Beijing, 26 August 2014

Suddenly, there are vendors on every street corner of Beijing hawking pomegranate juice.

pomegranate pressers 004

As certainly as the appearance of vendors selling pineapples on Beijing’s streets is a signal that Spring is coming, so this new apparition is a sign that Summer is drawing to a close, with the pomegranate trees now heavy with fruit.

pomegranate orchard

My wife and I have bought our cup of pomegranate juice. Peering down into that dark red liquid


I have as usual begun to ask myself questions about this fruit. It’s not from my basket of inherited foods. I never remember eating it as a child. Which is not surprising, really. It doesn’t grow well in the UK or France – certainly, my French grandmother had no pomegranate trees in her garden; peaches, plums, apples and pears, but no pomegranates. I have never eaten them in Italy either, even though they were brought to Italy during Roman times; their cultivation is limited to the far south.

That’s the thing, pomegranates are not a European fruit. I thought for a moment – given my previous discoveries – that they originated in China. But actually their historical tap root is sunk in Persia (today’s Iran), and the Himalayan foothills of the Indian subcontinent.

It’s been cultivated as a fruit for an awfully long time; they say it’s probably one of the very first fruits which we humans cultivated. And it caught on, being carried enthusiastically along the ancient trade routes. It was already being eaten in Jericho in 3,000 BC or thereabouts and in Cyprus some while later (in both cases, archaeologists found remains of the fruit in the cities’ ancient garbage dumps).

From the Middle East, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to bring the pomegranate to Greece in one direction and to Egypt in the other. This piece of fresco from a tomb painting in Egypt shows the delights of a private garden, with a pomegranate tree tucked away in one corner, no doubt a prelude of the delights which awaited Nebamun, the owner of this particular tomb, in the after-life.

Egyptian wall painting 'Pond_in_a_Garden'

Meanwhile, from their base in Lebanon, the Phoenicians carried the fruit to their overseas territories, notably Carthage. And it was from Carthage that the pomegranate arrived in Rome. Everything comes full circle in this picture, where a mosaic in the Roman style, laid down in the city of Caesarea in Rome’s near eastern province of Judaea (in what is now Israel)

Roman Bird-Mosaic-in-Caesarea

depicts among other delights a pomegranate tree.

Roman Bird-Mosaic-detail

For their part, having welcomed the pomegranate into the homeland – the delights of the pomegranate are mentioned no less than three times in the Quran – the Arabs carried the pomegranate with them in their conquests of North Africa. Later on, the Muslimised Berbers of North Africa brought it to Spain. And it is in their palace of Alhambra in the city of Grenada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, that we find, weaved into the intricate designs on the walls, this pomegranate


To be found in the palace’s Golden chamber.

alhambra-cuarto dorado

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to know that Spain is now Europe’s biggest producer of pomegranates.

Meanwhile, the pomegranate also travelled east from Persia, along the fabled Silk Road, through Central Asia and finally entered China through Xinjian. But after becoming one of the three blessed fruits of Buddhism, it also tumbled off the Himalayas and travelled into the heart of India, and probably from there it sailed, via the Maritime Silk Route, to south China and Southeast Asia. And from China it was but another hop, skip, and a jump for the pomegranate to be carried to Japan and Korea, where in truth it was appreciated more as a good candidate for bonsai-ism than for its fruit.

bonsai pomegranate

In passing, we should acknowledge that the pomegranate tree does have beautiful flowers


another reason that the ancients loved the tree, as evidenced by this other wall painting from Egypt

Egyptian wall painting pomegranate in flower

To be honest, I’m not sure I understand what all the enthusiasm is about. I mean, the juice is OK, but what I really like about a fruit is to sink my teeth into it. And all those seeds in the pomegranate


make that an unpleasant experience – bits of seeds getting stuck in my teeth, a sort of gritty munching experience, that sort of thing … I know the seeds are edible, but psychologically I’m not ready to crunch my way through a whole bunch of seeds. I’ll pick up a peach instead, thank you.

In my opinion, though, it’s precisely those seeds that made it so popular in the old days and encouraged its dissemination out of its Persian-Himalayan homeland. Not, I should clarify, because people liked to crunch their way through a pile of seeds 5,000 years ago (although maybe they did), but because those seeds were a potent symbol of fertility to those eaters. Remember one of the cardinal principles of sympathetic magic, which was potent then: if I eat something (or spread it on my skin, or wear it), I will absorb its powers. Clearly, all those seeds meant that the pomegranate was suffused with fertility. So it would be good to eat it, for instance, if I wanted to have lots of children. This old, old idea has been continued as a quaint custom played out in Greek and Armenian weddings

greek wedding

where at some point the bride breaks open a pomegranate and the seeds spill out (I’m sure I do not need to explain the symbolism of this). But this wish for fertility can be more generalized, and in this guise the pomegranate tree has been cast in the role of Tree of Life. Here, for instance, on this ancient Assyrian seal we see priests standing before a pomegranate as the tree of life, with the sun – another symbol of life – gently beaming down

Assyrian priests with pomegranate tree

And here we see the same symbolism woven into this carpet, made several thousand years later and several thousand kilometres away in the southern corner of the Chinese province of Xinjian.

