futile to object that perhaps the linen Tekhelet thus mentioned was the product of some unsuccessful experiment made in or about Hezekiya’s time, and which was but rarely repeated afterwards (cf. Pliny cited above “Tentatum est”, etc.). The Tekhelet in question must really have been of the best of its kind since it was forwarded as tribute to the “great King.” One might even go further and argue that linen Tekhelet in particular must have ranked higher, at least in Palestine in Hezekiya’s days, than all other purple fabrics. Why is there no specification of the material in the case of Argamannu? Was it merely a matter of chance that Hezekiya sent to Sanherib linen instead of woollen Tekhelet, and the Assyrian scribe simply records the fact? But, so far as I know, sipatu (wool) regularly goes with takiltu in the Assyrian inscriptions, a phenomenon which warrants the inference that linen Tekhelet was not the rule. Why should Hezekiya have departed from the rule in the choice of material intended to quench the fire of the tyrant’s greed, if not for the reason that the exception was the more precious sort just because its production was peculiarly difficult?

Casting about for an alternative explanation to that proposed by Professor Friedlaender, I hit upon the following hypothesis: In Phoenicia the purple murices were held sacred to Astarte8 a fact which, by the way, throws a side light upon the classical legend which tells that the first purple garment was presented by Hercules (the Phoenician Melkart) to his Consort. May not a similar belief have prevailed in Egypt, producing, however, a result exactly the reverse of that which it brought about in Phoenicia? Fully conscious of the boldness of the idea, I wrote to Professor Maspero, asking the eminent Egyptologist and historian of antiquity what he thought of it. Here is the Professor’s reply: 


“I don’t think it was the religious question that prevented the Egyptians from using purple. Iron was the bone of Typhon and in honor of religion, which does not prevent the Egyptian priests themselves from using it in everyday life: they limited themselves only to excluding ritual cults: I believe that there was above all a matter of personal taste and fashion until the saite period:  it seems that then, under Asian and Greek influences, the taste changed and the colorful fabrics became fashionable purple with them. However, this is only a conjecture.” “Je ne crois pas que ce soit la question religieuse qui ait empeché les égyptiens d’employer la pourpre. Le fer était l’os de Typhon et en honneur à la religion, ce qui n’empêche pas les prêtres égyptiens eux mêmes de s’en servir dans la vie courante: ils se bornèrent seulement à exclure des cultes rituels: je crois qu’il y eut là avant tout une affaire de goût personnel et de mode jusqu’à l’époque saite: il semble qu’alors, sous les influences asiatiques et grecques, le goût se modifia et que les étoffes bariolées deviennent à la mode la pourpre avec elles. Ce n’est là toutefois qu’une conjecture.”


In the same letter Professor Maspero states: 


“I don’t know of any example of purple-dyed cloth in Pharaonic Egypt: the only specimens of red dye or something like that I know of are cathame fabrics, but they are very rare. The leathers are more frequently colored red, but I don’t see anything resembling the hues of the various purples used in antiquity. The Pharaonic Egyptians dressed in white: with very rare exceptions, they used the blue, pink, red, green, yellow thread only for the bedding of fabrics for embroidery, for borders, pure fringes. It is only in Roman and Byzanthine times that we see the appearance of fabrics, woolens especially of purple, blue, and red tones that recall purple and that are perhaps”. “Je ne connais pas d’exemple d’étoffe teinte en pourpre dans l’Egypte pharaonique: les seuls spécimens de teinture rouge ou à peu près que je connaisse sont des étoffes au cathame, encore sont-elles fort rares. Les cuirs sont plus fréquemment colorés en rouge, mais je n’y vois rien qui ressemble aux teintes des différentes pourpres usitées dans l’antiquité. Les Egyptiens pharaoniques s’habillaient en blanc: à de très rares exceptions près, ils n’employaient le fil de couleur bleu, rose rouge, vert, jaune que pour les liteaux d’étoffes pour des broderies, pour des liserés, pur des franges. C’est seulement à l’époque romaine et byzanthine qu-on voit paraître des étoffes, des lainages surtout de tons violets, bleus et rouges qui rappellent la pourpre et qui le sont peut-être”.


