The historical importance of the humble pomegranate has often been understated. This analysis does not attempt to cover every aspect of the fruit's importance in human society over the preceding millennia but, without any selectivity, its purpose is to provide a superficial appreciation of the pomegrante's role in the evolution of various civilisations throughout world history.
Until the last few decades, the pomegranate has not been a horticultural or botanical icon in the USA and most of Europe but, with its growing reputation as a super-fruit, the health-giving and distinct flavour properties of this remarkable fruit are becoming increasingly acknowledged. Historically, the pomegranate has had a deep association with the Mediterranean and cultures in the Near East where, because of its dietary component and major contribution to Middle Eastern dishes, the fruit's unique combination of sweetness and acidity is considered as a highly regarded delicacy. In many areas of the world, the pomegranate has for centuries been greatly valued for its medicinal and therapeutic qualities, together with its ornamental value. It has been known to humans from antiquity, since when it has been widely revered for its symbolism which is as multi-faceted as its beneficial health effects.
History of Cultivation
Originally, a native of the land extending from modern day Iran to Northern India and, reflected in Assyrian motifs as possibly being the "apple" of the biblical Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life, the pomegranate had been extensively traded around the Mediterranean for centuries before the emergence of the Roman Empire. Thought to be one of the first five edible fruit crops, along with the fig, date palm, grape and olive, its possible domestication took place in the fifth millennium BC from when it has been Identified in Bronze Age records in Jericho and Cyprus. Of great significance, such archaeological discoveries were primarily in elite residences, indicating the importance of the pomegranate's status in contemporary society. Mesopotamian cuneiform records from the third millennium BC confirm its existence. It is also recorded that the Babylonians believed that chewing its seeds before battle made them invincible. Moreover, a fourteenth-century BC shipwreck, found off the coast of modern day Turkey, contained luxury items which included pomegranate remains. It is thought that the fruit's cultivation spread along the Silk Road to the Far East, reaching China by 100 BC.
Due to it being highly adaptive to a wide range of climate and soil conditions, the pomegranate tree has been grown in different tropical and sub-tropical regions across the globe, including South Africa. The opportunity to extend its availability even further arose in the sixteenth century when it is thought that Hernando Cortés was responsible for its first plantation in the New World in Central and South America, from where its cultivation spread to the USA by 1700, finding a foothold in California by 1770, now a major source of pomegranate world production.
Often referred to as the "Phoenician Apple" because of its Levantine origin from where it had originally been exported to North Africa, the pomegranate's name harks back to the Roman name for the Phoenician colony of Carthage (Latin adjective: punicus) in modern Tunisia. From this, the name of its principal component, punicic acid, derives. Large quantities of pomegranates were exported to Italy, initially, referred to as malum punicum – the apple of Carthage.
In Old French, a pomegranate was referred to as pomme-granade, from which is derived the word for a military grenade, because of its similarity in appearance. Despite some confusion, there is no linguistic connection with the Spanish city of Granada whose name is Arabic in origin, although there is a very close historical link with the city (see below). The semi-precious garnet, with its dark red colour, has also been related to the fruit because of its Latin name, granum, or red dye. Although the English word "pomegranate" takes its origin from medieval Latin as a "seeded or grainy apple", it was in the eighteenth century when Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and father of taxonomy, gave the fruit its official botanical name, punica granatum.
Evidence indicates that pomegranates were first grown in Egypt in the early New Kingdom (eleventh to sixteenth centuries BC) but, since examples of the fruit have been found in earlier Middle Kingdom tombs, mainly associated with the aristocratic and priestly classes, travellers must have known about this fruit for some time before it was successfully grown in Egyptian gardens.
In fact, for millennia, it has been recognised that the pomegranate provided a well-protected source of liquid refreshment to early desert travellers, staying fresh for months without the need for any refrigeration. The fruit's juice could be available by drinking straight from the hard shell, pierced with a skewer-type object and, ideally, by inserting a straw. The lack of any refrigeration requirement also made the pomegranate a perfect item for trade.
