Pomegranate: Icon of the Silk Road

A pomegranate trinket on my desk

A pomegranate trinket on my desk

It was my ten-year-old daughter who first alerted me to the iconographic importance of the pomegranate. At Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar she pointed out the myriad trinkets—ashtrays, paper weights, ampules, candles, vases, key chains, pendants—in the shape of pomegranates. (She really wanted a ceramic pomegranate for her window sill, and I obliged her.) I wondered why the pomegranate was so favoured by souvenir makers, whereas there was no trace of any object in the shape of, say, a pear or a raspberry.

I also recalled that last year, when I travelled to Armenia on behalf of Arastan, I had found that in this tiny country locked away in the Caucasus, the pomegranate is a much-loved, ubiquitous symbol that augurs fertility, abundance, and prosperity. It was everywhere, from friezes carved in medieval khachkars, to tabletop ornaments, to cheap fridge magnets sold at the airport.

A Rishtan pomegranate platter from Arastan's collection

A Rishtan pomegranate platter from Arastan’s collection

Without trying very hard I began to notice the pomegranate’s presence in the cultural imagination of Egypt and Iran, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, India and China. Indeed, Arastan’s own products are crowded with pomegranate motifs, from Samarkand carpets to Raku ceramics, from Uzbek suzanis to Rishtan platters. No other motif, whether floral or geometric, across all the countries that once lined the Silk Route, seems to have had the same prevalence and the same richness of meaning as the pomegranate.

A very brief history of the pomegranate

The pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a small, bushy tree that can grow to a height of about twenty feet; it was originally native in or around Iran. Travelling along some of the same trade routes that would later be associated with the silk trade, it spread across much of the ancient world.

Edible pomegranates were cultivated in Persia as early as 3000 BC. By 2000 BC, Phoenicians had established Mediterranean colonies in North Africa, bringing pomegranates to the Carthaginian domain (modern-day Tunisia and Libya), whence they became known to the Romans, who called them ‘apples of Carthage’ and subsequently cultivated them in Italy, Greece and Spain. The pomegranate continued to be dispersed around the globe, reaching China around 100 BC, and was extensively cultivated in many parts of India as well.

A fruit for all religions

Greatly appreciated as a delicacy and as a medicinal remedy, the pomegranate became an important symbol in many of the cultures of the ancient world. In classical Greek mythology, it was closely associated with the myth of Persephone, whom Hades tricked into staying in the realm of the dead by enticing her to eat a pomegranate. Unable to resist, she nibbled on six arils (that’s what you call the seeds when surrounded by the juicy red flesh), and this sealed her marriage to Hades, condemning her to spend six months every year in the underworld. For the rest of the year she was allowed to go above, to the world of the living, to be with her mother, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, abundance, and agriculture. Demeter’s joy at being reunited with her daughter heralds the coming of spring and summer, and the resurrection of nature from the stasis of winter.

Detail from Sandro Botticelli's Madonna of the Pomegranate (c. 1487)

Detail from Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate (c. 1487)

Christianity later picked up this popular myth and appropriated it, making the pomegranate a symbol of the resurrection of Christ and the hope of eternal life. In Christian art the pomegranate, split and showing the seeds, was interpreted as a symbol of divine fertility, i.e., of Christ’s ability to vanquish death and bring salvation and rebirth to humanity. The infant Jesus is often seen in paintings and sculpture presenting a pomegranate to his mother.

But there’s more—much more. In Zoroastrianism, the pomegranate symbolised both fecundity and immortality, and was an emblem of prosperity. In Judaism, the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness, because it is said to have 613 seeds representing the 613 commandments of the Torah. (The actual number of seeds varies, of course, with each fruit.) For this reason and others, many Jews eat pomegranates on the festival of Rosh Hashanah.

Some Jewish scholars believe that it was the pomegranate that was the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, not the apple. Furthermore, the pomegranate is listed in the Bible as one of the seven species of fruit and grains that are special products of the land of Israel. Pomegranates were carved on the Holy Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem; they adorned the robes and regalia of Jewish kings and priests.

A pomegranate in a Roman mosaic from the 4th century AD

A pomegranate in a Roman mosaic
from the 4th century AD
(photo courtesy Holly Hayes/Art History Images)

In the Koran, pomegranates are mentioned as one of the gifts of Allah, and they grow in the gardens of paradise. Along with the citrus and the peach, the pomegranate is one of the three blessed fruits of Buddhism. According to legend, the Buddha cured the demoness Hariti, who devoured children, by giving her a pomegranate to eat. Henceforth she became the protector of all children.

In popular folklore, too, the pomegranate is ubiquitous, especially as a harbinger of fertility. In China, for example, a picture of a ripe, open pomegranate is a popular wedding present. In many cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, the pomegranate features in wedding rituals. In Turkey, for example, after the marriage ceremony, the bride throws a pomegranate on the ground. The number of arils that fall out is believed to indicate how many children she will have.

Pomegranate flowers and fruits in an Ottoman kaftan

Pomegranate flowers and fruits in an Ottoman kaftan

And so on—the pomegranate seems to be a pervasive symbol throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Central Asia. And yet, the fruits we are most accustomed to consuming at the dinner table, the fruits that any child will easily recognize and know how to eat, are apples and oranges, mangoes and melons, bananas and guavas, not pomegranates. What is it about the pomegranate, then, that has so thoroughly captured the popular imagination of so many cultures?

The secret’s in the colour

Some say that the pomegranate is held in such high regard because it contains so much juicy moisture—something of great value in the semi-arid landscapes where it grows. But then, so does the watermelon, which has been cultivated extensively and for many centuries in the same climate. But you don’t often see watermelons embroidered on suzanis or depicted in paintings, do you?

The connection to fecundity is easy enough to see: a ripe pomegranate is packed with hundreds of seeds that burst out and scatter over the soil when it is cracked. But (I continue to play the devil’s advocate), couldn’t that be said also of other fruits that are grown in the same regions, such as the fig or the cantaloupe? Imagine splitting a cantaloupe open to sow its multitude of wet seeds in the dry, cracked earth. Isn’t that image equally satisfying?

Pomegranate with blood-red arils

Pomegranate with blood-red arils

To me, what makes the pomegranate so powerful and enduring a symbol is the combination of its juiciness with its deep red colour. (Note that the cultivars, or varieties, of pomegranate most readily available in India, known as Dholka and Ganesh, have yellow rinds and white or light pink arils. Growers elsewhere, however, prefer varieties with red rinds and deep-red arils, such as Wonderful, Granada, or Hicaznar.)

If you’ve ever tried to peel a pomegranate and separate its seeds from the pith, you know that you will have dark red juice running over your hands within seconds. This is it, I think: the sheer bloodiness of the pomegranate makes it appear to us, subconsciously perhaps, as a living fruit with blood flowing in its innards, an explosive, organic and fragrant manifestation of life—intense, messy, pulsating with all the sweet and tart energy of nature itself.

Below are a few more items that feature pomegranate designs, available for purchase at Arastan.

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