The statement of Professor Maspero that the Pharaonic Egyptians clothed themselves in white is probably not meant to be absolute. In very early times things were different. 


However, such influences could only have affected the detail, because the general character of the Egyptian costume is entirely opposite to that which we meet at the same time in northern Syria … with the Egyptians, wide, wrinkled robes of white, translucent linen without any jewelry, clothes, where apparently only flawless purity and the finest fabric are thought of. From the beginning, that was not the case in Egypt either. The clothes of the old empire sometimes seem to be made of a heavy material; women’s clothes are more often colored than white, and even in the middle kingdom they are sometimes green or colored. Much earlier, the color disappeared from the men’s clothes, and although the inscriptions still indicate the red, blue and green stuff as a need of the gods and the deceased, these substances have long since been replaced by the fine white ones in the living.”  “Indes könnten solche Einwirkungen nur das Detail betroffen haben, denn der allgemeine Charakter der ägyptishcen Tracht ist dem, den wir gleichzeitig in Nordsyrien treffen, durchaus entgegengesetzt … bei den Aegyptern weite, faltige Gewänder von weissem, durchscheineneden Linnen ohne jeden Schmuck, Kleider, bei denen augenscheinlich nur auf tadellose Reinheit und feinstes Gewebe gedacht wird. Von Anbeginn an war das freilich auch in Aegypten nicht gewesen. Die Kleider des alten Reiches scheinen zuweilen aus einem schweren Stoff zu bestehen; die Frauenkleider sind häufiger bunt als weiss und noch im mittleren Reiche sind sie zuweilen grün oder bunt. Ungleich früher ist die Farbe aus den Männerkleidem verschwunden, und wenn auch die Inschriften nach wie vor das rote, blaue und grüne Zeug als Bedürfnis der Götter und der Verstorbenen angeben, so sind doch diese Stoffe bei den Lebenden längst durch die feinen weissen verdrängt.”9


Speaking again of Egyptian dress, Ermann states: 


Speaking again of Egyptian dress, Ermann states: “This love for colored patterns, however, was limited exclusively to the coarse fabrics; for the finer ones, which were intended for clothing, color and pattern were almost completely frowned upon. In this case, all art was given the one task of producing the finest, white linen possible and brought it to incredible perfection; I only remember those white robes of the nobles, which were so fine that limbs shimmered through them.” “Diese Liebe zu farbigen Mustern blieb indes ausschliesslich auf die groben Gewebe beschränkt; bei den feineren, die zur Kleidung bestimmt waren, waren Farbe und Muster fast ganz verpönt. Man setzte in diesem Falle alle Kunst an die eine Aufgabe, möglichst feines, weisses Leinen herzustellen und brachte hierin es allerdings zu unglaublicher Vollkommenheit; ich erinnere nur anjene weissen Gewänder der Vornehmen, die so fein waren, dass die Glieder durch sie durchschimmerten.”10


A new line has thus been opened up for our inquiry. It need not exactly have been the Egyptians’ affection for linen which may have prevented purple dyeing from establishing itself in their midst. Their very marked preference for transparent white would be just as potent, if not a more potent cause in that direction. But then, for what reason would purple be excluded from the tombs, seeing that in death the Egyptian did not spurn colour? Professor Maspero’s refutation of my hypothesis does not so forcibly apply here. The sepulchre was a sanctuary with the Egyptian.

Last, but not least, I may quote a communication from the celebrated British Egyptologist Professor Flinders Petrie of London University. I regret that it only has a partial bearing upon the point under discussion. In answer to a question I had addressed him, whether he could recall any reference to the symbolism of colour in the Egyptian texts, the learned professor wrote to me in 1910 (July 2nd.): “I regret that there has been no research as to the symbolic use of colour in Egypt. Nor do I remember any allusions to the meaning of colour in the literature. As to תכלת I see Cesenius takes it to be the H. janthina. But I doubt if that dye has been found in ancient Egypt. Indigo is the usual blue there anciently. If you wish to see an example of the woven work of blue, red, and yellow as old as the Exodus, please refer to the frontispiece of “The Tomb of Thoutmosis IV” by Carter & Newberry (Constable) 1904. Wilkinson11 already states that the chemical examination of certain specimens of Egyptian blue fabrics proved the dye to be indigo.”

