Indigo Trade in Ancient Times

From Early Antiquity through the Age of Islam 

block of indigo dye paste

Evidence of a thriving indigo trade in ancient days can be found in etymology, archeology, and early documents.  Whether used to decorate cathedrals or dye fabrics soaked in camel dung, indigo was a precious trade commodity throughout ancient times. The expansion of indigo cultivation during the Golden Age of Islam led to an increasingly integrated network of distant economic exchange linking cultivators, dye workshops, and textile manufacturers. Implementation of Islamic sumptuary laws in the Levant may have led to the portrayal of the Virgin Mary in an indigo robe in Christian Art. 


Indigo dye paste was one of the earliest commodities to be traded from India to Europe. The Greek word for the blue dye was indikon and the Latin word was indicum, meaning “substance from India”. The Arab word nil for dark blue, was likely introduced by Arab traders doing business in India, as the Sanskrit word for dark blue is nila. The Arab conquest of Southern Spain led eventually to the use of the Spanish term añil for dark blue in Central and South America. Similarly, the Indonesian word for blue dye is nila, which may have evolved from contact with Arab traders, although in Indonesian the word for blue is biru, and batik made with blue is called biron.



 Sassinian Persian textile fragment from 6c-7c CE 
in Victoria and Albert Museum. image from wikicommons.

Egyptian linen cloth with indigo dyed borders have been found as mummy wraps, and dated to approximately 2400 BCE.[1] Given that linen is not very receptive of dyes and that indigo is superior to woad with this material, we can speculate that indigofera was used.
Textile finds from Charchan, in Xinjian Province, China, and dated to 1000 BCE have been tested, and it has been determined that they were dyed with indigo and madder[2].
A seventh century BCE Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet provides the earliest known written instructions on how to dye wool with indigo.[3] The description of repeated dipping, and the absence of use of a mordant, suggest that indigofera that was used (as opposed to woad). Given that indigofera did not grow in this part of Mesopotamia (what is present day Iraq near Abu Habba), the dye would have had to have been imported from either the Indus valley, the southern Arabian Peninsula, or Persia.
A fifth century BCE pile rug (called the Pazyryk rug), found preserved in ice in the Altai Mountains, has a soft indigo blue background.[4] Although it was found in a Scythian burial mound, it stylistically resembles Persian decorative motifs of the time. Sassanian Persia was a known center of indigo cultivation in biblical times.
Flinders Petrie excavated large dye workshops at Attribis near Sohag that are dated to the Roman period. There are sixteen vats, most stained with indigo blue. The layout of the workshop resembles indigo dye workshops in use in Aleppo as late as the 1980s.
A tapestry tunic with an indigo dyed jaguar pattern has been found in a 700 AD Peruvian grave.[5] Evidence also exists for the use of indigo in Mayan ritual sacrifice, where it was daubed onto pots and people before sacrifice. Scientific analysis of a pot found in the sacred well at Chichen Itza, together with historical evidence, suggests that the formation of the color was also part of the ritual.[6]

Possible Biblical References to Indigo

Ezekiel 27 describes trading for blue cloth from Sheba. Both of the posited locations of Sheba in the sixth century BCE, Yemen or Ethiopia, were regions that grew indigo but not woad. In Chronicles 2, King Solomon requests the King of Tyre to send him a man that can work in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics. Indigo was grown in Tyre at that time, so we may suppose that the dyer would be an expert at indigo dyeing. Exodus26:1 describes the making of a tabernacle with curtains of fine linen dyed blue, purple, and scarlet. Linen is particularly resistant to dyes; thus, we may suppose indigo would be the dye expected.

Indigo Mentioned in Early Roman Documents       

In The Periplus of the Erythraen Sea (dated between 40 and 70 AD) an anonymous merchant identifies indigo as an item traded across the Indian Ocean from Barbaricum (near modern day Karachi) back to Egypt on the “etesian winds”.[7]  Strabo, a Greek geographer in Egypt in the early years of the millennium, records in his Geographica that one hundred and twenty ships annually trade between Cairo and India.



