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Al Khor Island

The Purple Island

Jazirat bin Ghanim or Al Khor Island

by Frances Gillespie

A visit to this small and seemingly insignificant island reveals an archeological treasure, for this was once a major source of the scarlet dye so favoured by ancient civilisations.

Contents: Al Khor Island | The Colour Purple | Producing the Dye | Pliny's Account | The Kassite Period | Excavations | A Temporary Settlement | A Unique Area of Qatar

Al Khor Island from above.A little island, with fine golden sands and low white limestone cliffs, lies in a wide bay, close within the curving embrace of the nearby mainland. The sparkling water is jade green in the shallows and merges into a soft aquamarine where the natural channels lie.

Surrounding the island is a forest of green, salt-encrusted mangroves, the home of countless birds. Jewelled kingfishers flash by, and purple herons, pink flamingoes and glossy ibis wade in the shallows. Their strange, haunting calls echo over the island. Over all arches the deep and infinite blue of the sky.

Al Khor Island

Jazirat bin Ghanim, or Al Khor Island as it's known to archaeologists, is a tiny, fish-shaped scrap of land tethered to the mainland by a causeway, breached in several places to allow the tide to reach the mangrove forests.

Measuring only 600m x 400m, it bears the remains of intermittent occupation spanning at least six thousand years, from a scatter of flints left by Neolithic hunter-gatherers down to the late Islamic pottery of fishing and pearling camps, and the concrete shack and abandoned vegetable garden left by a colony of Indian fishermen who inhabited the island until the late 1990s, when a series of exceptionally hot summers decimated the marine life of the area.

The Colour Purple

3,400 years ago an industry was established on the island to supply one of the most valuable of ancient commodities - one more precious than gold. The rich, purple-red dye produced from a species of sea snail was used only for the robes of kings and the elite few whom they chose to honour. Red, the colour of blood, of fire, of the sun and therefore of life itself, was seen in many ancient societies as a symbol of power and strength. It is not difficult to understand how garments of purple or red became a symbol of power, particularly if the use of the colour was confined to the ruler and his immediate associates.

Producing the Dye

The dyes produced from sea snails ranged from a deep bluish-purple to the most brilliant scarlet, depending on the species used and the method of preparation. The earliest manufacturers of shellfish dyes were almost certainly the Phoenicians, a Mediterranean people originating in Lebanon. They are sometimes referred to as Canaanites, but the Greeks called them phoinikes - the red people - because of the red cloth they exported.


Crushed Shells of Thais Savignyi from the Shell Midden on Jazirat Bin Ghannam

Crushed Shells of Thais Savignyi from the Shell Midden on Jazirat Bin Ghannam.
Copyright: David Gillespie

From the 9th to the 6th centuries BC they dominated trade in the Mediterranean, establishing colonies in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and N Africa. One of the great Phoenician cities in Lebanon, Tyre, was the home of the dye industry, which began around 1600 BC. But dye was produced all over the Phoenician empire. At Tarentum in Italy there is a small hill composed entirely of the remains of murex shells.

The most commonly used sea snails were Murex trunculus, which yields a bluish-purple colour, and Murex brandaris which gives a red-purple. The dye is released when the hyperbranchial gland in the animal is crushed and reacts with a naturally present enzyme.

In the case of Murex trunculus the presence of light is also necessary for the colour to develop, but not in the case of Murex brandaris. Many other species of sea snails yield the dye, among them Murex tribulus, still widely eaten in Spain today, as well as Thais purpura haemastoma and, on the little island off the coast of Qatar, Thais savignyi.

Pliny's Account

The Roman writer Pliny, writing in 70 AD, has left us a detailed description of the dye-extraction process.

The shellfish were harvested in the winter months. Murex are carnivores, living at depths of 5 to 15 metres and feeding on other shellfish by boring holes in their shells. According to Pliny, the shell-fishers used to lower baskets of shellfish bait, wait for murex to gather on them, and then quickly draw them up. The murex were then kept alive in tanks until a sufficient quantity had been gathered and dye production could begin. Ancient writers state that the dyers' hands were permanently stained red, and that the stench from centres of the trade, such as Tyre, was formidable!

