Glassmaking; A Judaic Tradition Part I— The Biblical Period

Fact Paper 6-I

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Image of a glass head bead
A glass head-bead, mid 5th-4th century BCE, typical of those produced in the land of Israel and Distributed around the Mediterranean by Canaanite seafarers ("Phoenicians"). Prototypes of such head-beads were uncovered dating as far back as the 15th century BCE in Babylonian Nuzi. They were found in a Semitic context among thousands of beads of many colors and shapes. The antecedents of the Jews, and then the Jews, were uniquely the world’s glassmakers for several thousand years.

The art of glassmaking was born in Akkadia, the Biblical Shinar, the home of the tribe of Terach, father of Abraham, about 2400 B.C.E. It was a Semitic, and then a Jewish art for the next three millennia.1

Glassmaking was unique among the arts, for it was invented only once in all of human history. Its spread through the world was parallel to, and coincident with, the dispersal of the Jews.

Manufactured glass was discovered by Dr. R. H. Hall on an archaeological expedition near the ancient city of Eridu in the winter of 1918-19. "Only one object of great interest has been found," reported the astounded Hall, "... In the rubbish beneath the pavement was found a lump of opaque blue vitreous paste which I recognized as true glass... the most ancient piece of glass known."

The date of the glass object was fixed at between 2047-2038 B.C.E. Eridu was close to Ur, Abraham’s purported birthplace. Subsequently, Akkadian glass more than two centuries older was found, even from buildings and cemeteries of the ancient city of Ur itself.

Until then, museums and texts on glass-making history cited Egypt as the birthplace of the art. One wonders why scientists and scholars did not realize that an ancient art entirely dependent on thick forests for fuel could not have been born in a desert, nor maintained there on a significant scale. Several tons of wood were burned to produce just one kilogram of glass! Where were the forests in upper Egypt?

Nor did the scholars take note of the fact that a reverberatory furnace was absent from ancient Egypt technology. Inasmuch as glass is liquified silicate stone (quartz), only such a furnace could achieve, and maintain for days on end, the temperature of some 1200 degrees Celsius required for the melting of such silicate.

The scholars never questioned why exquisite glassware suddenly appears about 1500 B.C.E. in18th Dynasty tombs without a trace of the hundreds of years of development necessary to arrive at that state of the art.

Also overlooked was the indicative fact that no word for "glass" existed in the Egyptian language; the scribes of Egypt used the Akkadian term!

Glass Istarte (Ishtar) 16th century BCE or later. The Goddess of fertility was worshiped throughout the Semitic world and continued to have a hold on the Jews throughout their Biblical history. Its existence is significant for identifying the ancient glassmakers Photograph courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

The Akkadian (Semitic) word, written by linguists as Zuka(k)-I, had been inscribed in cuneiform Akkadian on a tablet dating to the 17th century B.C.E., two centuries before glass objects appeared in the Egyptian tombs! The tablet, contained a formula for glass production, was excavated at Tell Umar, near ancient Babylon.2

The word derives from the Semitic term Zakû, meaning "clear." It was transliterated into the early Semitic dialects, Ugaritic and Aramaic, and ends as Zakhukhit in Hebrew. Thus we learn in chapter 28 of the Bible that Job values wisdom above the most precious of earthly possessions. "But where shall wisdom be found?" asks Job rhetorically, and avers that in value, even "gold and glass [Zakhukhit] cannot equal it."

The scientific community hardly budged even after a huge trove of glass artifacts was unearthed at the Babylonian city of Nuzi. Eleven thousand intricately fabricated glass beads and amulets were found in "temple A," dedicated to the Semitic Goddess Astarte. One large globular glass head of a copper pin antedated glassware found in Egypt by a thousand years!3

Astarte was idolized by the Semitic peoples as a guarantee of familial continuity and security in old age. The Israelites rejected her and all other gods, even the Master of the Universe, Baal. They recognized their God, El, as a universal power, and symbolized Him by the tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh, from which the Christian derived "Jehovah").

It was not until 1968 that Dr. Donald B. Harden, author of the catalogue of the British Museum’s collection of Greek and Roman Glass, obliquely accepted the "Asian origin for glass."4 In 1983 Dr. Harden finally removed all doubt, admitting that: "During my two years at Ann Arbor and the next winter season on the excavating staff in Egypt, I naturally became too Egypto-oriented."5

But many in academia continued to blindly repeat the myth of the Egyptian origin of glassmaking. There are still museums and authors who repeat the long-disproved myth!

The art of glassmaking remained in the lower Mesopotamian milieu for 800 years. During the 16th century B.C.E., the art moved up along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers into Arameia and Canaan, following the same route as that taken by the tribe of Abraham. It arrived in Canaan as a full blown industry.

A Canaanite merchant vessel that foundered off the Turkish coast at the turn of the 14th century B.C.E. is one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of modern times. The tons of cargo included scores of glass ingots averaging some 25 pounds each. They were being exported for remelting into glassware somewhere around the Mediterranean.6

Glass, once manufactured, is easily melted and reformed into glassware. The producers of the primary material, glass, zealously retained their secret manufacturing process for almost three thousand years.

