One Afternoon in Granada

The juice of the pomegranate sweetens our hands. All afternoon, we have picked from the fruit the crimson pods of juice. Within each pod, a seed. On our table, the bowl fills with the luscious harvest. The roughly handled seedpods shine in the clear hot light of Granada.

I sit close together with Lucy, my wife, and Gabriella, our three-year old daughter. We live here, in the medieval neighborhood of the Albayzín, in a house with a garden. The Albayzín gathers its white houses on this south-facing hillside; gardens and houses here fill with light all morning, and then, warm and fragrant, settle into the languorous afternoon.

Granada, in Spanish, by a happy chance, means “pomegranate”. The fruit is the symbol of the city. It is seen everywhere, on plates, in designs set into the cobblestones, on the faces of buildings. When we pick the seeds from a pomegranate, we hold the history of the city in our hands. As the fruit is swollen with juice, so is it packed with the ideas, the lives, the secrets and stories of the people of Granada, and of the great Mediterranean cultures that have made their home here.

Let’s take, for starters, some experiences common to us all, because we are flesh: say, sexual love and death. And some ideas common to us all, because of our spiritual heritage: say, paradise and the sacred. How might all this be mixed up with these bright seeds in our hands?

In the Song of Songs, the lover delivers this praise to a woman he loves: “A crimson ribbon your lips—how I listen for your voice! The curve of your cheek a pomegranate in the thicket of your hair.” It is the voice of a man in love, who wants to taste the woman of his longing. He would find his way into her hidden sweetness. He says, “An enclosed garden is my sister, my bride, a hidden well, a sealed spring. Your branches are an orchard of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit.” As the temperature of this already molten book of the Old Testament rises further, she gives him her promise: “Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vine has budded, if the blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in flower. There I will give you my love.” The cultivation of the pomegranate, we note, spread in the ensuing centuries all through the lands of the Mediterranean.

Yet we know that images of this erotic fruit adorned a holy place—Solomon’s temple itself. The design of the temple is described in the Old Testament. The materials were stone, sheets of gold, cedar, precious gems; and set prominently on the capitals of the pillars astride the entrance—carved images of pomegranates, hundreds of them, in rows. In fact, the only artifact we possess known to be of use within Solomon’s temple is an inscribed piece of ivory, thought to be the head of a priestly scepter, and unmistakably a pomegranate in flower.

If all this were not enough, if one cuts a pomegranate lengthwise, and lays it open, the seedpods show themselves bunched into the six pointed star we know as the Star of David.

What is it about this fruit that touches the sacred? The tree, native to Persia, shows a dark, straggly silhouette. But in spring, among sudden leaves of reddish green, deep orange flowers appear, which darken to red and fold in as the fruit begins to take shape. As it grows, the skin thickens and roughens until it is the texture of old leather, as though it had lived through seasons of sunlight and had long tales to tell. Then, late in the summer, over a course of days, the rough skin splits, as if it could not contain its sweetness. Crimson seedpods show forth in sensuous bunches. Each pod is full of juice. It is the color of blood. It will darken your hands. It marks your clothes indelibly. It tastes of a strange, direct freshness, both sour and sweet. The harvested seeds heaped in a bowl so ravish the eyes that we stop our labors to watch the glistening.

Living through the seasons with a pomegranate tree, we can guess why the fruit is thought to partake of the sacred. It is incorrigibly beautiful. In the fecund splendor of packed seeds there is a promise of life irrepressible. The fruit swells and opens in the hot months, showing crimson and delicious flesh; it’s intensely sexual, putting us in mind of lovemaking and life-making. And the way the skin bursts to show an inner beauty makes us think of a coming forth of soul from the body.

If all this means something, then we are likely to find the pomegranate associated with paradise; and so we do. Some scholars believe that the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a pomegranate. In the Koran, Allah sketches the gardens of paradise in the Sura of the Merciful, the Gracious One. This hypnotic Sura of high poetry, by tradition revealed early and as a whole in Mecca, speaks of a delicious space in the next world: fresh springs, dark leaves of lush trees, women with ruby and coral skin—and fruit trees, which encompass all varieties, but of which, curiously, only two are mentioned: the date and the pomegranate. In the Hadith, which are the statements of Muhammad noted down while he lived, we hear him say: “There is not a pomegranate on earth that does not have a pip from one of the pomegranates in the Garden of Paradise.” This useful idea we find frequently in the Koran: that we have here present on earth pieces of heaven, signs that we learn to recognize. Such signs are called, in Arabic, ayat. By understanding them, it is said, we may discover a way to move intuitively and irresistibly toward the divine.

Five centuries later, we have Jalalludin Rumi’s great book, the Mathnawi. Rumi was born is Afghanistan, lived in Konia, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), and was a contemporary of Saint Francis. Many consider the Mathnawi—a hive of stories, injunctions, metaphorical adventures, songs, and parables—to be the most powerful mystical poem ever written. In one section Rumi writes about companionship with saints, and about the signs that mark a teacher of real knowledge. He likens our encounter with such a man or woman to the buying of a pomegranate: “buy it laughing and open-mouthed, that its laughing may give information about the state of its seeds. How blessed is its laughter, that shows the heart in its mouth.” Such is Rumi’s portrayal of one whose knowledge is so uncommonly advanced, that it has come forth in joy. In Rumi’s teaching, a real teacher shows himself directly and usefully to anyone who, with suitable preparation, seeks just such knowledge.