Indigo in the Golden Age of Islam

  Folio from Blue Qur'an, late 9c/early 10c, Fatimid Tunisia. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

During the Golden Age of Islam, networks of commerce were extended and new cities were formed. Textiles and dye materials were exchanged in all the great markets and ports. The first public works undertaken by the Umayyad Caliph Sulayman (715-717 AD) was the construction of a dye works factory.[8] Indigo dye, being light in weight but valuable, was transported widely along caravan routes as well as along monsoon maritime routes. Indigo dye was imported in the form of a condensed hard paste, and was so rare and valuable that it was thought to be a precious stone. When the Ghaznavid army took control of the Sindh region in the 11th century, one of the commodities they demanded as tribute was indigo. The Sultans reserved most of this valuable dyestuff for themselves, but gave some as gifts to other Caliphs.[9]
Historians have been able to reconstruct information about North African trade from the 10th to 13th centuries, in part from the well-preserved papers of Jewish merchants. Jewish traders in Cairo stored many of their secular papers in the Geniza, a chamber next to the synagogue. Over a thousand business letters survive, written in Arabic in a Hebrew script. These papers indicate that there was a thriving trade between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in a great variety of commodities. The supply of dyeing materials was one of the largest branches of this trade, and indigo led the list. References to indigo from India being traded through Egypt to Europe abound. Indigo was traded in large quantities, for considerable sums, and was constantly in demand. The average price of indigo was approximately double that of equivalent weights of pepper or cinnamon.[10]  However, this fluctuated, and there was often speculation on the market. Some papers written primarily in Arabic include transaction requests for indigo written in Hebrew, which suggests a desire to keep indigo trade information secret. Geniza papers also make reference to a separate class of professional evaluators of indigo dyestuff, indicating a division of tasks in the indigo market. Lastly, Geniza papers show that Jewish merchants identified a lack of discrimination among the majority of European buyers, an exception being the Sicilians, as they would purchase only first class indigo.[11]
In Europe, indigo was a luxury item used for fresco painting, cosmetics, and medicine. The most esteemed indigo was known as “Baghdad indigo”, although the origins were farther east than this trade center. Indigo grown in Persia or India would be traded in Baghdad, transported by Arab camel caravan to Alexandria, and shipped to Venice or Genoa by Italian sailors, before continuing on to major European cities. “Baghdad Indigo” is listed as one of the most expensive items on the fourteenth century account books of Exeter Cathedral in Devon, England.[12] Italian commercial documents from the twelfth to the fifteenth century indicate that “Baghdad indigo” was valued at four times as much as Cypriot indigo. The Suma Oriental, a document written by the Portuguese traveler Tomé Pirés between 1512 and 1515, describes traffic in dyestuffs stretching from Aden to Malacca, listing indigo with other valuable commodities such as silver, pearls, opium, and rosewater.[13]

Expansion of cultivation under Islam 

In the early years of Islam indigofera tinctoria was brought to the Arab World as a crop.[14] By the eleventh century indigo dye was being exported from the Draa Valley.[15] Al- Idrisi (1099-1166) indicates in his Geographie that indigo was the principal crop of the Jordan Valley and could also be found in plantations along the Nile as well as at Western Egyptian oases. In the late fifteenth century there was another rapid increase in the cultivation of indigo, expanding throughout Muslim lands.[16]  Indigo was traded from Persia to Russia. Safavid and Mughal officials provided long term credit to farmers to invest in growing indigo and sugar. Officials benefited from the cultivation of cash crops that tied peasants to villages in which they had invested in irrigation, warehouses, and wells. Furthermore, there is evidence that Mughal officials exchanged indigo for horses delivered from Tajikistan to Delhi by Uzbek peddlers.[17]


 The Talpu Mirs who ruled the Sindh from 1783 to 1843 wore sumptuous silk turbans, scarves and sashes dyed with indigo, madder, and saffron.[18] The peoples of the Sindh have a long tradition and illustrious tradition of dyeing with indigo. Their most famous textile is the cotton ajrak. These square or rectangular textiles can be used as shawls, carrying cloths, hammocks, or spreads. The term ajrak may be related to azraq, the Persian word for blue, as well as azrak, an Arabic word for blue (and our source of the word azure), as these textiles are usually printed with background patterns dyed with indigo.
Ajrak making is a complex process. Repeated washing and soaking in baths of tamarisk seeds, molasses, oil, and water initially soften the fabric. Printing is then carried out in three stages with wooden blocks. A resist is applied to mark out the areas that will be white. A mordant is applied to the areas that will be red. The fabric is sprinkled with powdered cow dung to fix the resists, and then dried. Next it is soaked in a cool bath of indigo, dried, and washed, before being printed with new mordant and boiled in a bath of alizarine for red. The cloth is then cooled, soaked in a mixture of camel dung and water, wrung, and dried overnight. Repeated soaking in the river and beating on stone slabs occur until all the extra dye is removed and the white is crisp. A final secondary application of resists and indigo dyeing darken the blue, a step that is referred to as “enameling.”[19]

