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Peridot from St. John's / Zabargad Island

Last Updated: 13th Jul 2015

By Olav Revheim


Zabargad Island has been a source of gem peridot since the time of Greco-Roman rule in Egypt. Archaeological excavations have revealed interesting information about the commercial exploitation of these resources, and geological investigations have provided important knowledge about the formation of the Red Sea and upper mantle conditions.

Excavations in the ancient port of Berenice, as well as on Zabragad Island itself, have revealed active mining on the island since the 3rd century BC. These results are in line with the classic mineralogical literature; in particular, Pliny the Elder's Natural History (79AD) has been a much used source of information.

A review of modern and contemporary literature has, to a certain degree, made it possible to follow the history of mining, trade and naming conventions for the green gem of the island. The island often was unknown to contemporary scholars, but still might have been known and mined by local tribes, probably in combination with hunting expeditions for turtles. The review of literature has also disproven some popular myths; peridots were neither mined by the pharaoes nor the crusaders. There is no archaeological evidence that mining took place earlier then 250BC, and the crusaders made only one excursion into the Red Sea. Any peridots gathered in this raid were probably acquired by looting the port of Aydhab. Peridots from Zabargad may also have reached Europe by regular trade.

In geological terms, the peridotites of Zabargad Island provide valuable insights into conditions in the upper continental mantle and the processes associated with the uplift of mantle rocks to the surface during a rifting process. The gem peridots formed in late-stage hydrothermal veins, forming large crystals up to 20 cm.

Zabargad Island

Zabargad Island is located in the Red Sea, about 100 km southeast of the Ras Benas Peninsula. It is a small desert island, no more than 3.2 km long and 2.4 km wide, without any fresh water source and with only a few low growing shrubs covering the ground. The most prominent landscape features are the 235 m tall Peridot Hill and the underwater reefs south of the island, which make access to the low-lying southern beaches somewhat difficult. This is fairly typical for the Red Sea, as there are many dangerous reefs which, combined with strong northerly winds, make it difficult to navigate. Because of this, throughout history it has been preferable to transport goods by camel through the Arabian desert than by boat on the Red Sea, thus keeping Zabargad Island in the backwater of international trade except during periods of unrest along the alternative routes.

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The island itself contains scattered remains of mining operations for the green gem that has secured the island a place in world history. Harrell (2012) gives a detailed account of the remnants of the mining operations:

"The ancient mine (lies) on its south-east shore, along with some associated ruins and a water well. The mine workings occupy the lower slope of the 235 m-high peak known as Peridot Hill. They consist of about 150 open pits, which are up to 20 m across with tailings piles rising as much as 5 m above the pit floors.

Ceramics are rare in the mine workings and both ruins, but abundant around the well. Although later periods may be represented in the pottery corpus, the several amphorae observed date mainly from the mid-3rd to 1st centuries BC, with the rest extending into the Roman period, according to ceramics expert Roberta Tombe"

Based on the size of the ruins, Harrell estimated that there were about 10-20 miners working in the ancient mines.

Peridots were excavated from veins in peridotite, the bedrock underlying Peridot Hill. These veins are rich in serpentine, giving a moderately soft rock, and the peridot crystals would have been reasonably easy to extract. Most of the modern mine workings, which are also in such veins and include deep adits as well as open pits, are on the northeast side of Peridot Hill with the rest on the south-east side but above the ancient mine, which has been left undisturbed.

The geographical position of the island, combined with the occurrence of transparent green gems, has provided a unique means of identification of the island throughout history. This has enabled the multiple sciences that are involved in the investigation of the island to keep track, at least to a certain degree, of the changing names of the island and the gem in different languages. It should nevertheless be recognized that historical knowledge is often incomplete, ambiguous and cross-referenced in a web of contradicting information.

Early History

Many sources, including Mindat, claim that mining on Zabragad started between 1300 and 1800BC. There is no credible archeological evidence supporting this claim. The earliest written record that has survived is from Agatharchides (writing in the mid 2nd century BC but using 3rd-century BC sources). The next certain reference available today is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History of 70AD.