Khotan carpet

Good ideas have staying power.

The fertility attributed to the pomegranate led to even more abstruse symbolism. Already in Egypt the pomegranate’s fertility transmuted it into a symbol of life after death: eternal fertility – which is why they liked having it represented in their tombs. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the pomegranate took on a similar symbolism for Christians, becoming a representation of Christ’s resurrection and promise of life after death. So here we have a pomegranate along with Christ in a Roman mosaic (again) from the 4th Century AD, from, of all places, a small village in Dorset.

Christian mosaic hinton st mary-detail

Christian mosaic hinton st mary

And here we have an incomparably more beautiful version from 1487 by Sandro Botticelli



Botticelli is telling us that both the Madonna and her child know of the suffering to come, but the pomegranate tells us that it will not have been in vain.

All of this doesn’t change the fact that pomegranates have too many seeds in them to make them a nice eat.


Pomegranate presser: my picture
Pomegranate orchard: [in
Pomegranate juice: [in
Egyptian wall painting “Pond in a garden”:”Pond_in_a_Garden”_(fresco_from_the_Tomb_of_Nebamun).jpg [in (fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty).jpg
Roman bird mosaic:
Roman bird mosaic-pomegranate: [in
Alhambra-detail: [in (Alhambra: Cuarto Dorado, detail of stucco decoration, Date: 14th century, Alhambra: Cuarto Dorado (Golden Chamber), detail of carved stucco decoration with pomegranate motifs, 14th century, Nasrid period.)
Alhambra-cuarto dorado: [in
Bonsai pomegranate: [in
Pomegranate flower: [in
Egyptian wall painting pomegranate tree in flower: [in
Pomegranate seeds: [in
Greek wedding: [in
Assyrian priests with pomegranate tree: [in
Khotan carpet: [in
Christian mosaic Hinton St Mary: [in
Christian mosaic Hinton St Mary-detail: [in
Botticelli: [in
Botticelli-detail: [in


Beijing, 9 March 2014

I was recently in Dubai with my wife for a long weekend. If you don’t like shopping, which I fervently do not, if you don’t get much of a kick out of visiting the tallest building in the world, which is definitely my case, if you don’t quite see the point of going skiing in a mall, which I certainly don’t, then your to-do list in Dubai is really quite short. On one side of the saltwater creek which wends its way through the middle of the city


you can visit gold and spice souqs of dubious antiquity. On the other side, you can visit a small remnant of the old town, saved, so it seems, from the wrecker’s ball by the intercession of Prince Charles with the Sheikh of Dubai. You can follow this up by a visit to the Dubai Museum, housed underneath a quaint little old fort and filled with a rather pathetic set of dioramas showing the old ways of life in the sheikhdom. A 20 minutes’ walk downcreek will bring you to the Sheikhs’ old residence (or rather, a nearly complete reconstruction of it) filled with some old photos of Dubai. You can cross from one side of the creek to the other in supposedly old wooden boats which ply the waterway. And that’s it. Of the four days that my wife and I spent in Dubai, we actually only needed two to visit the city itself. We used one of the days to visit Abu Dhabi (or rather, the planned eco-city district of Masdar) and while I was sitting in a conference my wife used another to visit Al Ain, an oasis town some two hours’ drive from Dubai.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s really very pleasant to wander around without haste, poking your nose in here and there, snapping photos of this and that, taking long lunch and coffee breaks, and enjoying mild and sunny weather. But what really got my goat was a small exhibition which we stumbled across somewhere in the souqs, which proudly announced that some time this year Dubai expected UNESCO to nominate the creek and its immediate surroundings as a World Heritage Site. Give – me – a – break! The Dubai creek a World Heritage Site?! That’s ridiculous!! For those readers who may not be familiar with this UN programme, I should explain that it implements an international convention, the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, whose purpose is to protect and conserve for present and future generations cultural heritage (monuments, groups of buildings, sites) or natural heritage (natural features, geological formations, natural sites) of outstanding universal value. Please note: outstanding universal value. Those are big, big words. Put another way, the sites which are nominated as World Heritage Sites should be so fantastic that it would be a crime for me and every other citizen in the world not to do everything in our power to protect them for future generations to marvel at. Does that describe Dubai creek? I – don’t – think – so!

