8 • A Slab of Imperial Red Porphyry

8 • A Slab of Imperial Red Porphyry

Roman Egypt; 1st century AD
143 × 43 cm

There existed just a single source for imperial red porphyry – a quarry in the deserts of eastern Egypt discovered by Roman legionary Caius Cominius Leugas in 18 %+. Quick to recognise the significance of its purple colour, Leugas rushed to his superiors who immediately commissioned the massive infrastructure necessary to begin mining. With almost unimaginable effort and expenditure; this exceptionally hard, dense stone was carved out from high cliffs and then loaded onto ox carts where it made its way slowly 150km along Via Porphyrites – Porphyry Road – to the Nile. Here the stone was loaded onto huge rafts which floated up to Alexandria and into the grateful control of the Roman Emperors.

Porphyry is derived from the Ancient Greek porphyra – purple – the colour of royalty. Roman Emperors wore robes of purple in order to stand them apart from their subjects, not least because of the extraordinary efforts required to produce its dye, created from the liquid found in tiny glands from tens of thousands of small marine snails.

Porphyry became a powerful beacon of Imperial rule – its colour, rarity and extreme hardness symbols of their power and strength. They chose to live and even die surrounded by it, using it for tiles, panels, statues; even the offcial delivery room for pregnant Empresses in the Great Palace of Constantinople was covered with it, and they commissioned sarcophagi in which to lie for their eternal rest.

In the 5th century the quarries were abandoned; they were mostly exhausted and the cost to extract what little that remained became prohibitive. It wasn’t long before it was forgotten and its whereabouts belonged to legend, even Napoleon tried but failed to locate its source during his expedition to Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. Thereafter porphyry was recycled from ancient monuments, as was once the fate of this slab which was re-used in Mamluk Cairo in the 14th century. The ancient quarry was eventually re-discovered by two British explorers, James Burton & John Gardener Wilkinson in 1822 and is now a World Heritage Site.