Pliny quotes Archelaüs (5th century BC) on how pirates discovered green gems on an island 300 stadia (= 55 km) from the shore and Juba (Juba II of Numidia (52/50BC – 23AD) on how the green gems were first brought to Cairo as a gift to Queen Bereneice I (340BC – between 279 and 268BC). Organized mining supposedly started at this time. Pliny’s account fits well with modern excavations in the Hellenistic-Roman trade center of Berenike and on Zabragad. Berenike experienced three peak periods of activity: the mid 3rd to mid 2nd centuries BC in the Ptolemaic period, the 1st century AD during the early Roman period (the zenith of the port’s commercial prosperity), and the mid 4th to 5th centuries AD during the late Roman period.

Harrell and Bloxam are of the opinion that mining activity on Zabargad closely mirrored the rise and fall of Berenike’s fortunes. It is likely that Berenike provided the manpower, supplies and trade routes required to bring the peridots to market. The port city was abandoned by the mid 6th century AD in the Greco-Roman period, and with it the peridot mine on Zabargad Island.

Agatharchides, Pliny and others refer to the island by different names, but its geographical position and gem occurrence makes it quite probable that all refer to the same island known today as Zabragad. The name that has persisted throughout the two millennia since first being used is "topazos", meaning “to seek” in the language of the Troglodytae, a local tribe in the Red Sea region. The supposed origin of the name is that the island "Topazos" (Zabargad) is often covered in fog and therefore difficult to find, or it may be related to the reported difficulty in finding one's way through the reefs just offshore from the southern part of the island.

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Intermediate History

The 7th century was a period of turmoil in Egypt. On a grand scale, the Arab conquest of Egypt was completed with the siege and capture of Alexandria in 641, but unrest continued in southern parts of the country where both Beja and Nubian people exploited the weakness of central government (whether Greco-Roman or Arab). Holt and Daly (2000) describe clashes between Arab immigrant miners and the indigenous Beja tribes near the emerald and gold mines in the mountains between the Red Sea and the Nile. Given the general unrest in the area, it is unlikely that there were any significant mining efforts on Zabragad Island, where miners would have been dependent upon supplies from shore and vulnerable to pirates when in transit between the island and the shore.

It was not until the Fatmid conquest of Egypt and the consequent establishment of Aydhab as a trade and pilgrimage port in the late 10th and 11th century that central government maintained some control over the area. It appears that inland gold and emerald mines were more important than the peridot mining at Zabragad, but the Turkish traveller Ibn Hawqal specifically states in his "Face of the Earth" (written in 977AD) that a green gem named "zabragad" was found on an island near Aydhab .

Ibn Hawqal's contemporary, the scholar Al-Biruni, did not mention Zabargad in his famed work "The Book Most Comprehensive in Knowledge On Precious Stones". This work is considered by many as the best medieval work on gems, and he simply states that “zarnarrud" (emerald) and "zabarjad" (peridot) are two names for the same thing, and there is no difference between the two in so far as their excellence and rarity are concerned." It is quite possible that Al-Biruni reflects the general view of the time, and that the peridots of Zabargad were traded as emeralds. In Europe, there are indications that gems from Zabaragad were available on the market during this period, and were also called emerald. There are three large peridots (>200 ct. each) in the Shrine of the Three Magi in Cologne Cathedral that are believed to originate from the 12th century - and for centuries, they were believed to be emeralds.

Peridot "roughs" from Zabargad
Emerald "roughs" from Wadi Gimal.
Peridot "roughs" from Zabargad
Emerald "roughs" from Wadi Gimal.
Peridot "roughs" from Zabargad
Emerald "roughs" from Wadi Gimal.

There is no evidence to support the claim that a large portion or most of Egyptian emeralds were peridots rather than emeralds. Operations in the emerald mines on the Egyptian mainland were of a completely different (greater) magnitude than the few hectares of land mined on Zabargad. This view was probably biased by the large output of peridots from Zabargad in the early 20th century.

The availability of peridots in the trade does not necessarily indicate that they were being mined; the Egyptian scholar Al-Tifaschi (1240 AD) said that, in his day, all zabargad came from the ruins of ancient Alexandria in Egypt. The fact that Al-Biruni did not distinguish between emerald and peridot is an indication that he did not have access to peridots for research purposes. He was an excellent scientist and the first to accurately determine the specific gravity of various minerals. He would have been fully competent to distinguish between emerald and peridot based on their specific gravity. Also, Al-Biruni gives a fairly detailed description of the emerald mining district on the mainland, but fails to mention mining on any Red Sea island, although he stated the following under the heading "emerald-like stones":

"Among such stones is sisan. It comes out of the emerald mine as a green, smooth, transparent and palish stone. The difference between this stone and the emerald is based upon hardness and siccity. Another stone is subb. It is like sisan and it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. Its lustre is dazzling if it is placed above the lining of a garment."

