Did you know that in some traditions the forbidden fruit in Eden wasn’t the apple, but the pomegranate?
For Middle East Christians, pomegranates frequently appear as a motif in iconography and sacred art. Patterns woven in liturgical vestments as well as Christian metalwork often prominently feature the fruit.
According to tradition, the pomegranate — broken or bursting open — symbolizes the fullness of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. During Christmas, families in the Middle East decorate their homes with likenesses of bursting pomegranates.
Orthodox Christians often add pomegranate seeds to koliva, a dish of sweetened boiled wheat. Used primarily in memorial liturgies, koliva symbolizes the sweetness of the heavenly kingdom. And for some Eastern Christians, the pomegranate — not the apple — is the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
Muslims, too, believe pomegranates grow in the gardens of paradise, though they are not associated with evil. Pomegranates appear in the Quran on three occasions, as examples of the good things God creates.
For Jews, pomegranates, with their numerous seeds, symbolize fertility. According to tradition, each pomegranate contains 613 seeds — the same number of mitzvoth, or commandments of the Torah. It is also believed Moses received a pomegranate as proof of the Promised Land’s fertility. On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, many families celebrate with pomegranates.
Inhabitants of the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Persia have prized pomegranates for millennia. Ancient Egyptians regarded the pomegranate as a sign of ambition and prosperity. In ancient Persia, the fruit symbolized fertility.
In ancient Greek mythology, the pomegranate plays a key role in the explanation of the seasons. According to legend, Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped Persephone — the daughter of Zeus, the father of gods and men. He took her to the underworld, where she lived as his wife.
Fate dictated that anyone who consumed food or drink while in the underworld must spend eternity there. Knowing the laws of fate, Persephone declined all food and drink. But, Hades tricked her into eating four pomegranate seeds. As a result, when Zeus commanded Hades to return Persephone, she was forever condemned to spend four months out of every year in the underworld. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, grieved over her daughter’s punishment and refused to allow any crops to grow during those four months, a period which became winter.
The use and importance of pomegranates in traditional cuisine varies widely in the Middle East and nearby regions.