The Purple Stone of Emperors

Porphyre: La Pierre Pourpre des Ptolémées à Bonaparte [Porphyry: The Purple Stone from the Ptolemies to Bonaparte]

by Philippe Malgouyres and Clément Blanc-Riehl
Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 144 pp. (out of print)
Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive/Art Resource
‘Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs’; detail of a porphyry statue from about 300 AD of Diocletian and three other emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, now at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Big empires, it appears, like big stones. The moment that the mines of the Urals and the Altai opened up, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the tsars of Russia reached out to fill their palaces with jasper and malachite. Time and distance meant nothing. A single block took over eleven years to prize from the mountainside. One hundred and fifty-four horses would drag it to the nearest river, so as to start a journey of three thousand miles to St. Petersburg. Carved according to designs approved by the Imperial Cabinet, vast objects of Victorian exuberance would be sent as diplomatic gifts, worthy of the size and seemingly unlimited resources of the Russian Empire. Many remain in the Malachite Room of the Hermitage Museum, where their huge size and strident metallic greens alternately awe and appall the visitor.

Eighteen hundred years previously, the Romans had done the same. Following in the footsteps of the Hellenistic kings of Egypt, they reached out to the edge of the Red Sea, to a lunar landscape (some 280 miles southeast of Cairo) now called the Gebel Abu Dukhan—the Smoking Mountain—where the violence of the heat haze makes the mountain itself seem to be on fire. This was the Porphyry Mountain of ancient times. With infinite effort and expenditure, the dark red stone was cut from high cliffs. Then it traveled slowly to the Nile, and down the Nile to Alexandria, where it was sent on huge rafts throughout the Mediterranean.

One would expect such a hellish workplace as the Porphyry Mountain to be a gulag, worked only by slaves and convicts. Indeed, at times, large groups of Christians ended up as convicts, enclosed in the stifling valley below the cliffs. They did not need chains. The burning desert itself held them in. Yet we find much evidence for free labor. This is not surprising. Work on such unyielding stone required almost magical skills. In legends surrounding the mines, Christian stonemasons pitted the power of Christ against the occult know-how of pagan “philosophers”—engineers and carvers versed in the well-kept secrets of stone.

Released from these mountains by unthinkable labor, porphyry flooded the Roman world. Unlike the raw greens of malachite in tsarist Russia, the arrival of porphyry simply added weight to long-held images. The word “porphyry” itself (our “purple”) came from the Sanskrit pur-phur—the word for burning embers. For ancient Greeks and Romans, porphyry was never simply a hard rock. It was congealed fire and blood. Bright purple garments (more fiery than our purple—more like bright crimson) always sheathed the bodies of the powerful. But purple did not invariably speak of “glowing” success. For the…

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