The resemblance between Al-Biruni's description of "sisan" and peridot is striking.

The presence of peridot gems in Europe during medieval times has led to the popular misconception that the crusaders occupied Zabaragad and that the name "St. John" originates from this time. Raynald of Châtillon did raid the Red Sea in 1182, but his goals were the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and not a hostile island with a difficult approach. However, he did sack Aydhab and might have acquired some peridots from there. It is equally likely that peridots were obtained through normal trade, either by the crusaders or by Italian merchants who established trade links with Egypt in the 11th century.

Trade in Aydhab was reduced when Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn (Saladin) stopped the Crusader raids, making the land route across Sinai a safer route between Egypt and the East for merchants and pilgrims alike. Following a plundering attack by King David of Nubia in 1270 on Aswan and Aydhab, Aydhab never recovered and Zabaragad gems disappeared from scientific texts.

By comparing mineralogical texts with the history of the Red Sea countries and jewelry and goldsmith work that has survived to recent times, it appears that the distribution of peridot from Zabaragad to markets was closely linked with the prosperity of the Egyption Red Sea trade ports, in particular Berenike in Greco-Roman times. It is possible that some mining was organized from Aydhab during the Fatamid dynasty.

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The Ottomans who conquered Egypt in 1517 gained control as far south as present-day Sudan, and for some time provided the stable political environment that seems to be prerequisite for international trade of peridots from Zabargad. There are many examples of Ottoman jewelry containing peridot. The Bayram Tahti (The Gold Festival Throne) is the prime example. This magnificent portable throne is made of gold-plated walnut wood and studded with 957 peridots; it was given to the Ottoman sultan Murad III in 1585 by his new son-in-law. However, there is no literature from that period describing peridot or Zabragad mining, and it is unclear whether the Ottomans obtained peridots from looting the Constantinople and Egyptian (Cairo and Alexandria) treasuries, trading with local tribes or whether they organized mining operations themselves.

It is likely that local people knew about Zabaragad Island even during times when no peridot (or a very limited amount) was available on the market. This view is partly supported by Harrel and Bloxam, when they state: “When the Portuguese explorer Juan de Castro passed by Zabargad Island in 1541, he identified it in his logbook as "Zomorgete", a corruption of Zabargad and a name he must have learned from an Arab guide. Thus Arab mariners, if not scholars, were aware of Zabargad Island and its peridot.” James Bruce of Kinnaird, guided by a local man, visited the island in 1769. (This is questioned by Wellsted (1838) because Bruce positions the island too far north and too close to the shore.) Bruce does, however, confirm that the island and the green gems were known and probably mined by the local Beja tribes. With quite patronizing language, he points out that the green crystal fragments he found both on the island and on the mainland were too soft to be emeralds, despite its name "Siberget". Bruce explains to his readers that siberget and zumrud are respectively the local and arab names of emeralds.

Modern History

It is tempting to begin describing the island's modern history at the time when European explorers and colonists started to roam the world in the late 18th and 19th centuries, because this was also the era when geology and mineralogy emerged as sciences in the form we know today.

James Raymond Wellsted was the first to describe Zabargad as "St. John’s Island", but it is clear that he is not the originator of this name. He also called the island Zumrud, Siberget and Bruce’s Island. Wellsted described the remains of previous mining as well as the occurrence of green gem stones. He did not make any attempt to classify this mineral, but concluded that the island is the locality of the smaragdus of Pliny, obviously unaware of the link between these green gems and Pliny’s topazos. Jameson (1816) made this connection and classified the green stones “brought to Europe from the shores of the Red Sea” as chrysolite, correctly grouping them with the topazos of Pliny, the peridot of Hauy and the chrysolite of German mineralogists. Even today, the terms chrysolite, olivine and peridot are used as varietal names of the same mineral, now classified as forsterite.