Sumptuary Laws and Tiraz

During the Umayyad Period (mid 7c to mid 8c) sumptuary laws stipulated that non-Muslims had to wear distinguishing clothing. Jewish men had to wear yellow turbans. Christian men were expected to wear turbans dyed indigo blue. Jewish and Christian women were expected to wear correspondingly yellow or blue robes. Special royal workshops were established that produced luxurious, embroidered tiraz textiles with edges stitched with Arabic calligraphy in gold thread. Under the reign of the Abbasid caliphs (750-1258 AD) it was standard to give gifts of these richly dyed tiraz robes to honor visiting embassies.[20] Textiles with stylized Islamic inscriptions became status symbols. The crusades introduced these robes to Europeans. By the thirteenth century one can see the effect on religious art; The Christian mother of Jesus, Mary, is frequently portrayed wearing an indigo blue Muslim tiraz robe.

Image found at Fordham University Gallery of Byzantine Images 



There are many indications that Indigo was widely used in antiquity. In tropical regions this most likely involved the use of locally grown indigo, but in temperate climates indigo paste would have been imported. Evidence suggests that India was the prime exporter of dried cakes of indigo dye paste, and that this valuable commodity was consumed in areas that had access to woad. Recent scientific developments may enable archaeologists to distinguish use of indigofera tinctoria from use of woad.[21] The expansion of Muslim empires led to the biological transfer of indigofera tinctoria from India to the Middle East and Africa, trade in refined textiles dyed with indigo, and the spread of Muslim cultural imagery. However, trade tariffs and instability in Muslim territories led Europeans to seek alternative access to prized Asian commodities such as Indigo.


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[1] James Thomson. "On the Mummy Cloth of Egypt; with Observations on the Manufactures of the Ancients." Abstracts of the Papers Printed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 3, (1830 - 1837), 298-299
[2] Xian Zhang et. Al. “Characterization of dyestuffs in ancient textiles from Xinjiang” Journal of Archeological Science, 35 (4): 1095-1103 Apr 2008
[3] Plymouth City Council. “Indigo: A Blue to Dye For” Exhibition (19 May to 1 Sept 2007) Plymouth College of Art and Design.
[5] Jenny Balfour-Paul. Indigo (London: British Museum Press, 1998), 19
[6] Dean Arnold, “The First Direct Evidence for the Production of Maya Blue: Rediscovery of a Technology“ Antiquity, 82 (315):151-164 Mar 2008
[8] Patricia Baker, Islamic Textiles (London: British Museum Press, 1995) p.29
[9] Clifford Edmund Boseworth, The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran (Edinburgh: University Press, 1963), 76
[10] Jenny Balfour-Paul, Indigo in the Arab World (Richmond,Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997), 27
[11] Ibid., 25-26
[12] Jenny Balfour-Paul, “India’s Trade in Indigo” Textiles from India: Papers presented at a Conference on the Indian Textile Trade, Kolkata, Oct 2003 (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2005) p.359
[13] Balfour-Paul, Indigo in the Arab World, 28
[14] Andrew Watson, Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World; Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques 700-1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 100
[15] Edward Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 101
[16] R.J. Barendse  “Trade and State in the Arabian Seas: A Survey from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century” Journal of World History  yr:2000 vol:11 no:2 pg:173
[17] Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors, 101
[18] Nasreen Askari & Rosemary Crill, Colours of the Indus: Costume and Textiles of Pakistan (London: Merrell Holberton Publishers, 1997), 55
[19] Ibid., 62
[20] Balfour-Paul, Indigo in the Arab World , 15

[21] Maria Puchalska "Identification of indigoid dyes in natural organic pigments used in historical art objects by high-performance liquid chromatography coupled to electrospray ionization mass spectrometry." Journal of Mass Spectrometry, Vol.39, No.12, 1441-1449, Sept.1, 2004