The first mention of a pomegranate tree in Egyptian inscriptions comes from the tomb of Ineni, an official at the court of King Thutmose I, who recorded all the different types of tree that he wanted to have planted on his estate. It is likely that the king had brought the fruit back with him from his military campaigns into central Asia. Later, Thutmose III depicted pomegranate plants at the Karnak Temple, in a room now known as the Botanical Gallery. In addition, nineteen pomegranates have been discovered on glazed ceramic tiles in the tomb of Amenhotep II. Two pomegranate amulets have also been found in the Osirian temple inscriptions at Denderah. Here, a link between Osiris and resurrection has long been understood and this theme also occurs in Coptic pomegranate artistry, developing from simple ornamental motifs into fully incorporated symbolic representation of Christ's suffering which became common in the Middle Ages. The fruit's shape is easily recognised among the offerings of food represented at other Egyptian places of worship. At the Abydos Temple of Sety I, the king is shown offering to the gods a tray of bread, fruit and roast ducks. In the centre of this appetising meal is a pomegranate, painted in realistic colours.
To support this, we know that ancient Egyptians were buried with the fruit, evidenced when a single complete desiccated pomegranate was found among the food offerings left in the tomb of Djehuty, an estate-overseer, who served Queen Hatshepsut in the fifth century BC. As to its cultivation, in the famous tomb painting of Ipuy, the royal sculptor, a gardener is shown, working a shaduf to raise water. The pomegranate tree can be clearly identified by its trumpet-shaped red flowers as one of the trees that provide fruit but also much-needed shade in Egyptian gardens. In Tutankhamun's tomb, pomegranate leaves were woven into a garland and an elaborate funerary collar placed around his mummy. His tomb also contained a large silver vase in the distinctive shape of the pomegranate fruit. Engraved around the body of this vase is a frieze of pomegranate flowers. Pomegranate-like pendants have been found in several tombs, such as the chaplet on the head of the mummy of Queen Meryet-Amun in Thebes.
Love poems relating to the pomegranate tree had been found at Deir al Medina, near the Valley of Kings, revealing emotional and sensitive phrases similar to those used by more modern poets, such as the female narrator of a poem written on papyrus which compared her lover's voice to pomegranate wine.
Found in various academic studies, there are many other Ancient Egyptian examples of pomegranates being represented by pendants, as well as food offerings, decorative devices, vases, medicinal remedies, in addition to the fruit as wine.
Covering a much later period of Egyptian history, in the 1987 archaeological dig at the Graeco-Roman Fag al-Gamous necropolis from around the fourth to fifth centuries AD, a pomegranate tapestry was found covering the head of a young child. This clearly shows in cross-section the seeds and pithy membrane of the plant. The positioning of the body pointing towards Jerusalem strongly suggests a Christian burial for which the pomegranate is seen a reference to the resurrection of the dead and afterlife – associations that became a strong focus of subsequent Christian imagery.
There is a close connection between the pomegranate's Arabic and Hebrew names (rumman/rimmon). Many place names incorporate the Hebrew word, such as Ein Rimmon (Spring of the Pomegranate), Sela Rimmon (Rock of Pomegranate), Beit Rimmon (House of Pomegranate) and the simple Rimmon (Pomegranate) – clear evidence of the fruit's geographical importance. There is also a linguistic connection with the Syrian storm god of fertility, Hadadrimmon (Haddad or Haddu of the Pomegranates).
Biblically, the pomegranate is the first fruit of the season – a symbol of abundance, knowledge, fertility and peace. It is often referred to as the perfect fruit with 613 seeds, the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, symbolising fruitfulness, with its seediness, encouraging the association with fertility.
In Exodus 28:34 (KJV) the high priests in the Temple are referred to as wearing vestments with pomegranates embroidered onto their hems. They also appear on the adornment on the capitals of two pillars in King Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 7:18). Actual examples were brought to Moses by scouts to demonstrate the fertility of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 8:8). Judean coins from the second century BC contained an image of the pomegranate on one side – a symbol of wealth and plenty; more recently, the 2007 Israeli two shekel has a similar image. In addition, the Jewish tradition of a "calyx", which forms a protective layer around the pomegranate flower in bud and appears on the rind, is a symbol of the perfect crown of a monarch.
Perhaps, the most potent and erotic representation of the pomegranate in the Bible appears in the Song of Solomon when Sheba says to Solomon: "Let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appears and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my loves" (7:12). Elsewhere, Solomon describes Sheba as a garden whose "plants are an orchard of pomegranates." (4:13). Later, Sheba urges Solomon to drink "the spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate" (8:2).
Today, in Jewish tradition, the pomegranate is blessed as the first fruit of New Year at a Rosh Hashanah table. It represents the sign of fertility, peace and prosperity for the new year, confirmed in the prayer: "In the coming year, may we be rich and replete with acts inspired by religion and piety, as the pomegranate is rich and replete with seeds". In contrast, today's Israeli army uses the term for a hand grenade as rimon yad (hand pomegranate).