The peridot of Zabargad played a very modest role in the emerging understanding of the geology and mineralogy of this mineral in the 19th century. A few gems were produced of material from New Mexico and Arizona and considered an inferior emerald look-alike. In the early 20th century, Khedive (the Turkish viceroy in Egypt) initiated a modern mining operation, and from 1906 and for years onward, a large volume of peridots (Edward Gübelin estimates this production to a value equivalent to 2 million USD in 1980) was sent to France for cutting. Turkish rulers in Egypt apparently directed a series of successful mining ventures until 1922, when the Red Sea Mining Company acquired a lease and located new sources of gem material. Zabargad was the main source of peridot for Art Deco jewelry. Ismalum Bey, managing director of the company, sold a large peridot crystal to Cairo businessman Max Ismalun measuring 6.6 by 5.1 by 2.5 centimeters - it was a well formed, nearly flawless specimen, and a fine deep green color. Ismalun took the crystal to London and sold it for $100 to the British Museum of Natural History, where it still resides. The Red Sea Mining Company abandoned its operation with the outbreak of World War II. The deposits were nationalized by Egyptian President G. A. Nasser in 1958, and since then the peridot deposit has been worked only sporadically.

The main problem in modern times, as it was in earliest days, is the lack of a fresh water source on the island. Ancient miners dug a well for storage of water brought from shore, whereas modern miners installed a small de-salination plant on the island. Either way, the lack of water required infrastructure investment on the island and well organized onshore support, making continuous mining operations difficult, and will probably restrict anything but sporadic mining in the future.

The Zabragad Peridots

The best surviving Zabragad peridots are still amongst the best ever found. With a deep grass-green color, it is not surprising that many of them were classified as emeralds. The three large peridots located in the Shrine of the Three Magis in the cathedral of Cologne were considered emeralds for centuries. Al Burundi considered peridot and emerald the same mineral. Still, many crystals are paler, more golden and transparent, in particular those of smaller sizes. It is widely believed that these pale, golden peridots are one of the seven varieties of the "chrysolitos" of Pliny, described as "Æthiopia, which produces hyacinthos, produces chrysolithos also, a transparent stone with a refulgence like that of gold", "Ethiopia" in this case believed to be "somewhere in the desert south of Alexandria".

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Even today it is possible to find small transparent crystals on the ancient mine heaps, and Edward Gubelin gave the following account following his visit to the island in 1980:

" At the old sieving places in the prematurely abandoned sieve-heaps, and among the waste of the mines, the author and his companion found over a hundred fresh, transparent, well-preserved, in part broken but certainly cutable peridot crystals pale yellowish green to deep olive green in color. The peridot crystals, pseudohexagonal after b(010) in form, were between 5 and 15 mm along the a-axis. Formerly, however, one could find peridot crystals up to 10 cm long, although those 2-4 cm in length were much more abundant. The Geological Museum in London owns a splendid step-cut peridot of 146 ct., while the largest known cut peridot weighs 310 ct. and is exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Both of these magnificent samples came originally from the island of Zabargad."

The gem peridot is found in olivinite dikes with widths in the decimeter to meter scale. These dikes consist of large platy olivine crystals (up to 20 cm) of brown color, with some serpentine in the interstices. They have abundant open cavities which occasionally contain transparent crystals of green peridot. The large brown olivine crystals tend to become inclusion poor and green in color at the margins, ending in these cavities.

In mineralogical terms, the peridot of Zabargad is a forsterite with a small fayalite component. An analysis published by Stockton and Manson (1983) corresponds to a Fo92Fa8 composition. This corresponds well with data presented by Kurat et al. (1993). The following table shows the composition from Stockton and Manson (1983) combined with trace element analysis from Kurat et al. (1993).

Table 1: Gem peridot analyses

SiO2 40.62%
trace elements (ppm)
Lu 0.0056

Kurat et al. (1993) also present data on fluid inclusions and composition on the brown olivines associated with the gem peridot. These olivines are similar in composition to the gem peridot (Fo91.0-91.6), but have a markedly different trace element profile and far more inclusions, both of fluid and of other minerals.

Petrology and geology

Zabargad Island is also of interest for geologists, as it is an uplifted sliver of sub-continental upper mantle rocks that has been brought to surface in the Red Sea rift zone. The study of Zabargad rocks has provided valuable insights for direct investigation of the lithosphere underneath this rift, which is in a very early phase in the making of an ocean. There are two different interpretations of the geological history of the rocks found on Zabargad:

1) The rocks on Zabargad are of a Pan-African origin and the uplift of the the gneisses and peridotites took mostly place in the Pan-African orogeny (600 MA), suggesting that most of the decompression P-T path is Pan-African in age and only the aqueous metasomatism is related to the rifting history of the Red Sea.

2) The existence of an asthenospheric diapir intrusive through the deep Pan-African crust is assumed, leading to a continuous deformation event during early rifting of the Red Sea.

