Tunis (hooly News) – 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 to make purple, a prestigious pigment extracted from a shell, murex.
A hammer, tweezers and a small stone mortar are his main working tools: the first step for this color typical of Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman dignitaries, is to open the murexes, a kind of whelks with a shell decorated with spikes.
The sequel is such a closely guarded secret that it had been missing for almost 600 years – but after 13 years of trying, Mr. Nouira has some of it under control.
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 a few 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 understand how this little marine animal gave off such a precious color,” explains this director of a consulting company.
He had to overcome many failures, sometimes demoralizing, 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.
– State secret –
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, Prof. Ali Drine, director of the research division at hooly News, told hooly News. National Institute of Heritage.
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”, he says.
As a result, there is no historical document that clearly details the methods of producing this pigment, explains Professor Drine.
“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”.
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.
Mr. Nouira says he is “satisfied and proud” to have “brought back 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, or even 4,000 dollars (3,470 euros) according to Mr. Nouira, who sells it at more modest prices.
– 100 kg for one gram –
There are a handful in the purple producing world, including a German painter and a Japanese enthusiast – each with their own secret techniques.
When Mr. Nouira asked them for help, one of them retorted “” this is not a cooking recipe to pass on “”, he recalls.
“It made me even more determined, it pushed me to read more and multiply my experiences” especially on two types of murex, Rankulus and Bolinus Brandaris.
In the wooden case where he keeps his stock, which ranges from indigo blue to violet red, he carefully keeps his first sample obtained in 2009, “dear memory of my first success”.
“I then improved my methods until I found the right technique and mastered it from 2013-2014”, he says.
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.
Mr. Nouira produced a few tens of 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 a great tourist potential”, estimates Mr. Nouira 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.
“Ghassen wanted, tried and succeeded”, underlines Professor Drine.