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Middle Eastern Glass Beads:

A New Paradigm

Part 4

A Tale of Another City

After the assassination of the brilliant Philip II of Macedonia, one of his sons, Alexander III, rose to power because he was the army's favorite. Philip had already laid plans to invade the world's greatest Empire, Persia, and it was left to young Alexander to carry them out. His first move was across the Hellespont (the Dardanelles), the narrow waterway connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, to win what is now western Turkey and liberate the Greek cities there. Before challenging Persia's home territory, he turned south and conquered Phoenicia/Syria and Egypt.

Though he had a considerable battle at Gaza, the Egyptians welcomed him as a liberator from Persian domination. At the oracle of Zeus Ammon in Siwa Oasis he was hailed as a god. At a now-dry mouth of the Nile he built (one of nearly two dozen) a city named after himself in 332 BC. Even the great Alexander could not have foreseen that this Alexandria was to become the greatest port and most beautiful city of the Mediterranean.

Alexandria (al-Iskandaria to the modern inhabitants) was built on the elongated island of Pharos, which was soon connected to the mainland by a mole (an artificial breakwater, now silted over and forming an isthmus). It emcompassed some of the facing mainland, including the pirate/fishing village of Rhacotis. Pharos and its mole resulted in a T-shaped peninsula, with harbor facilities on both sides. Alexander built a wall around Rhacotis and surrounding land and in a few months left to conquer Persia and invade India. He only returned after he died at Persepolis, Persia, for burial.

The Alexandrine Empire was broken up among his generals, Ptolemy taking Egypt. He began the great lighthouse, the prototype of all lighthouses (in several languages faro or some variation is the world for "lighthouse"), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Within a century, only Rome was a more important city in the West. Alexandria's museum became a famed Greek university. The city boasted two obelisks, now known as "Cleopatra's needles" and since moved to New York and London.

Alexandria's library was the largest on Earth, with perhaps 700,000 papyrus scrolls. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times, first and most destructively by Julius Caesar. The city was a meeting-place for Egyptian, Greek and Jewish merchants and intellectuals. Among many accomplishments performed there, the Septuagent, the Greek translation of the Bible, was written there.

And it was a center of glassmaking. We are hampered in our understanding of the history of Alexandrian glassmaking by the difficulty of excavating a living city. Al-Iskandaria is Egypt's second metropolitan area and one of its two major ports. For more than a century, attempts have been made to uncover the glories of the past, but they have been few and far between. The only excavation to find evidence of beadmaking has been the Polish one of the 1970s.

The lack of certain knowledge is frustrating. At the First International Congress for the Study of the History of Glass, the leading glass historian, the late Donald Harden. was asked by Gladys Weinberg (see the article on Rhodes) whether we really knew Alexandrian glass. His answer was a curt "No."1

We do have some literary evidence, however. Strabo ("the squinter" ca. 58 BC - 24 AD) traveled and wrote a history of Rome that is completely lost to us and a Geographia, nearly all of which has survived. In it he recorded, "I have heard at Alexandria from the glass-workers that there was in Aegypt a kind of vitreous earth without which many-coloured and costly designs could not be executed…"2 The word translated by Jones as many-coloured was the Greek Polucrw m a , or "polychrome." This may or may not refer to mosaic glass, but the addition of "and costly" suggests it.

Harden studied the origin of mosaic glass more intensely than anyone. He puts the earliest examples (not beads, but vessels) around the middle of the 15th century BC, or ca. 1450 BC3 The manufacturing center, as with the center of glassmaking itself, was in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). In the paper cited and elsewhere4 he has assumed that Mesopotamian glassmakers immigrated to Alexandria shortly after the city was built.

He wrote, "the mosaic principle was in use from time to time since the 15th century B.C. for making vessels in Mesopotamia, and we may be sure, from this, that it was from Mesopotamia that the Alexandrians derived this method of manufacture; but it seems, curiously, to have died out then in Mesopotamia itself.... That this development at Alexandria had happened by the end of the 3rd century BC at latest is certain…. Thereafter the production of mosaic vessels in Alexandria flourished."5

There is another possible Hellenistic Egyptian producer of mosaic glass: Thebes. The anonymous Greek writer of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written in the middle of the first century AD, tells us that among the goods exported to Adulis (modern Zula, Eritrea) of the Auximite Kingdom was "millefiori glass of the kind produced in Diospolis."6 Diospolis (City of Gods) was the Greek name for ancient Thebes.

The word Casson translated as "millefiori glass" is morrinhV , or "myrrhine." Myrrhine has a long and complex history of people trying to figure out what it was.7 Pliny tells us that it first came to Rome (its origin was India) in Pompey's time and that one ex-consul was so fond of his drinking cup made from it that he would gnaw at the rim. Even so damaged, the cup was still valuable. Competition heated up for the material and finally Nero beat everyone out by paying a million gold sesterces for it. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Pliny remarked, "That one who was acclaimed as a victorious general and as Father of his Country should have paid so much in order to drink is a detail that we must formally record."8

While there is some question as to whether Thebes (Diospolis) actually made glass or was just a conduit for it,9 Casson is probably right that the Periplus is not talking about real myrrhine but an imitation, as it was an expensive import to Rome and not an export.10 However, as he says, the consensus is growing that myrrhine was fluorspar (how else would the unnamed ex-consul manage to damage it with his teeth?). In that case, Thebes' imitation might not be millefiori glass but what I call "agate glass," combined opaque white with translucent dark blue and/or amber-colored glass.

To return to millefiori, some unknown genius, probably in the first century BC and most likely working in Alexandria, began making mosaic glass beads with designs that resembled vessels and inlays. A new industry was born.

Part 5: Alexandria's other glass bead - Soon.

To Part 1 To Part 2 To Part 3


 D.B. Harden 1959 "Glass-Making Centres and the Spread of Glass-Making from the First to the Fourth Century A.D." Annals du 1er Congres International d'Etude Historiques du Verre, pp. 47-62 (including discussion; exchange on p. 59).


 Horace L. Jones (translator) 1941 The Geography of Strabo, Volume VII Loeb Classical Library, London/Cambridge MA: W. Heinemann/Harvard U. Press, p. 273.


 D.B. Harden 1967 "Some Aspects of Pre-Roman Mosaic Glass" Annals 4eme Congres Journees International du Verre, pp. 29-38.


 D.B. Harden 1969 "Ancient Glass I: Pre-Roman" Archaeological Journal 125, pp. 46-72. (The three papers that make up this series have also been published as a separate book.)


 Ibid., pp. 62-3.


Lionel Casson (translator) 1989 The Periplus Maris Erythraei Princeton: Princeton U. Press. (p 53)




D.E. Eichholtz 1962 Pliny Natural History, Volume X Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge MA/London: Harvard U. Press/W. Heinemann, pp. 177-81 (quote on p. 179).


Mary L. Trowbridge 1928 "Philological Studies in Ancient Glass," University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature 13(3/4): 231, 436 (see pp. 313-24; also published as a separate book, 1930 by U. Illinois).


Casson op. cit, 111-2.

Middle Eastern Glass Beads: A New Paradigm

 is copyrighted © 1999 Peter Francis, Jr. Permission is hereby given to download a single copy either electronically or in print. Permission for multiple copies should be sought from the publisher here.

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