Figure 3- Geological map

The basis for discussion of the history of Zabargad depends upon rocks found on the island, and the main geological units on Zabargad Island are as follows:

(1) Plagioclase peridotites (southern body) and spinel lherzolites (central and northern bodies).
(2) Granulite-facies gneisses (1000MPa/800deg C peak conditions), which occupy the western and the central part of the island. Boullier et al. (1997) provide a detailed summary of the origin, P-T paths and fluid inclusions in these rocks.
(3) The Zabargad Formation - a sedimentary formation consisting of alternating black shales and grits that tectonically overlies the gneisses and peridotites. It is affected by a low-grade metamorphism which has been related to the contact metamorphism of basalt sills intruded at the base of the formation.
(4) Numerous basalt dykes (5 MA), which cross-cut both the peridotite and gneiss formations, and basalt sills which are well developed in the contact between the peridotite and the Zabargad Formation.
(5) The evaporite unit of Middle Miocene age, which discordantly overlies the Zabargad Formation and is not metamorphic.
(6) Older and recent reef carbonates.

Figure 4 shows the rifting process in the Red Sea as shown by Dilek (2000), where A to C show the early phases of the rifting, and D shows a schematic crosscut at the Zabargad latitude. E shows the situation further south, in the Gulf of Aden, Red Sea where a mid-ocean ridge has been formed. Zabargad Island, as shown in D, originates from the transition between the continental crust and the mantle, and has been uplifted during the rifting process.

Figure 4

The Zabargad Formation consists of early Cretaceous sediments. All these rocks have been uplifted to the surface during the rifting process and thinning of the crust in the rift zones. The basalt veins originate from melts in the rifting zones and their composition (picrite to alkali-basalts) may indicate that they originate from partly melted peridotites subject to high temperature seawater alteration. The two geochemical models concern the age of the juxtaposition of the granulites and peridotites, and whether the peridotites are of a lithospheric or asthenospheric nature. The gneisses of Zabargad Island are in contact with peridotites that are interpreted either as a mantle diapir emplaced during the early rifting of the Red Sea or as mantle material emplaced into the crust during Pan-African convergence. The gneisses were metamorphosed and deformed along with the peridotites, as shown by the common kinematics registered by the two rock types.

Kurat et al. (1993) provide bulk and mineral chemistry for the peridotites, including fluid inclusions. They distinguish the peridotites based on the degree of metasomatic depletion of the original mantle compositions:

1. Primitive peridotites: consist of spinel lherzolites, spinel-plagioclase lherzolites and plagioclase-amphibole lherzolite. These rocks have major and trace element compositions which closely approach the estimated upper mantle composition.

2. Depleted peridotites: consist of harzburgites that are slightly depleted in heavy REEs and more strongly in the light REEs.

3. Metasomatized peridotites: contain porphyroblasts of amphibole or clinopyroxene. They are enriched in Cl and are strongly depleted in HREEs and other elements enriched in magmas.

4. Vein rocks: a variety of dikes (mm to m width) are present in the peridotites. They are either mono-mineralic or consist of only a few minerals. The following types of veins have been found: olivinites, orthopyroxenites, clinopyroxenites, websterites, hornblendeites and plagioclasites. These dykes are of hydrothermal origin and the latest forming rocks in the peridotites. The larger dykes can contain large crystals, often exceeding 10 cm, and one vein is known to contain orthopyroxene crystals up to 1 m - these are not olivine, as suggested by some visitors to the island.

It is the olivinite veins that contain the gem peridot crystals, which are remarkably fresh and unaltered. This is presumably the result of rapid uplift, so that the exposure to hydrothermal fluids in the serpentine stability field was short.


The small island of Zabragad is interesting from many perspectives. Its geology and petrology provide insights into upper mantle composition and the geological processes involved in uplifting from the crust/mantle border to the surface during rifting. It remains one of the finest localities for peridot crystals, and some of the resources are still not exploited, despite more than two millennia of sporadic mining operations. Zabargad and the distribution of peridots can be seen in the light of the ever-changing political alliances and regimes in the Middle East, and the regional social/political conditions for trade during historic times. The green gems may act as a focal point in investigating the history of gemmology and the emergence of mineralogy as we know it today. The most promising aspect may be that there are many unresolved puzzles hidden in the rocks of Zabragad (as well as the treasuries and libraries around the world) that may create an even better understanding of the peridot gems and the island they come from.