The pomegranate was the love symbol of the goddess, Aphrodite. The "Sacred Fruit" was also referred to as the "fruit of the dead", having sprung from the blood of her mortal lover, Adonis, as well as providing sustenance to residents of Hades in the Underworld. From this, emerges the myth of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. In this respect, no other plant depicts Persephone's fate or the fate of the world, as does the pomegranate.
In one version of the so-called Eleusinian Mysteries, Persephone is kidnapped by Hades to live as his wife in his underground domain. Demeter, the goddess of the Harvest, is distraught at the loss of her daughter and abdicates her godly duties over vegetation and plant growth. All green things cease to grow because Demeter resolves to prevent the earth from seeing any fruit or plant life, unless and until she can see her daughter again. Zeus decides that he cannot allow the earth to die and, with the increasing likelihood of human demise, he commands Hades to return Persephone. However, by the Rule of the Fates, anyone consuming food or drink in the Underworld is doomed to spend eternity there. With no other food available, Hades elects to offer Persephone a pomegranate as a compromise. She would then live with Hades, spending six months in the Underworld every year, sitting on the throne at his side. During this time, she agrees to eat six pomegranate seeds, representing the time of no growth, before returning each year to mark the arrival of spring. This myth was also to act as a symbol of the indissolubility of marriage. More importantly, it provided the ancient Greeks with an explanation for the seasons.
There are other Greek myths and stories which refer to the pomegranate, including the story about the Persian king, Xerxes, who in 480 BC attempted to capture Greece with an army carrying spears adorned with pomegranates as a symbol of their strength-giving qualities. Today, in modern Greek symbolism, the pomegranate features as a house guest's first gifts in a new home to represent abundance, fertility and good luck.
In addition to its Carthage origins, the pomegranate was frequently depicted in Roman mosaics, most notably in the house of the fruit orchard in Pompeii. Archaeology has also identified a fourth-century floor mosaic at Hinton St Mary in Dorset, showing a bust of Christ, flanked by pomegranates. Married women in Rome also wore headdresses of pomegranate twigs to signify their marital status. Pliny is known to have described the use of the fruit's rind as a perfume ingredient, with the juice used as an astringent to prepare an "essential" oil to fix a scent.
This ancient religion regards the pomegranate as a symbol of fecundity, immortality and an emblem of prosperity. It has also been used as a basic tenet of their beliefs concerning the constant battle between good and evil because of the sweet and sour properties of the fruit. It is mainly associated with fertility but also appears as being representative of the vegetable world, providing mankind with food. As further recognition of this, trees were planted in courtyards with their leaves remaining green most of the year, representing a symbol of eternal life.
The pomegranate is mentioned in the Koran at least three times. To underline its supreme importance, it is described as one of the three fruits to be found in paradise, together with dates and olives. Likewise, along with these fruits of the earth, pomegranates are also mentioned in the Koran verse which speaks of the dues that have to be paid upon each harvest (Surat Al-An’am 6:141). Elsewhere, Mohammed recommends the pomegranate, as it purges the system of envy and hatred, as well as being a precious fruit, filled with nutrition that brings emotional and physical peace.
One encounter with the Buddha refers to wealthy disciples presenting lavish gifts. On the same occasion, an old, poor woman, having travelled many miles, presents just one small pomegranate as hers. Buddha rings the bell of honour in her name, considering it to be the greatest gift. Separately, pomegranates feature as one of the three blessed fruits which represent the essence of favourable influences in Buddhist art.
Religious decoration of the pomegranate has been woven into the fabric of vestments, liturgical hangings and appears in wrought metalwork. It has also featured in many religious paintings, particularly during the Renaissance, e.g. Botticelli (Madonna of the Pomegranate). The fruit often appears in the hands of the Virgin Mary or Infant Jesus, broken or bursting open as a symbol of the fullness of Christ's suffering, his Resurrection and life everlasting. It can also represent plenitude, hope, spiritual fruitfulness and the Virgin's chastity. In contrast, the Eastern Orthodox Church employs the pomegranate in Kolyva, a food prepared for memorial services for the dead, as symbol of the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom.
