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The last seekers of 'secret' Tyrean purple shell.

Summary: Since he was a child, Hatim Tefla never stopped praying for rain to keep pouring from the sky.

TYRE, Lebanon: Since he was a child, Hatim Tefla never stopped praying for rain to keep pouring from the sky. A native of the city of Tyre, 53-year-old Tefla didn't grow up as a farmer, as so many around him did, but instead, he became the collector of an item of historic importance. Almost forgotten in the ancient Phoenician city today, the extraction of the purple ink found in a locally found type of seashell, a genus known as "murex," may have begun on the shores of Tyre as early as 1570 B.C.

According to legend, this "royal purple" was discovered by Melkart -- the custodian god of Tyre identified by the Ancient Greeks as Hercules -- while he walked along the Phoenician shore with the nymph Tyros. During the stroll, a dog stained his teeth purple while playing with a murex shell, revealing the hidden dye.

Phoenicians are said to have successfully kept the secret of the purple dye -- produced by the snails living inside the murex shells -- in order to remain the only city able to infuse the precious color into cloth and monopolize the market. Fabric colored purple thus became a privilege reserved for kings and noblemen.

Tefla is one of only three people in Tyre still collecting murex shells from the stretch of sand north of the city. The season for this activity lasts just a few months each year, given that the seashells are brought in by the rising tide and the currents are strong enough only during the winter.

"We spend many hours looking for seashells, which appear only after it rains and the rising tides hit the beach," Tefla told The Daily Star.

His family used to make a living off shell collection, and Tefla spent a good part of his life learning the tricks of the trade. But, he said, he had decided not to pass on this knowledge to his children, to free them to have a different life.

"It's a tiring and arduous profession," Tefla said. "We have to go out in winter days, with the wind [blowing] at full speed and the waves hitting you ... But this is what we learned from the sea."

At times, the strenuous search might yield 10 to 15 shells, while at others, the murex-seekers go home empty-handed.

"Some people love the shells -- like tourists or Lebanese or Palestinians who like to collect historic objects," Tefla said.

Each shell is sold for between $1 and $10, depending on its size and color. Sometimes, Tefla wraps the shell together with a stone smoothed by the ocean to create original gifts.

"In the 26 years I have been active in this profession, I must have collected more seashells than I have hairs on my head," he laughed.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Jan 11, 2018
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