From Topazos to Peridot - The history of a name transition.

Due to the detailed description of both the gem and the island from which it originates, there is no doubt that Pliny the elder’s gem topazos corresponds to today’s peridot. Somehow the link between topazos and the stone was lost and the original name topazos ended up being used for the completely different mineral topaz today.

Obviously, time has been a factor, and not many scientific names have survived 2000 years without change or redefinition. It is also a fact that Pliny’s definitions of various minerals correspond less with modern scientific nomenclature than indicated so far in this text; he lists 12 varieties of emerald, some of them obviously copper minerals such as malachite and possibly dioptase and chrysocolla. Many later writers have believed that Pliny’s chrysolithos were the more yellow-green peridots from Zabargad. This indicates that color was the dominant parameter for identifying gemstones, even though hardness, clarity and luster were important. Topazos was uniquely defined because there was only one, well defined locality. As the Arabs conquered Egypt, the link between the locality, the gem and the name was lost for Europeans, and the name topazos was used for many gems with greenish color. With the Numibian plunder of Aydhab in 1270, the links between locality, gem and name also were lost for Muslim scholars, and the name Zabargad became synonymous with zumurrud (emerald).

Pliny was the main source of information for European scholars from Isidore of Seville (600 AD) through Marbode (1100) to Agricola (1576). All of these base their descriptions on the text of Pliny the Elder, but Agricola distinguishes topazius from other green/greenish gems based on its “fulgor”, i.e lustre/shine rather than the leek-green color. He also adds a number of additional localities and a couple of varieties, one with a yellow fulgor and one paler green, thus indicating that the name topazius was no longer reserved for peridots from Zabragad. Kircher (1665) includes the dodecahedra as a possible crystal shape for topazium, and presents a plate of illustrations of crystal forms of "topaziosrum", "amethysterum" and "beryllorum", all with a typical quartz morphology. By then, all transparent greenish yellow and yellowish green stones were called topazius by the scholars, including garnet, apatite, peridot, quartz, tourmaline and others.

"topaziosrum", "amethysterum" and
"beryllorum" of Kircher (1665)

It was therefore quite natural that the greenish yellow topazes from Schneckenstein that were discovered in the early 18th century were considered a form of “topazium”.

Topaz, Schneckenstein
Topaz, Schneckenstein
Peridot, Zabargad
Peridot, Zabargad

Seen side by side as in the photos above, it not difficult to see that these crystals belong to different species, but taking into consideration that their connection to the Zabargad Island was lost, and the deeper green peridots were considered emeralds, it is understandable that these were considered the same gem species, in particular based on their "fulgor".

Mineralogy emerged as a science in the late 18th and in the 19th centuries, and properties of crystal form, chemistry and other tangible criteria were included as defining criteria for mineral species. It was found that most “topazium” was quartz, tourmaline or other already defined species, except the mineral we now call topaz, thus completing the transformation. Also, Zabargad peridots were not mined during this period, were considered very rare and possibly as a variety of emerald.

Where then, does the name "peridot" come from? It is clear that peridot already was used as a name for stones in the 13th century, as Kuhn (1982) and Paul Schaffner (2014) quotes texts from the 13th to 15th century describing peridot as one of the “precyous stonys”, as a green stone harder than emerald and as a stone "shining as the moon". Other texts describes peridot ( in various spellings) as a precious stone distinguished from emerald, "chrysolithos", sapphire and pearls, but without giving any clue of it's appearance.

There is a general belief amongst gemologists and mineralogists that peridot originates from the Arabic or Persian faridat, supposedly meaning gem. Today, the Arabic فريدة (pronounced farida) translates as "unique". There are however no available evidence supporting this as the root origin of peridot.

It appears that peridot was not a commonly used gem name. Shakespeare did not use it (Kunz 1913) and neither Al-Biruni (1000) nor Agricola (1576) mention peridot, and their works on various stones are considered among the best contemporary works in the European and Muslim traditions, respectively.

Peridot is described as a low value, rare and hard green gem by the silversmith Pierre de Rosnel in his 1667 book on Indian trade and treasures. His description matches that of Hajar-i-Makki of Al- Biruni (ca 1000 AD), a stone found in India that was green, hard and compact, but did not take polish well. Remondini di Venezia (1781), on the other hand, considered peridot a gemstone, which can be regarded as an imperfect emerald as it cuts more easily than the emerald. This may be peridot as we know it today, or it may be another green stone ( green apatite is another mineral that would fit this description). Nevertheless, it appears that "peridot" was used as a name for green stones in Europe by merchants and silversmiths, rather than scholars. This may give some credit to the assumption that the name does not originate from latin, the language of the scholars. This supports the view held by Paul Schaffner (2014) that peridot was a vernacular word that floated between languages without clearly belonging to any.