Reconquista & Catherine Of Aragon
In 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand finally conquered Granada, the last Muslim stronghold of Andalusia. According to local tradition, Isabella stood with a pomegranate in her hand, declaring "Just like the pomegranate, I will take over Andalusia seed by seed." As a result, the coat of arms of the city incorporated the fruit. Catherine of Aragon, their daughter, had this insignia as her heraldic emblem. This featured prominently during Henry VIII's early reign and, as a result, would have helped popularise the fruit in England. Their union was represented by the crest of both spouses: the pomegranate of Granada and the Tudor Rose, frequently found adorning the royal palaces. Gilded pomegranates were used during the festivities surrounding the wedding ceremony and the queen's coronation. It was also alleged that, alongside a rose tree to represent the House of Tudor, Henry planted the first pomegranate first tree in Britain – unsuccessful, in many ways. After her death, Catherine was buried in Peterborough Cathedral where her tomb is regularly covered in pomegranates.
Holy Roman Emperor
In 1519, Maximilian I was depicted in a portrait by Albrecht Dürer holding a pomegranate during his coronation instead of the imperial orb. This symbol was later adopted as his personal emblem.
Reformation and the European Wars of Religion
In 1598, Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes, whereby religious freedom was granted to all citizens, in doing so ending the violent civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Baptised a Catholic but raised in the Protestant faith as a Huguenot, Henry had led armies against Catholic forces. After assuming the French throne, he eventually converted to Catholicism. To represent this contradiction and tolerance, Henry’s heraldic badge, incorporating the pomegranate, appeared with the motto "sour, yet sweet," reflecting the nature of the fruit while, at the same time, attempting to demonstrate the king tempering severity with mildness.
Post 1793, the new regime introduced a Republican twelve-month calendar, with Fructidor (August/September) portrayed by the image of a Virgin holding an open pomegranate as a likely allusion to associate it with chastity, fruitfulness and harvest.
In Armenia today, the bride is given a pomegranate to throw against the wall, breaking into pieces, as a sign that the scattered seeds ensure future children. Similarly, in traditional weddings in Cyprus, a pomegranate is thrown in the path of newly-weds to assure plentiful posterity. The pomegranate appeared as the symbol of the 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan. One of its two mascots, Nar, also featured on the jackets of its country's male athletes.
Pomegranates are in widespread use in table arrangements. This is especially common during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons with frequent inclusion in paintings, graphic elements and architecture. It has been estimated that much of the fresh fruit purchased in the USA is rarely consumed but used primarily for ornamental or aesthetic reasons.
Non-Human Uses for the Pomegranate
Bark tannins are still used today in Moroccan leather. Extracts of its flowers and fruit husks are used as textile dyes. Its rind extracts were used as a major source of medieval ink in Europe and continue as a speciality of craft inks.
Ancient Medicinal Properties
c. 1550 BC the ancient Egyptians used the tannin of pomegranates as a source of rich fruit extracts for the riddance of tape worms. Around 400 BC, Hippocrates utilised various extractions for a wide number of ailments e.g. skin and eye inflammation and as an aid to digestion. Dioscorides (40-90 AD) recommended pomegranates as a "pleasant taste and good for the stomach…[the juice to be used for] ulcers and for the pains of the ears and the griefs of the nostrils." Pomegranates were frequently employed as a "fruit of love" potion. Other traditional uses included treatment for contraception, snake bites, diabetes and leprosy. Tannin extract from the tree bark, its leaves and immature fruit were used to combat diarrhoea and bleeding. Dried, crushed flower buds were recommended as a tea for bronchitis; much later, extracts of flowers were used in Mexico as a gargle to relieve mouth or throat inflammation. Many of these uses have been supported, at least in part, by recent scientific studies.
Modern Medicinal Properties
Reminiscent of precious jewels, the arils of the pomegranate contain not only juicy seeds but, within the seed itself, is an equally precious oil, as well as other essential nutrients. Extensive research has shown that nearly all of the seed's oil is made up of fatty acids of which punicic acid (also referred to as conjugated linolenic acid), a rare Omega 5 fatty acid, constitutes by far and away the major part. Pomegranates are the only known plant-based source of Omega 5. Scientific studies, available across many media, claim that this so-called "fountain of health and youth" can have a positive impact on many of the body's systems – metabolic, immune, circulatory, hormonal, digestive, etc. It also has great healing effects on the body's largest organ – skin – as being anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing and anti-carcinogenic. Little wonder that the remarkable fruit from which this oil stems has in a matter of years undergone a major horticultural reassessment because of its wide application as a "wonder" ingredient in the medical, cosmetic and pharma industries of the twenty-first century.