The Purple People

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Copyright Mehmet Atatur

Sounds like they’re from outer space, no?

Well. No.

An Introduction

They are the ancestors of most of the great civilizations that now dwell all over the Mediterranean shores. They were the world’s oldest sea and inland merchants of antiquity. The ones who sailed around and identified all Africa, way before Vasco De Gama did, who explored the Atlantic shores of Europe long before the Romans has ever existed, and many historians even argue that they have crossed the Atlantic ocean and communicated with the ancients of the ‘new world’, more than two thousand years before Columbus has achieved that. They laid down foundations to mathematical theories, and  that were developed by the Greeks later on. They’re the inventors of the first Alphabet that also was passed along to the Greeks: It is almost the same one we are using today… And, we awe them for the color purple!

Who are they?

They called themselves the Canaanites, but were known as Phoinikes by the Greeks, which literally translates to: ‘The Purple People,’ or, the Phoenicians.

The significance of the Phoenicians relies not only on their great impact on the human civilization for a whole Millennia, but on the examples they set for us on how to live life today.

They were people who lived in complete elegance, by all its means. They never mastered the skill of war, instead, they mastered architecture. They built advanced royal, war and cargo ships using the famous luxurious Cedars’ wood, and were known for their majestic  temples and fortresses. They were also renowned diplomats: the Phoenicians had the most advanced law and governance institutions of the time, according to the great Aristotle in his De Politica book. They were the founders of what is now called ‘The Maritime Law,’ the law which still governs sea trade.

The Purple People planted colonies, instead of conquering existing ones. These developed into great cities of their own, like: Boeotian Thebes, Crete and Rhodes in Greece, Carthage and Utica in Africa, Cadiz, Tartessus and Lisbon in Spain and Portugal, and several others on the shores of the Black Sea. 

Even though the Phoenicians themselves maintained high-profile lifestyles on a daily basis, as they wore the best of clothes and accessories, and women had sophisticated hair up-do’s everyday, they were still hard-working masters of their own crafts, and enjoyed doing so. They had famous artistic skills, like metal modeling, Ivory sculpting,  jewelry making, and fashion design! They were especially famous for the color purple, that they extracted from a shell called the Murex, found only on the Phoenician shores. Their uniquely designed and purple colored textiles was worn solely by kings, as an indication of high status, for they were highly priced by the Phoenician traders.

A Historical Glance

The Discovery of Purple by Peter Paul Rubens, ...

Image via Wikipedia. The discovery of murex by the Phoenician god Melcarth. Artwork by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens in 1636.

Discovering the color purple goes back to the Phoenician mythology, where Melcarth (known as Heracles by the Greeks) was walking along the shores of his city Tyre, when he found his dog playing with Murex shells and his muzzles stained with this charming hue. It was initially called the Tyrian purple, referring back to the city now located in southern Lebanon, that was 3000 thousand years ago, the center from which the Phoenicians roamed the land and the seas, exclusively ruling the trade of their luxurious goods.

It is very interesting to read how the dye was used to be extracted from the Murex here, in addition to a comprehensive historical timeline on the Phoenicians’ purple lace status and trade throughout a whole Millennia.

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