He says that the smaller shellfish (Murex trunculus) were crushed, shell and all, whereas the larger ones (Murex brandaris) were pierced and the hyperbranchial gland extracted. The crushed mass was macerated in heavily salted water for three days. This may have been to suppress the bacterial content of the vats, as the bacteria produced by rotten fish (Clostridium carnis ) are highly dangerous. The rotting shellfish were then rinsed thoroughly and boiled for ten days until reduced to a sixteenth of the original amount. Testing by dipping wool then began and boiling continued until the dye had reached the desired degree of brilliance.

The Kassite Period

In Babylonia, a region in what is now Iraq, a mountain people called the Kassites invaded and took control of the country soon after 1595 BC, and the next three centuries saw a period of great economic prosperity in the region. Production of purple dye on Jazirat bin Ghanim (Al Khor island) in Qatar occurred as part of the take-over of the Dilmun trading civilisation by the Kassites between 1425 and 1225 BC.


Excavated Remains of a Building on the Kassite Dye Site, Jazirat Bin Ghannam

Excavations of a building on Al Khor Island
Copyright: David Gillespie

Excavations

In the early 1980s an American archaeologist, Christopher Edens, working with the “Mission Francaise Archeologique à Qatar”, excavated a site on the island. The remains of pottery enabled it to be dated to around 1400 BC. It consisted of about five rectangular structures, several hearths and stone kists.

One pit contained the remains of around 38,000 shellfish, a species called Thais savignyi. There was also a shell midden measuring 10 by 15 metres. The top layer consisted of food remains -- shells and fish bones and debris from hearths -- but as the archaeologists dug down they came upon a deep, solid layer of shells of Thais savignyi.

The archaeologists calculated, to their astonishment, that the mound they had excavated contained the remains of almost 3 million shellfish! There were other mounds that appeared to contain similar quantities. Thais savignyi, which lives under rocks in the intertidal zone, produces a bright red dye. It requires light plus an enzyme to release the dye from the hyperbranchial gland.

The archaeologists conducted experiments collecting the shellfish. They concluded that collecting 3 million snails would have taken 42,000 man-hours of labour: 20 people working one month a year for 7 years. There was only one possible conclusion: the site had been used for dye production.

It was unique - the first site of its kind in the entire Arabian Gulf and the only one found outside the Mediterranean. The pottery found on the site, which included the remains of huge, thick-walled vats, was clearly Kassite. Evidently the dye was being produced for use in Babylonia. Whether the workers in the little dye factory were local tribesmen, or slaves of the Kassites, or even Kassites themselves is not known. No contemporary graves have been found.

Another site on the island is several hundred years earlier, dating to the first centuries of the second millennium BC. The presence of fragments of a distinctive red, ridged pottery known as Barbar ware identified it as belonging to the Dilmun period: the peaceful Bronze Age trading civilisation which was based in Bahrain but extended from Failaka Island off Kuwait as far south as the UAE.

A Temporary Settlement

Permanent settlement on the island never took place, owing to the absence of a convenient source of fresh water. The Barbar site was excavated by the French mission in the early 1980s and further investigated by a joint British-Qatari team of archaeologists in 2000. There were the remains of a number of rectangular stone-lined fire pits, and hearths. It appears to have been a temporary settlement, and is typical of a chain of small coastal sites, all featuring Barbar pottery, which run between Bahrain and the Emirates.

Such sites, many of which are on small islands, may represent minor staging posts between Bahrain and the great trading centre at Tel Abraq in the UAE. They may have been regular stopping places, or perhaps they were visited only occasionally for mangrove wood or as shelter in poor weather. The one on the island in Qatar might even have been a fishing or pearl fishing camp.

On the other side of the island the team in 2000 excavated a large circular dwelling hut with a sunken floor and what appeared to be stone windbreaks extending from it, perhaps erected to shelter the cooking area. Pottery from within the hut dates it to the Kassite period, but there is ample evidence of occupation in that area of the island during the Sasanian period in the early centuries AD, the final pre-Islamic period. Long after the hut had fallen into disuse, but before the coming of Islam, it was used to contain a human burial, of which a few skeletal fragments were found.

A Unique Area of Qatar

There can be no other area of Qatar where so many archaeological features are crowded into so small a space as on Jazirat bin Ghanim; it serves as a unique record of the many civilisations that came, flourished for a while and then faded away over the centuries.

Read more Articles about Qatar's History and Archeology

Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.

Read a review or buy a copy of Discovering Qatar, by Frances Gillespie, Gulf Times journalist and former chair person of QNHG