Jewish worship, the Old Testament, the Koran, Rumi’s mystical poem: these are but some of the adventures of the pomegranate, symbol of Granada. As the seeds mount up on our table, do we find the fruit has a place in Christian devotion?

It is the symbol of the Resurrection. With the famous Christian ability to confiscate the stories of other faiths, Christians took over the pomegranate from the Greek myth of Persephone, the goddess who returns each year from the domain of death to bear us springtime, to be a “wonder to gods and mortal men.” Hades had tricked Persephone by putting pomegranate seeds in her mouth, obliging her to live with him beneath the earth part of every year. But as the earth warms and trees flower, she returns from the place of death. So the pomegranate of the goddess of spring became the symbol of the ascendant Jesus, bringing us not the springtime of earth, but by his sacrifice, a springtime of the soul. The infant Jesus will be seen with pomegranate in hand, in drawings by Botticelli, Leonardo, and Raphael.

But the Christian imagination was not done. In astonishment we find the fruit pressed into action to signal, of all things, the virginity of Mary. This is traveling rather far afield, given that throughout the Mediterranean, for millennia, the fruit had shone with forces of fertility and sexuality. Many drawings have the virginal Mary sitting beatifically beneath a pomegranate tree. For defense and support, she often has nearby that icon of chastity and purity, the unicorn. This mythical beast is, no doubt, ready to lower his horn and charge all those centuries of erotic associations.

So have we three faiths of the Mediterranean, here on our table. And we have, as well, the emblem of a man who lived not far from this garden, just below our house, in fact. His residence, a hospital for the poor which he founded, still stands. His name was John of God, and his story is unforgettable.

Born in 1495 in Portugal to a Jewish family, John was at the age of eight taken forcibly from his parents, as part of the ethnic cleansing of those times. He was placed in a Christian family in Spain, and later worked as a shepherd. In his twenties he went off as part of the army of Charles V to attack France. Failing in his sentinel duty, he ended up with a noose around his neck, only to be saved (like Dostoevsky) from execution by a pardon at the last possible moment. He went to war a second time, lived violent, debauched years, and finally revisited Portugal to learn of the death of his parents. His mother had died a few days after he was torn away from her, and his father, alone, had lived until his death as a Franciscan monk.

He found work again as a shepherd, observing that people take much better care of their animals, than of one other. His life lurched in poverty from place to place; he worked as an overseer of slaves, a builder of walls to fortify Ceuta, in North Africa; as a vendor of firewood, an itinerant bookseller.

One summer day as he walked with his books along the dusty roads of Andalusia, John came upon a boy in rags, and barefoot. He offered the boy his shoes, but they were too large. With the boy still barefoot, John was too ashamed to don the shoes again. So he took the boy onto his shoulders, and bore him thorough the scorching heat of Southern Spain to a cool stream. He put him down so that he could fetch water for them both, and when he returned, he recognized the boy as the Divine Child, who showed him a lush, open pomegranate surmounted by a cross, and said, “John of God, Granada shall be thy Cross.”

Soon John is in Granada, and insane. He is locked in a mental hospital, and given the standard treatment: repeated whipping with double-knotted leather, and drenching with freezing water. Rescued after many months by another converted Jew, the Christian preacher John of Avila, he travels with him for counsel and succor. Later, he returns to Granada, once more to sell firewood in the streets. He was without a place to sleep. He moved among the poor. John of Avila intervened once again to arrange shelter at night in the vestibule of a house of a wealthy man who lived in the Albayzín. Into his shelter, the future John of God invited the most needy of his companions to sleep by his side. Soon the vestibule is filled with the destitute, and all of them are expelled.

So began the hospital of John of God. At first, he cares for his companions in a hovel near the fish market. The idea, from the beginning, is straightforward: give care to anyone in need. He takes in everyone he can: the sick, the abandoned, the persecuted; the poor, starving, and despised; cripples, paralytics, lepers, mutes, the old and dying, prostitutes, madmen and pilgrims. All day, every day, he begs for them. In the morning and at night he cares for them. He cleans their beds, feeds them, fetches water. Slowly he begins to receive donations of blankets, beds, firewood. Then later, bread and bowls and milk. Finally, a building for his hospital, then another, larger, for there is never enough room to help all the desperate in Granada.

He was beloved by men and women of all faiths. At his death in 1550, the city convulsed in sorrow. Today, the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God provides healthcare worldwide. Their emblem, five hundred and fifty years later, is still the pomegranate and cross.

We have a hill of seeds on our table now. In the room above the garden where we sit, windows of green and azure glass show a Star of David. Inside that room, above those windows, tiles with Arabic script give a Muslim profession of faith, “There is no conqueror but God.” On the windows of another room next to the garden are portraits of conquistadors, the legendary, brutal knights of Christ.

We have lived in Granada almost four years. Our house, and this city, ride the religious crosscurrents of more than two millennia of devotion. It is a history of genius, strange perfections, of beauty and poetry; of imbecility, hatred, and murder.

There is a singular power here. The city has had an uncanny influence in the history of Europe and the world. It is a hive of stories, of sweetness, and of secrets. We might call it a pomegranate in the hand of God.

We love the Albayzín. And so this writing, out of the obligation to try to understand how one place could hold, as a pomegranate holds its seeds, so many gifts.