The old-fashioned manufacture of purple is an almost secret technique. A Tunisian enthusiast of ancient pigment, Mohammed Ghassen Nouira, has unraveled the mystery after years of work. Know-how that can pay off big.
His passion for ancient history, Mohamed Ghassen Nouira lives it in his kitchen: it is there that this Tunisian rediscovers little by little, after years of trial and error, the thousand-year-old secrets of making purple. This prestigious pigment, typical of Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman dignitaries, is extracted from a shell, murex.
A hammer, tweezers and a small stone mortar are his main working tools: the first step consists in opening the murex, a kind of whelks with a shell adorned with spikes. The rest is a closely guarded secret to the point that it had been missing for almost 600 years. But after 13 years of testing, Mohammed Ghassen Nouira has partially mastered it.
In August 2007, he found on a beach a dead murex giving off a purplish red color, reminding him of a history class that had marked him in school, on purple. He then bought some specimens from fishermen, and began to explore this “marine treasure” in a small kitchen in his father’s garden, his workshop still today.
“At first I didn’t know where to start. I was crushing the whole shell and trying to figure out how this little animal gave off such precious color.”, explains this director of a consulting company. He had to overcome many setbacks but also get used to the stench. “Experts in dyeing, archeology and history, as well as chemists, helped and encouraged me, but none knew the technique”, he says.
The purple industry, used to dye the clothes of the powerful, was among the main sources of wealth for the Phoenicians and the Carthaginian and then Roman empires, explains Professor Ali Drine, director of the research division at the National Heritage Institute. . Symbol of power, prestige and beauty, purple was “under the thumb of the emperors because it brought a lot of money to the imperial treasury”.
As a result, no historical document clearly details the methods of producing this pigment. “Perhaps because the craftsmen did not want to divulge the secrets of their know-how, or they were afraid because the activities of the purple were directly attached to the emperors, who refused any rivalry”, analyzes the professor.
The only avenues for exhuming techniques: archaeological elements in the Mediterranean, vats, treated shells and traces of fire especially in Tire, in the south of Lebanon, and in the Meninx site, on the shores of the Tunisian island of Djerba.
It was indeed the Phoenicians who came from Tire, a high place of purple, who laid the foundations for what was to become the Carthaginian Empire, on the Tunisian coast. Mohammed Ghassen Nouira says to himself “satisfied and proud” To have done “relive something in relation to our ancestors the Carthaginians!”. Even nowadays, the pigment is a luxury: it can reach 2,800 dollars (2,430 euros) per gram at some European retailers, even 4,000 dollars (3,470 euros) according to Mohamed Ghassen Nouira, who sells it at more modest prices.
There are a handful in the purple producing world, including a German painter and a Japanese enthusiast, each with their own secret techniques. When the Tunisian enthusiast asked them for help, one of them retorted “this is not a cooking recipe to pass on”, he recalls. “It made me more determined, it pushed me to read more and multiply my experiences” especially on two types of murex.
In the wooden case where he keeps his stock, which ranges from indigo blue to purple red, he carefully keeps his first sample obtained in 2009. “I then improved my methods until I found the right technique and mastered it from 2013-2014”, he said.
To get one gram of pure purple, he has to shell a hundred kilograms of murex, which takes him two weekends. It is necessary to wash, sort the shells by species then by size, and gently break the upper part of the shell in the small mortar, in order to extract the gland, which it dries with salt. It is this which produces the color, after oxidation.
Mohammed Ghassen Nouira produced a few dozen grams of pure purple in all, which he sells all over the world. But what he hopes above all is to see his work exhibited in Tunisian museums, and he regrets the authorities’ lack of interest in his work. “Purple has great tourist potential”, believes the Tunisian who dreams of one day leading workshops in a place inspired by those of Antiquity. In the meantime, he keeps his trade secrets, which he hopes to pass on to his children.