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Ancient Egypt Magazine

Volume 7 issue 2 October 2006

Per Mesut - for younger readers


These days we are encouraged to eat and drink sensibly and some foods are advertised as being more healthy than others: pomegranates for instance. The pomegranate is a fruit in a category all of its own. It is neither a citrus fruit, like an orange, nor a stone fruit, like a peach. On the outside it might look a bit like a rosy apple, but on the inside it is completely different, even though the German word for pomegranate is granatapfel. In French it is known as grenade. You might think that this is because the fruit resembles an old-fashioned grenade or hand-held bomb, like the badge of the Grenadiersí Regiment, but of course, it is the other way round. The pomegranate was around for thousands of years before the invention of gunpowder, so the hand grenade was named after the fruit.


When I was a child, you only saw pomegranates in the shops around Christmas time, and then they were bought as a special treat. My grandmother remembered picking out the red seeds with a hatpin. We were always warned not to get the juice on our clothes because it stained and the bitter-tasting pith could turn your fingers yellow. The Egyptians knew a thing or two about pomegranates, though the tree was not a native of Egypt. It originated in the region south of the Caspian Sea and the first evidence for its cultivation comes from places like Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Israelites were familiar with the attractive shape and colour of the fruit, and it was used in decorative weaving or embroidery on the hems of priestly robes, (Exodus 28:33) as well as in the carved capitals of columns in the Temple of Solomon, (I Kings, 7:20). It seems that pomegranates were first grown in Egypt in the early New Kingdom but, since models of the fruit have been found in Middle Kingdom tombs, travellers must have known about it for some time before it was successfully grown in Egyptian gardens.

A pomegranate. Photo: HW.


The first mention of a pomegranate tree in Egyptian inscriptions comes from the tomb of Ineni, an official at the court of Thutmose I, who recorded all the different types of tree that he wanted to have planted on his estate. A dried pomegranate was found among the food offerings left in the tomb of Djehuty, a butler who served Queen Hatshepsut. Thutmose III recorded many plants and trees at the Karnak Temple, in a room now known as the Botanical Gallery because of these scenes. Unfortunately there are no inscriptions with these reliefs, and the paint has gone, so we can only guess at what some of the plants are. However, the pomegranate tree is quite distinctive. In the famous tomb painting of Ipuy, showing a gardener working a shaduf to raise water, several trees and plants are clearly shown, with leaves and flowers of the right shapes and painted the correct colours. The pomegranate tree is identified by its trumpet-shaped red flowers. The tree blooms in the hottest part of the year and the bright scarlet flowers were ideal for use in floral wreaths and bouquets.


Beads shaped like pomegranate flowers were threaded into multi-coloured necklaces and collars. In Tutankhamunís tomb, pomegranate leaves were woven into a garland and an elaborate funerary collar made entirely of natural materials.


Tutankhamun also owned 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. The fruitís shape is easily recognised among the offerings of food presented at temples and in tombs. 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 tasty meal is a pomegranate, painted in realistic colours. The pomegranate has a thick rind, yellow blushing to red. There is a bitter pithy layer between the tough outer skin and the mass of seeds inside. Each seed is surrounded by a deep pink or red jewel-like capsule of juicy flesh. Pomegranate tastes of pomegranate Ė there is no other way to describe its flavour. It has a slightly acid sweetness that is very refreshing.

A silver vessel in the shape of a pomegranate, from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Photo: RP.


Now, with all the pomegranate health drinks on the market, you can taste it for yourself. The ancient Egyptians also drank pomegranate juice and it is still a favourite drink in Cairo. The cordial or syrup made from pomegranate juice is known as grenadine and this, or an artificial version of it, traditionally provides the red part of a "tequila sunrise" cocktail. Dried pomegranate seeds, used as a spice, and a thick, brown syrup, made from under-ripe fruit, are popular ingredients in some Middle Eastern and North African cookery. The syrup is used to give a sweet-and-sour flavour to dishes and is particularly good with chicken or duck.


It has been suggested that the ancient Egyptians made a wine from pomegranates as a cheaper alternative to grape wine. This drink, known as shedeh, is mentioned in love poems where a girlís kiss is said to be sweeter than shedeh, but the link between pomegranates and shedeh has not yet been proved (see AE36). The skin and pith of the pomegranate fruit were used as dyes to turn leather yellow. The bark and root of the tree were recommended in medicinal prescriptions for getting rid of parasitic worms. It seems that the pomegranate, once it had become established as an Egyptian tree, quickly earned a place among the sacred plants of Egypt. The red colour of the fruit was the colour used for the sunís disc crown, emblem of Ra. The many seeds it contains were symbolic of plenty and fertility. In the setting of the tomb, the offering of pomegranates would be seen as a way to promote the rebirth of the dead person to life in the next world. All in all, the pomegranate tree was a useful and significant plant as well as being very attractive.


Further reading:


The Garden in Ancient Egypt by Alix Wilkinson


An Ancient Egyptian Herbal by Lise Manniche


Hilary Wilson


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