Professor Maspero sets up the commencement of the Saitic period as the conjectural terminus from which coloured fabrics, including purple, began to come in fashion in Egypt. Ezekiel speaks of embroidered Egyptian Fine linen, but there is nothing to indicate that the embroidery was also of Egyptian manufacture.12

Pliny cannot sufficiently admire the skill of the Egyptian dyers of his time. It is clear from his account that, as Wilkinson points out, they “possessed a knowledge of the effects of acids on colour and submitted the cloth they dyed to one of the same processes adopted in our modern manufacture.”13 This wonderful degree of perfection in Pliny’s days could not have been but of yesterday. The royal dress of the Pharaohs consisted of fine white linen. Joseph, while in Canaan, receives from Jacob a coat of many colours as a mark of high distinction, but when he is raised by Pharaoh to the Egyptian viceroyship he puts on vestures of fine linen.14 Josephus, with his usual liberality, allows him also a suit of purple clothes at Pharaoh’s expense, of course. In Josephus’ time purple had long conquered Egyptian taste and fashion. That the later Egyptian kings clothed themselves in purple is plainly stated by Livy15 and Pliny.16 Tertullian even states that such was the case from the earliest times.


“Therefore, the purple and the ornaments of the neck in the same manner were the insignia of dignity among the Egyptians and Babylonians”  “Igitur, Purpura ilia, et cerucis ornamentum eodem modo apud Aegyptos et Babylonios insignia erant dignitatis,”17 etc.


This is probably mere projection into the past; but, in spite of all that has been said, it is, I think, quite possible that many a Pharaoh would, under the influence of his close intercourse with Asiatic princes, adopt purple as his dress, if not on the most solemn State functions, inseparably bound up with religion in ancient Egypt, at least on certain less official occasions, especially in receiving Asiatic deputations, when it would be of psychological importance that the Pharaoh should appear in the most gorgeous uniform devisable in order to impose upon the colour-loving Barbarians. Egyptian kings in particular, who had formed matrimonial alliances with Asiatics, would contract a taste for coloured dress, especially for purple. One such alliance has already been referred to, and there a fact which may not be devoid of significance we have seen Tekhelet figuring in the list of the wedding gifts.

In Manetho’s time, purple has already captured that impregnable fortress of ancient customs the Egyptian priesthood.18

Sepulchres dating from the fourth to the fifth century C.E. have revealed a wealth of purple woollen clothes embroidered with gold.19 Whether these are really purple, chemistry is now able to ascertain, but it can hardly determine whether they are of native of foreign dyeing. On the supposed existence of a purple dyehouse about the beginning of the seventh century C.E. in this (Upper Egypt), see Dr. Dedekind’s refutation of W. Adolf Schmidt’s arguments.20

It will not, I hope, be entirely out of place to quote in connection with our subject the following passage from the Midrash Rabbah, Gen. 90).

קחו מזמרת הארץ בכליכם ר׳ יהושע דסכנין בשם ר׳ לוי דברים שהן מזמרין בעולם חלזון חמר קטף וכר

“Take of the best products (zimrath) of the land in your vessels” (Gen. 43). R. Joshuah of Sakhanin said in the name of R. Levi: “things which are celebrated (mesamrin, lit. “sing praises”) in the world; hillazon,” etc. hillazon in this context stands for the purple mollusc, either that productive of Tekhelet or of Argaman, or for both. R. Levy himself scarcely claimed for this interpretation the authority of Mosaic tradition; it simply reflects the author’s age. It is not Tekhelet or Argaman that R. Levi represents as one of the most valuable Palestinian or Phoenician products but rather the hillazon. May not this be taken as some indication that in R. Levi’s time (floruit 230 CE (floruit: Latin for “flourished.” A period when the person was known to be alive.)) Egypt produced good purple which was only inferior to the Phoenician fabrics. that inferiority being attributed to the innate superiority of the Phoenician purple molluscs. This is just the sort of explanation one would expect the greatly admired Egyptian dyers to offer for their inability to rival, or even outdo the Phoenicians.