The Middle English Dictinary (Kuhn 1982) suggests that peridot originates from a Franco-English-Norman interpretation of the Latin paederot, a word that can be traced from Agricola, via Marbode (1100) and Isodore of Seville (ca 600) to Pliny the Elder's paederos. However, this is a white stone with a colorful play, often interpreted as an opal (again, this may have been any other stone with a play of color such as moonstone or even mother of pearl). It appears that various spellings of peridot have been used for both white and green gems throughout history, and that both a Latin (the white stone) and a vernacular root of unknown origin (the green stone) may be valid roots for the word peridot.

A third possible explanation is that the name peridot is a constructed name based on the Greek words περί = around and δέω = tie; bind, supposedly in allegation to it’s occurrence as green aggregates in lavas. This origin would imply that the name was used in the modern meaning of the word (i.e. as the mineral forsterite) and that such occurrences were known in the Middle Ages. Such origin does therefore not seem plausible.

It was Hauy and other French mineralogists at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries that defined peridot as a synonym of olivine and chrysolite, with a defined chemical composition; in mineralogical literature the names peridot, olivine and chrysolite were used side by side, partly as synonyms of the same mineral and partly as different mineral species with obscure differences. The French did however use the name peridot, so when the Egyptian government started commercial mining on the island of Zabargad and sent the produce to France for cutting, these French name, peridot became the prevailing word for the gem variety of olivine/chrysolite/peridot.

This completes the circle. The green gems from the little island in the Red Sea were uniquely defined as the Topazos of Pliny and again, almost two millennia later provided the basis for the current definition of peridot as the gem variety of the mineral forsterite.

Selected biographies.

Juba II of Numidia(52/50 BC – AD 23) was king of Numidia and later moved to Mauritania. His first wife was Cleopatra Selene II, daughter of Greek Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and Roman triumvir Mark Antony. Juba II was a noted patron of the arts and sciences and sponsored several expeditions and biological research. He also was a notable author, writing several scholarly and popular scientific works such as treatises on natural history or a best-selling traveller's guide to Arabia. He apparently visited and described Zabargad in some of his texts and was an important source for Pliny the Elder.

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23–August 25, AD 79), better known as Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, as well as naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire and personal friend of the emperor Vespasian. Spending most of his spare time studying, writing or investigating natural and geographic phenomena in the field, he wrote an encyclopedic work, "Naturalis Historia", which became a model for all other encyclopedias. The Natural History (Latin: Naturalis Historia) is an early encyclopedia published circa AD 77–79 by Pliny the Elder. It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and purports to cover all ancient knowledge. The work is divided into 37 books, organised into ten volumes. These cover topics including astronomy, mathematics, geography, ethnography, anthropology, human physiology, zoology, botany, agriculture, horticulture, pharmacology, mining, mineralogy, sculpture, painting, and precious stones. This work was been a reference for scholars throughout medieval times and into the early modern times.

Saint Isidore of Seville (Latin: Isidorus Hispalensis) (c. 560–4 April 636) served as Archbishop of Seville for more than three decades and is considered, as the 19th-century historian Montalembert put it in an oft-quoted phrase, "The last scholar of the ancient world". Isidore was the first Christian writer to try to compile a summa of universal knowledge in his most important work the "Etymologiae". This encyclopedia — the first such Christian epitome — formed a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 volumes, also containing information on gemstones.

Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973-1048) known as Alberonius in Latin and Al-Biruni in English, was a Persian Muslim scholar from the Khwarezm region. Most of the works of Al-Biruni are in Arabic. Bīrūnī’s catalogue of his own literary production up to his 65th lunar/63rd solar year (the end of 427/1036) lists 103 titles divided into 12 categories including astronomy, geography, religion, anecdotes and natural history. He is considered the first to develop an apparatus for accurately measure specific gravity of minerals, which became a new dimension in identifying gems. His work "The book most Comprehensive in Knowledge On Precious Stones" Arabic الجماهر في معرفة الجواهر) about geology, minerals, and gems is considered one of the best medieval works on the topic.

