The Rarest Blue - Prologue


The dazzling Greek sun had arched past its midpoint in the sky – which meant I didn’t have much time. Driving down the coastal highway from Corinth to Athens at about ten miles per hour over the speed limit, I was beginning to feel anxious. In a few hours I had to be back at my hotel. With the setting of the sun, the Sabbath would begin, and for the next twenty-four hours I couldn’t do any kind of work, according to the broadest definition of the term. That included driving my car. If I miscalculated the remaining time, I’d have to pull over to the side of the road, leave the car, and walk the rest of the way.

It wouldn’t be the first time, I thought.

The night before, I had flown to Athens on my way back home to Israel from a business trip in Germany. I was working on a new idea for a laser that could turn radio waves into light energy. My company wanted to make the laser very compact, and the problem that I hoped my German colleague could help solve was how to efficiently channel radio waves into the laser, instead of merely letting them disperse as useless radiation. In the quaint town of Aachen, snow had fallen on a frozen brook while I was thinking about laser energy, and now, dressed in a T-shirt, I was driving along the Mediterranean coast, stopping in one village after another with something quite different in mind.

I had pretty much given up hope of finding it. The morning had begun with a trip to a small hardware store in Athens to buy a few items: hammer, razor blade, half-gallon jar. The man behind the counter looked at me curiously. In a thick Greek accent that stretched his English to the breaking point, he asked: “What you want for? You fix?”

“No, I dye,” I replied. Then, quickly realizing that he probably imagined some gruesome suicide scene, I touched a colorful spot on my shirt. “You know, make color.”

He looked at me with his head turned a bit to the side, the expression on his face clearly reading Crazy foreigners. I can never understand what they are talking about.

I had studied the map before setting out that morning and decided to drive all the way to Corinth, then double back to Athens. On the way I would stop in the villages and inquire among the local fishermen. It probably wasn’t the most efficient plan. I should have started close to Athens and traveled farther west if necessary. But sundown was a hard deadline, so it made more sense to head toward my hotel as the day progressed.

Narrow and winding, the “highway” to Corinth keeps the coast on one side and mountains on the other. The scenery was a tourist’s delight: Small whitewashed villages checkered the landscape – Stikas, Kineta, Agioi Theodoroi. But I hadn’t come to enjoy the scenery or visit the tourist sites, not even the stunning Temple of Apollo in Corinth.

I was on a mission.

In each village that I entered, I looked for the marketplace or the harbor and asked the locals the same one-word question, the full extent of my Greek: “Porphyros?” Sometimes they simply stared at me, but every once in a while came a voluble response accompanied by hand waving and pointing that directed me to the next village down the road.

How many times had I done this already, I wondered as I stopped in front of a small store in the seaside village of Pyrgos. Sitting outside, an old woman dressed in black was sewing a button on a shirt. I smiled my politest smile and asked my Greek word: “Porphyros?” She looked at me as if she didn’t hear me, so I took out a business card and wrote on the back πoρφυρoς. My doctorate in physics was unexpectedly coming in handy. One thing a physicist knows is the Greek alphabet, since we use those letters as various symbols in equations.

The old woman looked closely at the letters, nodded a few times, then pointed without saying a word, waggling her fingers. She wasn’t steering me to the next village, but rather to a path leading in the direction of the sea. Had she understood me correctly? Were my efforts at last paying off? I smiled again, by way of thanks, and hurried down toward the beach. Fishing boats, docked at a pier, were bobbing in the afternoon sun. On the pier itself, fresh looking fish were piled high on stands. One stand, however, was not filled with fish but rather – to my great delight – with snails.

Tense with anticipation, I picked up a snail and examined it. It was bigger than those I knew, but the shape was similar. Down the front of the shell ran a ridge leading to a wide oval opening, and on the inner side I could make out the characteristic white and brown bands. With increasing excitement I looked at the other snails, a few of them peeking out of their shells, their eyes dangling at the ends of long stems. Some shells were shut tight, but the hard covering with which the snails sealed themselves into their shells was the familiar brown color with a smooth texture like a fingernail. There could be no doubt. It was the Murex trunculus. It was what I had been looking for.

I almost didn’t believe my luck; here were hundreds of the snails, a whole treasure trove. I held up seven fingers, pointed to the snails, and said to the boy selling them, “Kilos.” He looked at me in disbelief. Seven kilos amounted to about five hundred snails, enough for a major banquet. But these were not for eating.

He hurriedly weighed them, put them into a few boxes, and helped me carry them to the seashore. There, on a strong, level rock, I went to work. I had to be fast and efficient if I was going to make it back to my hotel room in time.

One by one, I took each snail and positioned it so that the opening was flat against the rock. I aimed about two-thirds of the way down the back, and with one firm stroke of my hammer broke through the shell. Then with my pinky, I pushed the snail itself deeply into its shell until part of the soft body came squeezing through the hole I had broken. If I did it right – and I did nearly every time – there, oozing through the hole on the back of the snail’s shell, appeared a yellow gland, about a quarter of an inch long and the width of a piece of spaghetti. With the razor blade and my thumb as a counter force, I sliced off the gland and dropped it into the jar. The broken snail itself I tossed into the ocean.

Pretty soon I had an audience – two audiences, actually. In the water, dozens of fish congregated to feast upon the discarded snails. On the shore, local fishermen and children gathered with great curiosity to see what this stranger was doing. The kids, dark haired and tanned, laughed merrily as they pointed at me, whispering “trelos” – not a compliment, as I later learned.* I must have looked quite ridiculous as I cracked open snail after snail and performed microsurgery on each one.

Meanwhile, the yellow glands that I had been placing in the half-full jar were rapidly turning a bluish purple, as were my own hands. I finished shell breaking, rubbed my hands in the seawater to wash off the grime and the smell – the stain on my fingers, I knew, would last for weeks – waved to the children and the fishermen, and returned to my car. I even managed to make it back to my hotel in Athens with enough time for a quick shower before the Sabbath began. I placed the jar outside my window, hoping that the cool air would help keep the contents fresh.

The next morning, when I opened the window, the rancid smell of rotting fish nearly knocked me over. Finding and procuring the snail glands had been difficult enough, but getting that jar safely through security and onto the plane was going to require divine intervention. That night I wrapped it in layer after layer of plastic bags, until the stench became little more than a faint odor, and hoped for the best.

In Israel my friends Eliyahu, Joel, and Ari met me at Ben Gurion International Airport. They had received my e-mail announcing the great find, and they were too excited to wait until I got home to see the treasure. I unwrapped the jar, and everyone stared in awe at the bluish-purple liquid. It was a solemn moment; we were all participating in a venture that had historical significance – and we knew it. We also knew that we would be able to find as many of the Murex trunculus snails as we wanted and that we could produce all the dye that we would need.

The secret of marine snail dyes had been lost for 1,300 years, but we were about to restore the sacred, rarest blue.

*Tρελός means crazy.

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