The story about Jazirat bin Ghanam begins with a legend that gives us a preview of the importance of the island. The god Melkarth was strolling along the beach with his dog when it crunched on shellfish. When the dog’s jaws stained red, the god had an idea. He had a gown made from wool and dyed it in this new color. He presented it to his girlfriend, the nymph Tyros, which started a fashion trend that lasted more than 3000 years
This is how one can begin a story about the Jazirat Bin Ghanam island. An island close to Al Khor, some 40km north from Doha.
The name “Ghannam” is derived from ghonm “gain or profit”. The name “Ghannam” is a name of one of the families from Bani Tamim tribe, a tribe from which also originates the Qatar’s ruling family Al Thani.
The first discoveries that prove the existence of the first population on the peninsula date back to the 6th millennium BC. In Al Khor area examples of Kassite ceramics and Barbar pottery (typical of Dilmun) have been found. They date back to approximately Bronze Age, precisely the Kassite period. Kassite invaded Mesopotamia, took control also over Dilmun, a trading civilization whose trading empire included Kuwait and Bahrain and they developed a great economic prosperity.
French mission together with a Qatari team discovered a wealthy resource that gives a clearer idea about the site. On the island, on the excavated site, several hearths and rectangular structures, as well as the layers of shells have also been found. The type of shellfish retrieved is called Thais savigny, a type that lives under rocks and produces bright red dye in contact with an enzyme and light. According to the discovery, the site has been used as a dye production site. If this is the case, then it was the only dye production site in Arabian Gulf and the only one out of Mediterranean, where the dye was produced.
This site dates back to Bronze Age, i.e. the late third millennium B.C. It was discovered that the area has been inhabited since prehistoric eras and last excavations of the site have shown the existence of different settlements; Debisa, Had al-Janbiya, Ras Alfar and Derwaza.
This site is significant for the people of Qatar because the Qatar’s flag color originates from this island, Bin Ghannam Island, due to the dye produced from sea snails. Under the influence of blazing sun, purple dye converts to maroon color, the color of Qatari flag.
History of Dye
The main producers of the dye were Phoenicians, population that occupied what is nowadays Lebanon. This group of people dominated the trade in Mediterranean, between the 9th and 6th century BC. One of the cities of their domination was Tyre in Lebanon, which was considered to be the center for dye production.
Dye was produced from sea snails. There were numerous shades of colors depending on species used for the production as well as the method used.
The most commonly used snails are: Murex trunculus that produces blue-purple color and Murex brandaris, producing the red-purple color. On the excavation site, there has been also discovered a layer of Thais savigny giving us the bright red dye. The dye is released when the hyperbranchial gland in animal is crushed and when it reacts with a naturally present enzyme and light, which is another important element for color development.
How is dye extracted?
Snails that are used for the dye production can be found at the depth between 5 to 15 m. They are harvested only during a particular period of the year, in winter. The shell-fishers would lower their baskets to shellfish bait, they would wait for murex to gather on them and then quickly they would draw them up. The caught snails would be kept alive in tanks until the dye production.
Once the production started, the snails depending on their size would be crushed or pierced and had the hyperbranchial gland extracted. The crushed mass would be macerated in salted water for three days to suppress all the bacteria. The rotting shellfish would be then boiled for 10 days. The boiling would continue until the desired degree of brilliance has been reached.
There have been two types of dye: the genuine one, valuable and expensive, and the counterfeit one. A whole industry developed forging purple dyes using cheaper materials such as flowers where dyes had to be fixed by different additions. There were 70 recipes for dye production and the headquarter of the counterfeit dye production was in Egypt.
This purple-red dye was sued for robes of kings and elite. It was a symbol of blood, fire, sun, symbol of power and strength, authority.
Mangrove trees are tolerant tropical trees that survive in salty, inter-tidal, shallow lagoons where other plants rarely grow. There are almost 50 species of mangroves, but in Qatar, there is only one specie called Avicennia marina, also called the Grey Mangrove. This one is the most widely distributed of all the species.
Mangroves are tropical trees capable of tolerating the extreme conditions. Areas where mangroves grow are flooded and often muddy. The color of the mud is determined by tiny organisms called diatoms which release oxygen. Oxygen which is supposed to be one of the most essential elements required for plant life, in the soil where they are grown is barely present. This can be felt by a strong odor of hydrogen sulphide produced by bacteria that exist without light or oxygen. Despite this fact, mangroves play an important role in an ecological system and represent a wealthy source for the animals. They provide the initial link in the food chain. They have evolved their system of coping with anaerobic conditions through aerial roots that allow the plant to breathe and are connected with the main root system which anchors the plant to the ground. They also enable the seeds to germinate in the saline and anaerobic conditions, because if they would fall into the mud they would suffocate without oxygen. Therefore, the trees germinate while still attached to the plant. Many fish breed among them, small crabs help remove the fallen leaves, their burrows help aerate the waterlogged ground, the flowers of mangroves rich in nectar are food for bees.
Large number of migratory birds stays in the area during the winter. Jazirat Bin Ghanam is therefore perfect for bird-watching. Birds such as White-breasted Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Flamingoes, Western Reef Herons, Little Egrets, Curlew Sandpipers, Redshanks, Marsh Harriers
* Photos taken from Domagoj Cerovac’s private collection. Thank you Domagoj