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The Perfection of Peridot, part 5: The Tale of Topazios

The written history of peridot gemstones begins sometime during the 5th Century B.C.E. when the ancient Egyptians are thought to have first discovered an island in the Red Sea which eventually became one of the world’s greatest sources of peridot gemstones. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder of the 1st Century C.E., referencing the writings of 5th Century B.C.E Greek philosopher Archelaus, wrote in his work Naturalis Historia of an island which he called “Topazios” and the tale of how it was supposedly discovered. Legend has it that pirates were forced ashore by undesirable weather conditions in the Red Sea, stumbling upon a small island in the process; the pirates attempted to forage along the ground for roots and shrubs but instead encountered bright green crystals which they brought back to Egypt with them following their return to the mainland. Pliny himself described a stone exhibiting both green and golden tones that is found on Topazios which he called “topazos”, most likely referring to peridot. Other writers of the ancient world also made reference to an island which bore gemstones of a colour that closely resembles what is typical of peridot. In the 2nd Century B.C.E, Greek geographer and historian Agatharchides of Cnidus wrote of an island called “Ophiodes” in the same region as Topazios which also yielded gemstones, and in the 1st Century B.C.E. the Greek scholar Alexander Polyhistor described an island called “Topazios” where gems of a colour which “resembles that of fresh oil” could be found; it is likely that the Greek name used by Pliny and Polyhistor was derived from the word “topazos” used by the Troglodytae people of the Red Sea, meaning “to seek”, possibly in reference to the difficulty associated with finding the island due to its location among reefs and the tumultuous weather conditions of the Red Sea often faced by sailors. Indeed, the island of Topazios was precious to the ancient Egyptians, as the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily wrote about the Island during the 1st. Century B.C.E. stating that it was closely guarded by the Egyptians and that they would punish anyone who approached it or took stones from its shores without their approval; the defensive air surrounding the Island and the peridot found there reflects the value that the ancient Egyptians saw in peridot, as not only was the colour green associated with Egyptian spiritual beliefs surrounding death and rebirth, but peridot itself was known to the ancient Egyptians as “the gem of the sun” and was believed to possess special protective powers. 

 

A depiction of Pliny the Elder found in an edition of his Naturalis Historia printed in 1635 C.E.; Image: WorldHistory.org

It is said that the green stones of Topazios were brought to Queen Berenice I in Cairo during the 3rd Century B.C.E. and that larger mining operations on the island of Topazios began soon after. Indeed, archaeological evidence found in recent times indicates that the primary mines of Topazios were not active before approximately 250 B.C.E. despite some romantic tales which imply that these mines were active a over millennium prior; it is however possible that the island was encountered by other mariners before the 5th Century B.C.E. and used as a source for peridot, but if so then these expeditions would have been small and focused on collecting exposed crystals by hand from the island’s surface, much like the pirate tale referenced by Pliny the Elder, rather than being focused on scalar excavation of concentrated minerals. Legend says that the island was overrun with deadly snakes before the Pharaohs drove them into the sea, and that only after this was accomplished could true mining operations begin there. By the time that deliberate mining has commenced on Topazios, the port of Berenike had been established not far from the nearby Ras Banas Peninsula on Egypt’s southeastern coastline, and this port would have served as the island mines’ main source for supplies as well as a trading centre for peridot gemstones. Alas, when Berenike was vacated during the 6th Century C.E., expeditions to Topazios ceased, ushering in a period of uncertain history for the island and the peridot gemstones of Egypt.

 

A map showing the location of Topazios near Egypt’s southeastern coastline, not far from the Ras Banas Peninsula to the northwest; Image: Jewelpedia

A map showing the location of the Berenike port (a.k.a. Berenice) in relation to the Ras Banas Peninsula and Zabargad (Topazios); Image: Golden Dolphin Safari World


During the 7th Century C.E., Egypt was conquered by Arab forces, and unrest continued for some time in the region between the southern Nile River and the Red Sea where Egypt’s gold and emerald mines were located. The nature of these conflicts and their proximity to the Red Sea likely prevented any mining from taking place on the island of Topazios by destabilising the mainland sources of provisions that would have supplied the island, as there are no scholarly mentions of peridot mining during this time. Only after the Fatimid invasion of Egypt in the 10th Century C.E. and the subsequent establishment of Aydhab as a trading port at Egypt’s southeastern borders in the present day Hala'ib Triangle, did peridot and the island of Topazios reappear in historical writings; in his 977 C.E. work “Ṣūrat al-’Arḍ” (Arabic: “صورة الأرض”; English: “The Face of the Earth”), the Turkish chronicler Ibn Hawqal describes an island near Aydhab where green gems he calls “zabargad” were found; eventually the island of Topazios would add “Zabargad” to the long list of names by which it has been known. Interestingly, the famed book Kitab al-jamahir fi marifat al-jawahir (Arabic: “كتاب الجماهر في معرفة الجواهر”; English: “The Book Most Comprehensive in Knowledge On Precious Stones”), written by Irainian scholar Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni not long after “Face of the Earth” was completed and regarded as an essential tome detailing gemstone knowledge of the middle ages, mentions the “zabargad” stone but declares that it is merely another name for “zarnarrud” (or “zamarud”, an arabic word meaning “emerald”) and that the two are of comparable value. It is very likely however that al-Biruni never saw peridot gemstones in person long enough to study them, as he was the first academic to accurately measure the specific gravity of numerous gemstones and would have seen a clear difference between the two green stones if he had been given the opportunity to examine peridot gems more closely; when discussing the emerald mines of mainland Egypt, al-Biruni also writes of a transparent stone called “sisan” which he believed came from the emerald mines, but he describes its green colour as “pale” and notes that it had a different hardness than that of emerald, a description which resembles that of peridot and also suggests that he never saw the mines himself as it is known that no such stones were found there. 

 

A map showing the position of the present day Hala’ib Triangle, which was once home to Aydhab’s port, just south of the Ras Banas Peninsula and the location of Zabargad (Topazios); Image: Amusing Planet


The writings of al-Biruni are perhaps the earliest record of a long standing conflation between the emeralds of southern Egypt and the peridot of Zabargad which is still erroneously referenced by some today; fanciful stories still persist that the “emeralds” of Cleopatra’s Egypt were actually peridot gems from Zabargad, a notion that was further popularised in the 20th Century C.E. after the Egyptian island and its gems were reintroduced to the world. While the Egyptian emerald mines and the peridot mines of Zabargad were logistically distinct and yielded visually distinct materials, it is easy to see how this confusion was sustained among those outside of Egypt; three large peridot gemstones which famously adorn the Tomb of the Three Kings (a.k.a. “The Shrine of the Three Magi”) in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral, thought to have been sourced during the 12th Century C.E., were long believed to be emeralds, and use of the term “the evening emerald” in reference to how well peridot’s green colour held under firelight relative to the green hues of emerald gems may have originated during this time as well. 

 

A side view of the Tomb of the Three Kings in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral; Image: Penhook.org

One of the great mysteries of the ancient world, the island of Zabargad eventually revealed itself and allowed new ventures to gather treasures from its shores. In the last part of this series, learn about the known history of Zabargad from the end of the middle ages until today.


© Yaĝé Enigmus


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