The Peridot Mines of Ancient Egypt
Gem-quality forsterite olivine is called peridot by modern gemologists, although it was known as chrysolite, topaz, and topazos in the past. Peridot is one of our oldest gemstones. It has been found in jewelry dating from the 2nd millennium BC.
Agatharchides of Cnidus (2nd century BC) said that the Egyptian pharaohs held it in great esteem and had it polished by royal gem cutters.
The Stockholm Papyrus (c. AD 300) described how imitation peridot was created by heating crystal with pitch and celandine.
According to Pliny the Elder (AD 1st century), peridot “is a stone that is still held in very high estimation for its green tints: indeed, when it was first discovered, it was preferred to every other kind of precious stone.”
Pliny stated further that “Juba [his source] says that there is an island in the Red Sea called ‘Topazos’ at a distance of three hundred stadia from the main land; that it is surrounded by fogs, and is often sought by navigators in consequence; and that, owing to this, it received its present name, the word ‘topazin’ meaning “to seek,” in the language of the Troglodytae. He states also, that Philon, the king’s praefect, was the first to bring these stones from this island; and that, on his presenting them to Queen Berenice, the mother of the second Ptolemaeus, she was wonderfully pleased with them.”
We now know that the island in question lies about 50 kilometers off the Egyptian coast in the Red Sea and has been called Zabargad, Zebirget, Topazos, Serpent, and St. John’s Island at different times.
In antiquity the peridot mines were worked with slave labor in what must have been exceedingly harsh conditions. The island has only limited desert vegetation and virtually no fresh water. During the day the heat reaches scorching temperatures. Perhaps this is why peridot mining was carried on at night, although according to legend, it was because the pale-green stones were hard to distinguish under the blazing sun and more easily spotted in the moonlight. Some say this is why the Romans called peridot the “evening emerald.”
According to experts, slaves worked the mines by digging tunnels along exposed veins. Cave-ins were frequent and scores of miners were interred under falling rock.
Greek Historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BC) also provided details on the hard life of the miners:
“For there is found on it [the island] the topaz, as it is called, which is a pleasing transparent stone, similar to glass, and of a marvellous golden hue. Consequently no unauthorized person may set foot upon the island and it is closely guarded, every man who has approached it being put to death by the guards who are stationed there. And the latter are few in number and lead a miserable existence. For in order to prevent any stone being stolen, not a single boat is left on the island; furthermore, any who sail by pass along it at a distance because of their fear of the king; and the provisions which are brought to it are quickly exhausted and there are absolutely no other provisions in the land. Consequently, whenever only a little food is left, all the inhabitants of the village sit down and await the arrival of the ship of those who are bringing the provisions, and when these are delayed they are reduced to their last hopes.”
According to Peter Keller (1990), the Red Sea is one of the most dynamic tectonic features on the surface of the earth. He claimed that the geology of Zabargad Island is unique because it was formed when African and Asiatic continental plates converged and thrust portions of the upper mantle to the surface. Although peridot is usually found as small crystals in the mantle, during the upward thrust of the sheets that formed Zabargad Island, hot fluids dissolved the crystals and redeposited them as larger, gem-quality stones. Peridot crystals occur in veins in three areas on Zabargad Island.
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