Under the conditions of shipping in those days, it was not feasible to ship delicate glassware. Beads or amulets, however, were exportable. Thousands of beads were also found in the cargo of the vessel. Beads remained important trade goods for the next three thousand years. Eye-beads became popular around the Mediterranean, and across trade routes as far as Imperial China. The peculiar eye-like designs were formed by concentric circles of colored glass placed around the bead. Head-beads were also popular both as beads and pendants typically fashioned in the likeness of a Semitic-looking, black-bearded head.

Glassware continued to be produced in the backwoods of Israel and Judah, and were transported around the Mediterranean by Canaanite sea-farers from Tyre and Sidon. These intrepid voyagers were dubbed "Phoenicians" by the Greeks. The epithet derives from the Greek word "purple." It relates to the impression made on the Greeks first arriving in Canaan by the purple-stained hands and clothes of the people along the shore producing a purple dye by boiling mollusks from the sea. They became, in Greek eyes, the "Purple People," or "Phoenicians."

image of glass eye beads
Glass eye-beads, 14th - 13th century BCE, typical of Near-Eastern beads, used as trade goods for over three millennia. Photograph courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass
image of glass eye beads
Eye-beads found along Eurasian trade routes are similar in design and content. The first glassware found in China, beads in the royal tombs, date to the 5th c. BCE, when Persian/Jewish traders pioneered the "Silk Route." They traded Judaic linen and glassware for Chinese and Indian silk and spices.
After C. G. Seligman and H. C. Beck, Far Eastern Glass, Some Western Origins.

Modern scientists insist on using the Greek epithet "Phoenicians," yet the Kinanu never so referred to themselves. Nor did the Carthaganians, emigrants from Canaan, refer to themselves as a "Punic" people. St. Augustine, in the early fifth century C.E., wrote that if you ask them who they are they will reply in the "Punic[!]" tongue "Chanani."

The Romans were convinced that glassmaking was born on the sandy beaches above modern-day Haifa. Pliny the Elder repeats a fabulous story that sailors put in near the estuary of the river Belus (now the Na’amen River), and rested their cauldrons on clumps of soda from their cargo. When the soda became heated and mingled with the sands "a strange translucent liquid poured forth in streams; and this, it is said, is the origin of glass."7

Tacitus, the Roman historian, was more specific. "One of the rivers flowing into the Jewish sea is the Belius, at whose mouth are sands which are collected and fused with natron [soda] to form glass."8 Tacitus, a Jew-hater, was, in this matter, in accord with the Bible: "Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be a haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Sidon (Gen. 49:13)."

In performing a benediction over the Belus river area, Moses predicted that "They shall profit from the abundance of the sea, and from the treasures hidden in the sand." The Tar. Jonathan commentary on this passage expands on the relationship of the Canaanites and the Jews to the Mosaic reference to the industries of the Belus area. "Joy shall come, for they partake of the fishing and of the purple for dyeing of their cloth, and of the sand for the making of mirrors and vessels of glass."

Two Roman Emperors testified to the fact that the Jews were uniquely the glassmakers at the time of their reign. In 301 C.E., the Emperor Diocletian issued an edict fixing export prices throughout the Roman Empire. Only two types of glassware are listed, one being vitri Ijudaica (Judaic glass), and the other being vitri Alessandrini (glass made in Alexandria).

The art of glassmaking did not leave Asia until the Greeks founded the city of Alexandria. Thousands of immigrant Judahite artisans formed the industrial heart of that Ptolemaic city. Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, testified in a letter to his Consul that the glassmakers of Judah were among them:

"Some are blowers of glass, others makers of paper, all are at least weavers of linen or seem to belong to one craft or another; the lame have their occupations, the wounded have theirs, and not even those whose hands are crippled are idle."

Thus we learn from the testimony of two Roman emperors, that both the glass(ware) made in Alexandria and glass(ware) made elsewhere in the Roman Empire were exclusively Jewish products.

We will learn in Part II of this cursory digest how Jewish glassmakers implanted their art throughout Europe behind the Roman legions.


  1. For glassmaking history through the Byzantine period, see Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; an Odyssey of the Jews, Hippocrene Books, N. Y., 1991.
  2. Gadd and Thompson, "A Middle-Babylonian Chemical Text," Iraq iii, 1st part, Aug., 1928, 1936, pp. 87ff.
  3. Richard F. S. Starr, Ph. D., Nuzi, vol. I, 1939, Harvard Un. Press, p. 92, 460.
  4. D .B. Harden, "Ancient Glass I: Pre-Roman," Archeological Journal, vol. CXXV, 1968.
  5. Harden, "Study and Research on Ancient Glass; Past and Present", presented at the 23rd Annual Seminar on Glass, Oct. 21, 1983, reprinted in Journal of Glass Studies, vol. 26, 1984.
  6. George F. Bass, "A Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun: 1984 Campaign," American Journal of Archaeology 90, 1986, p. 287.; Cemal Pulak, "Excavations in Turkey: 1988 Campaign," Institute of Nautical Archaeology Newsletter, vol. 15. No 4, 1988, and other articles by both authors in the AJA and INA Newsletters.
  7. Pliny, Natural History, p. 14.
  8. Tacitus, The Histories, book 5:5, p. 8.