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This is just one example of the important and surprising spiritual, cultural and financial role that the color blue played in the ancient world. Examining the origins of the color blue, a new exhibit called Out of the Blue takes visitors on a journey through thousands of years and thousands of miles, from the blue sky to the blue sea; from ancient Afghanistan to the modern state of Israel, where blue defines the state’s flag and many other symbols.
You can say it’s just about a color, but it really takes you so many places,says one of the exhibit’s curators, Oree Meiri, as she walked through the exhibit on a recent morning. “I learned so much in the process of organizing this exhibit that I can’t even begin to tell you.” Although it is the color of the seemingly endless sky and sea, blue held special significance in the ancient world because unlike shades of green, yellow, or brown, it could not be picked up in the form of leaves, grass, stone or animal fur. One of the few tangible sources of blue that occurred in nature was the lapis lazuli stone, found in what is now Afghanistan. In fact, these rare and valuable stones are likely what the Bible refers to when it refers to the sapphires that decorated the Ark of the Covenant and the garments of the Temple’s high priests, Meiri explains. But it was not until the time of the Phoenicians, who lived along the ancient Mediterranean coast, that a reliable source of blue fabric dye was discovered. They found that the glands of certain sea snails contained a liquid that stained fabric different shades of blue and purple. The tedious process of making dye from these snails was such an integral part of this trade-oriented society–and likely their source of wealth — that many of their coins contained a picture of a sea snail.
It was really a complex process to extract this dye, and it was a big deal that the color stayed, and didn’t fade or wash out,Meiri says, as she looks at a case full of ancient sea snail, or murex, shells found at archaeological sites. This so-called “tekhelet” was also the color that the ancient Israelites were instructed to use to dye the fringes that hung from their four-cornered garments. The exhibit goes on the trace how the industry of making blue dye from Mediterranean sea snails eventually collapsed, causing the fringes of the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, to once again have only white strings. But blue had become such an integral part of Jewish identity that people began putting blue stripes on the fabric of their prayer shawls, and this was what inspired the design of the flag of the modern state of Israel. The exhibit also tells the story of how the blue dye of the murex was rediscovered in modern times, leading once again to some Jews having blue strings hanging adorning their prayer shawls.
Today blue is something we take for granted,Meiri says. “But the story of how it came to be this way is really amazing. It really is a deep color.”