The Canaanites, Purple Dye And The Israeli Flag


One afternoon in the city of Tyre, the story has it, the Canaanite god Melqart (also known as Heracles) and his mistress, Tyros, were strolling along the beach with their pet dog when the dog took a bite of a snail that had washed ashore. The dog’s mouth turned purple, and immediately Tyros decided that she wanted an outfit dyed that exact same color. And who can blame her?

I can’t attest to the Canaanite gods’ dog discovering purple, but the Canaanites did extract purple dye, which when left in the sun turns blue, from tens of thousands — millions — of various types of snails off the coasts of Lebanon and Syria about 3,500 years ago. The word “Canaan” might be etymologically connected to the Hurrian word, “Kanahu,” purple; and more certainly, “Phoenicia” means “purple land” in Greek. These Canaanites — later referred to as Phoenicians (purple people) — became known for this purple and blue dye, said to be worth more than its weight in gold, and they exported it extensively throughout the Mediterranean.

In the Bible, the color purple is mentioned often, usually within the phrase, “and blue and purple and scarlet and fine linen…” Both purple and blue are colors of royalty and power and wealth. The Tabernacle’s curtain and veil, the hem of the high priest’s robe, the ephod of the high priest that predicted the future — all were dyed in blue and purple, along with some other colors.

Likewise, the color blue, tekhelet, was used in the Tabernacle. A blue cloth covered the bread, as well as the lampstand. Solomon’s Temple featured tekhelet drapes, and Israel’s high priests wore tekhelet robes.

Blue was not reserved for the lofty, however. The Children of Israel were commanded by the Torah “…to make tzitzit [fringes] on the edges of their garments … and put on the fringe a thread of tekhelet [blue].” Looking at it, they were to remember the commandments, and be reminded not to follow their own desires.

So who were these Canaanites and how were they inadvertently responsible for the blue in the modern-day Israeli flag? The questions come to mind this week as Jews mark the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation and the color blue will figure prominently in the celebrations.

Canaan and the Canaanites are mentioned about 160 times in the Bible, beginning with Canaan as the grandson of Noah. According to Genesis, when Abraham arrived in the land of Canaan, Melchizedek, the Canaanite priest or ruler of the city of Salem, Jerusalem, greeted him. Abraham set up his own temples to his own god — Yahweh, to whom he was newly committed — alongside the temple of the Canaanites’ god, El. By biblical chronology, this took place around 1800 BCE. The Canaanites are attested to from about 3000 to 1200 BCE, after which they are referred to as Phoenicians.

It would appear that Abraham and his descendants lived comfortably side by side with them for a while. Abraham’s great-grandson Judah’s first wife was the daughter of a Canaanite. After Abraham’s descendants became slaves in Egypt, they returned to the land of Canaan, waging war against the Canaanites. Regardless of the fighting, or maybe due to it, a lot of cross-cultural exchange occurred, including the dye industry; archaeological remains of purple dye have been found in potsherds at sites containing broken shells of murex snails.

For a variety of historical reasons, however, the knowledge and ability to extract the dye from the murex was lost for 13 centuries. Because the Bible commanded this specific blue for the tzitzit thread, the rabbis decided that, rather than use blue derived from another source, all of the threads would be white.

As a compromise, stripes of blue or purple were woven in the prayer shawl, a nod to the blue they could no longer obtain, to dye their tzitzit, as well as to the symbolic meaning of the color: the heavens, the sea and the lapis lazuli of God’s throne.

Fast forward to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the decision as to what the nascent country’s flag should look like. In 1897, a flag of Zion had been conceptualized by David Wolffsohn, and the design was later created by a Jewish immigrant to New York named Morris Harris, and sewn by his mother, Lena. Against a white backdrop, a blue Star of David nestled within two blue horizontal stripes on the top and bottom. The blue stripes represented the stripes in the prayer shawl, while the blue Star of David is the perennial symbol of the Jewish people. That flag has continued to represent Israel post-1948.

All of this should be coming into sharper focus; a new show is set to open June 1 at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem (cleverly called “Out of the Blue”) that explores the mysterious tekhelet and how it was resurrected in the 20th century by some enterprising young people determined to re-create the biblically commanded blue to be used on tzitzit strings. They succeeded in identifying the snail, a mollusk, and in extracting the dye.

So the Canaanite industry has begun all over again, and the tekhelet-colored strings adorn hundreds of thousands of tzitzit around the world. As per tradition, the tzitzit remain tucked away underneath the outerwear, while the flag’s blue stripes wave, a prayer shawl unfurled over the country of Israel, itself resurrected 70 years ago after a very long absence.

Angela Himsel is a writer living on the Upper West Side. Her soon-to-be-published memoir is “A River Could Be a Tree” (Fig Tree Books).