The Red Ruby of Heaven

Rezvan Vatankhah
Mar 1st, 2014

IN THE EVENING of a cold autumn day last year, I was picking the seeds out of a pomegranate and putting each one in a bowl for our house guest. As I did so, I was so taken up by my memories and thoughts about the pomegranate’s heritage that I forgot to wear gloves to stop my hands going black with the juice. As a child, the black stains on my fingers would always proclaim my mischief. In the autumns of my childhood, my mother would scold me: “Don’t eat all the pomegranates! Leave something for Yalda night (Shab-i Chele). But I disregarded my mother’s instructions. I would eat all the pomegranates, but the telltale marks of my crime remained on my hands and … I needn’t tell you how this story ends.

During the Iran-Iraq war my family was compelled to leave our home and city and return to our ancestral village. We didn’t have an electric heater or a fireplace, but there was a brazier, the memory of which makes me feel a pleasant warmth in my feet even now. I remember a talkative old woman telling stories about demons and the prince who fell in love with a poor or enchanted girl.

It was wonderful to hear of the prince going to a mysterious pomegranate garden in search of such an ethereal girl, following the command of a wise old magician. In that magic garden he picked a pomegranate and cut it into halves. To his astonishment, he saw in the pattern of the seeds the image of a beautiful unborn girl. At that moment, the girl sprang into life and leapt from the fruit fully formed into the world.

Considering this ancient folk tale, it’s easy to understand that since time immemorial the pomegranate has been a treasured motif for the Iranian people. It’s a holy symbol, too, for many religions and cultures. There are several mentions of the fruit in the Old Testament and it is a symbol of resurrection, eternity and chastity in Christianity Jesus Christ was often depicted with a pomegranate. In the Quran, the pomegranate features as one of the fruits of paradise.

In Greek mythology, the pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and plenty; it was even considered to cause fertility, so its relation to a fertility goddess is clear. The ancient Iranians planted pomegranate trees in their fire-temples and used the branches as Barsam, the holy branch that Zoroastrians hold at their prayers and also put on their tablecloths. Nowadays, single pomegranate trees near the tombs of Imams’ offspring, next to shrines and on the tops of hills are considered sacred, and people attach wish-strings (Dakhil) to their branches in the hope that their requests will come true.

A pomegranate full of seeds signifies bliss and is a symbol of the angel Nahid’s* fertility in the Zoroastrian religion (Mazdiasna). Iranians decorate their tables with branches of it at Nowruz and Mehregan. In the past it was common among Iranians that an opened pomegranate – or the image its seeds seem to represent – was offered to brides as a gift. This reflected the wishes of conception and having a baby. In Iranian literature, the pomegranate is used as a symbol for its holiness and mythical context and, on the other hand, for its beauty and the bewitching ruby colour and velvety texture of its seeds. Nasir-Khousraw (394-481 A.H. / 1003-1088 C.E.) declared: ‘My heart is more sorrowful than a pomegranate full of seeds.’

The birthplace and origin of this blissful plant is nowhere other than Iran. Nowadays, the fruit is exported from Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Morocco and Spain. How surprising it is that this paradisiacal fruit can grow in desert places, flourish there and come to fruition! Iranians living in desert areas so valued the fruit that they held ceremonies in its honour. Recently these ceremonies have become more formal and are accompanied by dances and displays of the kinds of foods in which the pomegranate is used. All this emphasises the special place of this fruit among Iranians; so much so that during previous centuries it was included in the borders of carpets and traditional paintings; and it has become one of the fundamental elements of Khataii and Slimi** design. It only takes a glance at an Iranian carpet, at Iranian-Islamic traditional design and tazhib, to see its showy flamboyance.

Finally, delicious dishes are cooked with pomegranate. There is a variety of types of fruit: sweet, sour, and sweet-and-sour; and it is used according to regional tastes and kinds of food. Tasty meals and dishes like Fesenjan, stews and stuffed chicken can be cooked with pomegranate, its sauce and its extract. Like other fruits, pomegranates have a rich heritage and contain hidden myths, traditions and stories that, when they’re made known, will multiply the pleasure in eating them.


*Nahid is the Greek Artemis and the Roman Diana.

** A kind of Iranian-Islamic traditional design. 


Rezvan Vatankhah
Last blog date: Mar 31st, 2014


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