We may now sum up the evidence in as far as it bears upon the solution of our problem.

Dr. Dedekind’s identification of certain Pharaonic Egyptian articles as purple fabrics and paintings respectively is based upon the fact that these exhibit shades of colour identical with those presented by other objects known to have been dyed or painted, as the case may be, with purple pigment. One can only express the hope that the identifications will one day be verified by Professor Friedlaender’s chemical examinations. A distinction must be drawn between textiles and artistic paintings. The evidence of the former only goes to show that purple fabrics might here and there be met with in Pharaonic Egypt. The latter, on the other hand, if they proclaim themselves as of native origin prove at least that painting, if not dyeing, with purple was practised, provided, of course, that their paint is shown by Professor Friedlaender’s method to be of molluscan origin. This would be already a great gain. The derivation proposed by the eminent Austrian Egyptologist for zay connecting it with purple would, if correct, prove that at a certain time purple formed a very highly prized article of luxury in Egypt, though one would be at a loss to tell for what particular use it was then employed, whether for clothing or for tapestry, or for both. Of incomparably greater significance is the Papyrus Sallier No. 2 (British Museum). Does it necessarily follow that the text refers to purple dyeing? Indigo, which, as we know, was anciently employed in Egypt, likewise emits an ammonia-like smell at a certain stage in its manufacture. But perhaps this is less than what the language of the text warrants. Again, may not the stench have been due to the employment of urine, which, as we know from Pliny, entered into the manufacture of even certain purple varieties? But this also perhaps fails to satisfy the poet’s sweeping condemnation of the dyeing craft.21 Lastly, may not the old Egyptian poet have in mind certain acids used in dyeing? We know that at least about Pliny’s time, acids were so employed in Egypt. But all such doubts and murmurings must be hushed into silence on hearing the great dyer and chemist, Professor P. Friedlaender, speak thus: 


“According to Dedekind, it does not seem unlikely that the old Egyptians were no strangers to purple robes. In an interesting poem from the time of Ramses II, the author discusses the dark sides of the various professions; all are laborious and arduous … ‘The blacksmith gets hands like a crocodile and is dirty like fish spawn, the barber shaves until late into the night, he rushes from house to house and lives from his hands to fill his chariot, like the bees that eat the fruit of their work’, etc. Finally, about dyeing, he says: ‘His hands stink, they have the smell of rotten fish, he scares away all cloth.’ If the conviction is not entirely flawless, nor is the other hieratic papyrus, in which the prices of various treasures are indicated, among other things, according to a reading of purple fabrics,* then the highlighting of the very unpleasant smell characteristic only of purple dyeing is so striking that one will hardly be able to think of another branch of dyeing.” “Nicht unwahrscheinlich erscheint es, nach Dedekind, dass auch den alten Aegyptern purpurne Gewänder nicht fremd waren. In einem interessanten aus der Zeit Ramses II. stammenden Gedicht diskutiert der Verfasser die Schattenseiten der verschiedenen Berufe; alle sind mühevoll und beschwerlich … ‘Der Schmied bekommt Hände wie ein Krokodil und ist schmutzig wie Fischlaich, der Barbier rasiert bis tief in die Nacht, er eilt von Haus zu Haus und lebt von seinen Händen, um seinen Wagen zu füllen, gleich den Bienen, welche die Frucht ihrer Arbeit verzehren’ usw. Vom Färben endlich heisst es: ‘Seine Hände stinken, sie haben den Geruch fauler Fische, er verscheut alles Tuch.’ Ist die Überzeugung nicht ganz einwandfrei, ebensowenig, wie die einen anderen hieratischen Papyrus, in welchem die Preise verschiedener Kostbarkeiten u.a. nach einer Lesart auch von Purpurstoffen angegeben werden,* so ist doch das Hervorheben des nur für die Purpurfärberei charakteristischen, sehr unangenehmen Geruchs so auffallend, dass man kaum an einen anderen Zweig der Färberei wird denken können.”22


If then, as Professor Friedlaender thinks highly probable, the reference is to purple dyeing, then the papyrus really proves more than Dr. Dedekind seems to be conscious of. The test, of this interpretation, implies not only that molluscan secretion was a dyestuff but also that it was the dyestuff employed in Egypt in the days of Ramses II. A moment’s reflection on the part of the reader will at once make this clear.

