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What is Porphyry?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2016
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Porphyry is a Greek term that translates as purple. In the scientific sense it refers to a number of igneous rocks with embedded crystals that give rocks of different types a shiny and glittering appearance. The Romans prized certain types of this rock, especially a brownish feldspar rock with large crystals, made up of plagioclase minerals. Since this color, and anything purple was associated with royalty, you see numerous examples of art and architecture in statue carvings, columns, and various fountains made of brownish feldspar, especially with plagioclase crystals.

Not only the Roman Empire, but also the Byzantine Empire made significant use of forms of porphyry in sculpture. You’ll find examples of its use in some very well known places, like the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Turkey, built during the Byzantine Empire’s Golden Age. Smaller pieces of porphyry might be used in jewelry. Tradition of using these beautiful igneous rocks in sculpture continues today, with many of the large and impressive buildings especially before the 19th century in Europe making use of porphyry in a variety of ways. The rich color and sparkle of the various types of this rock are a treat to the eye when they are used in large amounts in carvings, statues or columns.

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Igneous rocks are made of magma that has cooled, and can come in many forms. In the case of porphyry, crystals are formed by the rock undergoing two cooling stages. As magma, the rock first cools slowly, underneath the earth’s crust. This slow cooling causes large crystals to form. As it moves toward the upper crust, the rock cools more quickly, or it may be ejected from volcanoes creating mineral separation. The quick cooling in the second half of this process causes tiny crystals to form, which are not apparent to the naked eye. The result, depending upon the types of rock and minerals present in the magma, is porphyry in a plethora of colors.

Much of the Roman and Byzantine Empire purple porphyry came from a single Egyptian quarry. Today, you can find this igneous rock in virtually any place where strong volcanic activity has once existed. Interestingly, the site was lost for many years after about the 7th century CE, but was rediscovered in 1823, after many years of searching. The Emperor Napoleon, in particular, desired to find the original quarry location in order to harvest its riches for new buildings in France, but his search was in vain.

It can get a little confusing when geologists discuss porphyry since they may be referring to the different types of igneous rock, or to the texture of certain rocks. Rocks that have distinctly visible large crystals, contrasted with much smaller crystals are called porphyrytic in texture. Examples of porphyrytic rocks include granite, feldspar, and basalt.

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