The Garden Gate: Discover the pleasant fruits of Egypt

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

The pomegranate is one of the most ancient fruits. It is mentioned in 14 books of the Bible and listed in many other ancient writings.

Pomegranates are native to Asia, from northern India to the Levant, where they have been cultivated since prehistoric times.

They are common in Israel, Egypt and along both shores of the Mediterranean Sea. They grow wild in Syria, Lebanon and in parts of Africa.

In the Bible, pomegranates are termed “the pleasant fruits of Egypt.”

Pomegranate pulp has been used extensively since the days of King Solomon for making sherberts and cooling drinks. People sometimes eat it raw, but it does have a tart taste.

For many centuries, the astringent rind of unripened pomegranates has been used to make a red dye to color the famous red Morocco Leather. The flowers also yield a red coloring agent.

The Moors introduced the African method of tanning leather to Spain. They also made Cordova famous for beautiful tanned leather things.

Pomegranates are also used for the making of medicines, perfumes and a spice wine. Many of the Moslem sherbets owe their distinctive flavor to this versatile juice.

Grenadine syrup, used in many desserts and drinks, is made from pomegranates.

In early times, the pomegranate came to be regarded as a sacred plant. Because of its large number of soft, edible seeds, it was a symbol of fertility.

Its distinctive form is easily recognized in many old Egyptian paintings and sculptures.

In ancient Persia, this fruit adorned the head of the royal scepter, and in Rhodes, the blossoms formed part of the royal coat of arms.

An ancient representation of Jupiter shows him holding a pomegranate in his hand.

Considering all this, it is not surprising that the temple of Solomon was decorated with sculptured pomegranates at the tops of the trestle work above the pilasters and that priestly robes were embroidered with them, in blue, scarlet and purple pomegranates.

There is an old Jewish temple in Capernaum in which Jesus is said to have once preached. The temple has beautiful pictures of pomegranates on its walls.

The beauty of these delicate crimson fruits has caused them to be mentioned in song and poetry, much as we today compare a blushing cheek to a ripe peach.

Ancient legends say the pomegranate was the “tree of life” in the Garden of Eden. Because of this belief, it became the symbol of hope of eternal life in early Christian art.

At weddings in Turkey, a bride will through a ripe pomegranate to the ground. The number of seeds which fall from the fruit are said to indicate the number of children she is destined to have.

In Roman mythology, Ceres, goddess of the Earth, became enraged when Zeus gave her daughter, Proserpina, to Pluto to be his wife. Pluto was the god of the underworld.

In her anger, Ceres left the heavens and came to Earth, blessing everyone who was kind to her and cursing those who were not.

Zeus was sorry to have caused all this and demanded that Pluto give Proserpina back. He did, after forcing her to eat a pomegranate. This gave him continued power over her, and he demanded that she spend half of each year with him.

So, for six months of the year, Proserpina is with Ceres, and the whole earth is fruitful and green. For the other six months, the earth is cold and barren.

The pomegranate thus became, to the Greeks and Romans, the symbol of the nether world and typified all seeds that must be planted under the ground to germinate, then emerge into the light for a season, only to have their seeds return for a time to the darkness beneath the surface of the earth.

The original pomegranate, according to Greek mythology, was a lovely nymph who had been told by a soothsayer that she would one day wear a crown.

She was transformed into a pomegranate tree by Bacchus, god of the vineyard and wine, and a crown was placed on the top of each of her fruits.

The pomegranate symbolizes fertility in China, where women often offer pomegranates to the goddess of mercy, Kwan Yin, in hope of having children. Many Chinese temple porcelains are decorated with pictures of pomegranates.

Pomegranate trees are usually small and bush-like, but they can grow to be very large. The opposite, or alternate, branches are often thorny. And the showy, bell-shaped flowers can be red, white or yellow.

The fruits are about the size of an orange and have a hard, bright-red rind, topped with a crown-like calyx.

The flowers of the pomegranate undoubtedly served as the patterns for the priestly temple robes for both the Jewish and Hindu religious sects.

The erect, calyx-lobes on the fruit were the inspiration for the design of Solomon’s crown and, in a way, for the crowns of everyone from then on.

Petrus Crescenius, a prominent writer in the late Middle Ages, wrote in Latin in the 13th century.

His book was translated into Italian 100 years later, and then into French and German.

He described in great detail the ideal medieval garden with trees, flowers, pathways, orchard, fountains and pomegranates.

And now it is our turn to discover them in the supermarket.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.