Professor P. Friedlaender’s statement that he has not been able to discover Egyptian purple fabrics of a pre-Christian date in the great European collections is of the utmost significance, but we might wish for greater precision, indicating the extent to which the learned professor has carried his investigations, for it is scarcely imaginable that he has submitted every coloured piece of that description to a chemical test. As it is, the professor’s assertion tends to uphold the view that purple was not much in fashion in ancient Egypt. But there may have been now and again persons of more or less eccentrie or original tastes who would precisely, for that reason, adopt purple as their dress. But such departure from the general rule would not easily give rise to the establishment of purple dyeing.

The effect of Professor Maspero’s statement is about the same. It is, however, worth

The italics are my own.remarking that he assigns no reason for the assumption that the coloured ribands, laces and fringes, which, as he admits, were not rare, were not dyed with purple. The application to the solution of our question of the “renseignements” furnished by the great French Egyptologists, anyhow, decidedly points in the negative direction. Since colour was only employed to a very limited extent, purple dyeing, which entailed great enterprise and labour and demanded very high returns, would not find Egypt a congeniai soil.



  1. Vires, Ph., “Le tombeau de Rekhmara,” Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut Français

    d’Archeologie Orientale, Cairo, ( 1902- ), v. V, p. 33; Also, Müller, Wilhelm Max, Asien und Europa, Leipzig (1893), pp. 208-212.

  2. Dedekind, “Recherches sur la Pourpre ‘Oxyblatta’ chez Assyriens et les Egyptiens,” Archives de Zoologie Experimentale et Générale, Serie III, v.IV (1896), 481-516.
  3. Herodotos, Apuleius, XI; also: Leviticus Ch. 16, v. 4; Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma, ch. VII, hal. 2.  .ולמה בבגדי לבן
  4. “Laus ei summa in colore sanguinis concreti nigricans aspectu idemque suspectu refulgens, unde et Homero purpureus dicitur sanguis.” Pliny, ibid., v.II, book IX, ch. 38, p. 115.
  5. “Tentatum est tingui linum quoque, et vestium insaniam acciperi, in Alexandri magni primum classibus Indo amin narigantis Velo purpureo ad Actium cum M. Antonio Cleopatra venit, eudemque effugit. Hoc fuit imperatoriae nauta insignet.” Pliny, ibid., v.II, book XI; ch. 39, p. 202.
  6. Schmidt, ibid., P. 46.
  7. Eydts, B.T., Zeitschrift für Assyrologie, III (1888), Leipzig.
  8. Gruppe, Paulus Otto, Griechische Mythologie, Leipzig (1892), p. 1349
  9. Erman, Adolf, Aegypten, Tübingen (1885), p. 299-300.
  10. Idem., p. 594.
  11. Wilkinson, John Gardner, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, 3 vols. London (1878), v.II, p. 163.
  12. ״ממצרים״;״שש ברקמה ממצרים״ may only refer back to שש not to ברקמה.
  13. Wilkinson, ibid., p. 168.
  14. Genesis, Ch. 37. v. 3; Ch. 41, v. 42.
  15. Livy, Annals, book XXVII, Ch. 4.
  16. Pliny, ibid., book XIX, ch. 1, v.III, p. 174.
  17. Tertullian, De Idolate, ch. XVIII.
  18. Apotelesmatica, I, v.101, II, v.234, III, v.37.
  19. Bock, Franz, Katalog für christliche Textilfunde des Jahres 1886.
  20. Dedekind, Beitrag, v.IV, pp. 400-403; 708-713 ;
  21. In the Talmud urine is not classed among stuffs emitting strong stench. See ״מי רגלים וכו,,:180 שבת and ib.98: המוציא ריח רע כל הוא
  22. Friedlaender, Paul, Zur Kenntnis des Farbstoffs des antiken Purpurs aus Murex brandaris, Wien ( 1909), p. 4.