Georgius Agricola (1494–1555) was a German Catholic, scholar and scientist. Known as "the father of mineralogy", he was born at Glauchau in Saxony. His most famous work, the "De re metallica libri xii" long remained a standard work, and marked its author as one of the most accomplished chemists of his time. The work is a complete and systematic treatise on mining and extractive metallurgy. He also did a work on mineralogy and precious stones, "De Natura Fossilium", which has been used in this article.

René Just Haüy (1743-1822) was a French mineralogist. He is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Crystallography". Haüy's best known work is the "Traité de Minéralogie", in four volumes with an atlas of plates, published in 1801, and which far superseded any previous attempt to create a mineralogical system. It is a work of comprehensive insight, and much of it written with literary fluency. Haüy defined peridot as the same mineral as olivine and chrysolite.

James Raymond Wellsted (1805–1842) was a lieutenant in the Indian navy who travelled extensively in the Arabian Peninsula during the 1830s. During his travels to the Red Sea and the Siyal Islands, he was the first person familiar with the modern scientific tradition that visited Zabargad and identified remains from ancient mining operations.

George Frederick Kunz (1856-1932) was an American mineralogist and mineral collector. He directed the US mining and mineralogical exhibits at the international expositions in Paris (1889), Chicago (1893), Atlanta (1895), Paris (1900) and St. Louis (1904). He gave a series of eight lectures on "Precious Stones" for the Lowell Institute's 1894-95 season. He was a member of the Mineralogical Society of America and many other cultural, scientific, and naturalist organizations. His "Curious Lore of Precious Stones: Being a Description of their Sentiments and Folk Lore, Superstitions, Symbology, Mysticism, Use in Medicine, Protection, Prevention, Religion, and Divination, Crystal Gazing, Birth Stones, Lucky Stones and Talismans, Astral, Zodiacal and Planetary" a thorough summary of facts and trivia on peridot and other gems.

Dr. Eduard J. Gübelin (1913-2005) can rightly be called the father of modern gemology. The Gübelin family established the Gübelin Gem Lab, and young Eduard joined the family firm in 1932. During his studies with Prof. Hermann Michel in Vienna, he had developed an interest in the study of inclusions in gems and their significance for the identification of gemstones. It became a lifelong interest and led to his greatest contributions to gemological science. Dr. Gübelin became a leading expert on gemstone inclusions and photomicrography. He published a number of important books and hundreds of articles in scholarly and popular journals. He also visited Zabargad in 1980 and published an article on his experiences and investigations.

James ("Jim") A. Harrell is a Professor of Geology at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, USA. He has made 18 trips to Egypt and Sudan since 1989 in support of his research on: (1) the petrology of stones used in ancient Egyptian sculptures and monuments, and the geoarchaeology of the quarries from which the stones were obtained; (2) the archaeological geology of the Greco-Roman port city of Berenike on the southeastern Red Sea coast of Egypt, where he is serving as the site geologist on a joint U.S.-Dutch excavation of this site. (3) the archaeological geology of New Kingdom and Napatan-Meroitic quarries and mines in northern Sudan; and (4) a survey of the reused ancient ornamental stones in the medieval Islamic mosques of Cairo.


I would like to thank the companies and institutions that make information available on the internet for free. I will in particular mention Google Books,, Wikipedia and Mindat, as well as the journals that open up their archives. I also thank the universities and individuals that publish their papers, theses and other work for all to read and learn from. Only 20 years ago, research for this article would have taken years, involving extensive correspondence with libraries and universities in several countries. Today, all of the listed references are available through a web browser and the research period has been reduced to a couple of months.

I am also very much indebted to Becky Coulson for proofreading this article.


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Article has been viewed at least 7097 times.


An excellent article! This locality has always fascinated me with those peridot xls.
Once again, great job!

John Prychon
22nd Jul 2014 4:07am
Dear John,

Thank you very much for your kind words

best regards

Olav Revheim
29th Jul 2014 5:02pm
Wonderful article, outstanding work as usual. Thank you very much Olav!

Reiner Mielke
17th Aug 2014 12:56am
Thank you Reiner. I really appreciate your words.


Olav Revheim
18th Aug 2014 7:11am
Excellent article! Interesting to read. Thank you!

Pavel Martynov
23rd Aug 2014 7:30am
Thank you Pavel. Glad you enjoyed it.

Olav Revheim
23rd Aug 2014 2:52pm

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