Purple Reign: A passion for purple built the Phoenicians' vast trading empire

The seafaring Phoenicians controlled the Mediterranean market for a vibrant purple dye crafted from humble sea snails and craved by powerful kings.

A horse-head prow looks ahead as a modern replica of a Phoenician ship sails off the coast of Tyre, Lebanon.
ROBERT CLARK

Phoenician myth tells the tale of a beautiful sea nymph, Tyrus, and the god Melqart, who sought to win her heart. Melqart dispatched his faithful hound to scour the beaches of modern-day Lebanon in search of a gift for her. When the dog returned, his muzzle was stained violet. When Melqart looked closer, he found in the dog’s teeth a crushed sea snail, oozing and purple.

The god’s dog had certainly stumbled on a treasure, and Melqart showed it to Tyrus. Immediately smitten with the color, Tyrus agreed to marry Melqart if he could fashion her a robe in the same vibrant hue. Determined and resourceful, Melqart collected enough sea snails to fulfill the wish of his beloved, and thus “Tyrian purple” and the Phoenician trade in textiles was born.

Although this legend originates in later Greco-Roman traditions, the depiction of a dog chewing the shell of a murex sea snail has been found on several Tyrian coins, indicating that the tale was linked to Phoenician identity, and that it may well have had Phoenician origins. Despite the mythologized accounts for the genesis of Tyrian purple, this dye played a fundamental role in shaping and defining the real history and economy of the Phoenicians. (Blue dogs were spotted in India. In this case, snails didn't cause the stain.)

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