We were thinking of going to Purple Island aka Al Khor Island or popularly known as Jazirat Al-Ghanim for a while. But last Thursday when Umer took us on a long drive to Al Khor, we also went to see the island. And unfortunately, it was too dark and decided to get back there on some other day. The very next day we thought of going there, but it started raining and still we made an unsuccessful attempt of going there. But luckily, this Friday, weather was on our side and we headed towards the island again.
We started around 12 noon and thought of having lunch in Al Khor. So I just packed some snacks and warm water and left home. After 30 minutes’ drive from Bin Omran, we reached Al Khor. Just before taking a right turn to the Purple Island saw an accident and cops enquiring both the parties.
We reached Al Khor around 12.30 noon. From there we followed the signs to Al Thakhira. Then, we passed the second last roundabout that branched left to Ras Laffan, and went through the road to Al Thakhira. Then, we passed the first right turn where a signboard said Al Khor Hospital. We continue towards Al Thakhira and at the last roundabout, there was a road towards Al Khor Community. We just continued towards Al Thakhira and then took a right turn and went about 5 km following the asphalted road. Later, there was an intersection to the left and just after that we went further for another 70-80m and took a right turn which was leading to the island. We followed the firm and obvious track to the mangrove area. As we approached the island causeway, we could see a big building on to our left side. It was nearly two km from the asphalted road. After a bumpy ride for 10 minutes, we reached the Island. And no 4WD vehicle is required to reach the island as the road is firm sand, probably because heavy vehicles commute to and from the nearby sand processing plant.
We had to park the car at the edge of the causeway, as the vehicle cannot enter the island. Surprisingly, there were several tyre marks on the causeway till the first breach. Maybe people thought of entering the island on their vehicles and had to stop near the breach.
We saw two families enjoying their lunch at the entrance of the island. So totally, it was about 53 km from Bin Omran. The Island is in the shape of a fish and is linked to the mainland by a causeway. The walkway has been breached at two places, allowing the tidal access to the green salt-encrusted mangrove forest which encircles the walkway and the island.
Though the island is very small, measuring only 600mx400 m, it has uncommon and interesting vegetation. The mangrove forest is not only home to fish, crabs and shellfish, but also to a wide range of birds. As we were walking, we could hear the chirping sound of several birds. Since it is winter, we could see some migratory birds. We came across some Kingfishers and some other purple and pink coloured winged beauties. Their strange, haunting calls echoed over the island creating a kind of aura in the otherwise silent island.
It was fun to slowly jump on stepping stones which were green and slippery. It was also amusing to see aerial roots of mangroves in the salt marsh. Not just that, we found so many shells scattered in the middle of island where low and high tide seawater could never reach! We saw some tiny fish playing in the sunlight and unfortunately, we didn’t come across any playful crabs, even though we expected some.
The island is not a flat one and has several low limestone cliffs throughout. Qatar Archeology Project in 2000 confirms an intermittent human settlement on the island during the last 4,000 years. It bears the remains 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 Purple colour
Francis Gillespie, local author and coordinator of the Qatar Archeology Project, says that the archaeologists also found that 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, 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.
Producing the dyes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After an hour or so, we left the island. It was refreshing indeed. Maybe whenever we feel like seeing some water and listening to birds singing, we will head towards Purple Island. Oh, yes, to see some exotic flowers too!
From there, we just made a trip to the beach and saw several private tents and Qataris with their families enjoying their weekend.