I had first entertained serious doubts about the World Heritage Site listings when we went on a family holiday to Finland some ten years ago. I had seen that a church along our itinerary had been listed. Intrigued, I dragged the somewhat unwilling family to visit it (to this day, my children remind me of this and other churches I forced them to visit in Finland). What we were confronted with was a small, rustic church whose three main claims to fame were (a) that it was quite old, (b) that it was made entirely out of wood, and (c) that no nails had been used to make it … this was “outstanding universal value”?? Puh-lease! My cynicism over World Heritage Site listings only deepened over the following years as everywhere I went I came across really quite ordinary sites which had been listed. UNESCO’s convention has obviously been hijacked by the tourism industry and its hacks in Ministries of Tourism to brand national sites and raise tourism revenues. And no doubt political correctness has reared its head. It won’t do for just a few countries to have all the heritage sites of outstanding universal value, every country should be able to claim at least one …

This debasing of the World Heritage Site brand is a pity, because I think there are a number of places around the world which through some magical combination of geometry, colour, light, and siting really do have an outstanding and universal value to all of us in the world and whose preservation truly deserves the concerted attention of the global community. My wife and I put our heads together, and what follows is our list. Its main weakness is that it is based only on places which we have seen – so much of the world for us still to see …

Since Dubai got me going, I’ll start with cityscapes:

– Venice, which must be the most beautiful city in the world


view from ferry

– Paris, especially the part along the banks of the river Seine running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Eiffel tower

Paris-Notre Dame

Paris-Eiffel tower

(I find Paris to be at its best at night, when all its buildings are lit up like theatre backdrops)

– Rome, especially the Baroque part of the city

Rome Piazza Navona

where, though, older Roman urban fabric can poke through

Rome Pantheon

– The historic nucleus of Istanbul, on its peninsula jutting out into the Bosphorus


– Old Prague


– On a smaller scale, San Gimignano in Tuscany

San Gimignano-1

San Gimignano-2

which can stand for all those wonderful hilltop towns and villages scattered throughout central Italy (Siena, Todi, Gubbio, Assisi, Volterra, Arezzo, Perugia, Urbino, and on and on …)

– I will add Savannah in Georgia. My wife and I stumbled on the city by chance thirty years ago, and we were blown away


I wonder if I should I add Edinburgh? My wife is doubtful, but the New Town there is really very nice, with a magificent view over the Firth of Forth


and there is the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh castle


What about Manhattan?

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

I’m torn. Manhattanites certainly think that the borough has outstanding universal value, non-residents may not be so sure.

After cityscapes we list a series of buildings and complexes that stand out because of the beauty of the buildings themselves, often highlighted by their siting:

– Taj Mahal, which must be one of the most sublime buildings in the world

Taj Mahal

and which can stand in for a series of wonderful Mughal edifices dotted around northern India (Fatehpur Sikri, the Mausoleum of Akbar at Sikandra, the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, the mausoleum of Humayun, …)

– Angkor Wat


with its wonderful faces carved in the temple walls


– The rock gardens and temples of Kyoto

Kyoto Tofuukuji rock garden-2

kyoto kinkakuji

kyoto ginkakuji

– The chateaux of the Loire in France, especially Chenonceau

Chateau de Chenonceau

and Azay-le-Rideau


– The Alhambra palace in Andalusia


with its typical Arab love of water


We don’t just list old buildings. We would add at least two modern buildings:

– the Sydney Opera House

sydney opera house 014

– the east wing of the National Gallery in Washington DC

east wing national gallery

My wife thinks we should also list Labrang, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery-town in Sichuan


I’m not convinced that it really has outstanding universal value, yet.

I’ll add here a couple of the wonderful garden-parks which were created around some of the grander country houses in the UK in the 18th century.

– Stowe gardens


Stowe gardens-house

– Fountains Abbey and Gardens

fountains abbey

fountains abbey gardens-1

fountains abbey gardens-2

Which brings us naturally to our last list, our choices of natural heritage sites of outstanding universal value. We would start with the canyons in the American west. Rather than list the Grand Canyon, which some might consider the natural choice, we would list some of the smaller canyons:

– Bryce Canyon, especially lovely in winter, which is when we saw it:

bryce canyon

– and Canyon de Chelly


– We are moved to list here too the Atlas mountains in Morocco. When we first saw them, we were immediately reminded of the canyonlands in the US

Atlas mountains

but what was even better was that the locals were still making their villages from the local clay so that villages seemed to grow out of the landscape

atlas mountains-villages

– From canyons on land to canyons on the sea, and here we found the fjords in New Zealand more striking than those in Norway

New Zealand South Island Fiordland National Park Milford Sound

– From water to none, with the red sand dunes of Namibia

Namibia -Dune 45

– and back to water again, with the Amazon River

Amazon river

– from hotter to cooler, with the high meadows of the Alps in the Trentino in Italy


– from grass to trees, in this case the truly magnificent sequoias


– and finally back to grass and water, with the Scottish Highlands



Well, that’s our list of cultural and natural sites which we would consider to have outstanding universal value. As I said earlier, the list is no doubt incomplete simply because there are still lots of places we haven’t visited. We’d be interested to know how readers feel about this. What sites would they put on their own list?


Dubai creek: [in
Venice-aerial view: [in
Venice-worm’s eye view:
Paris-Notre Dame: [in
Paris-Eiffel tower: [in
Rome Piazza Navona: [in
Rome Pantheon: [in
Istanbul: [in
Prague: [in
San Gimignano-1:
San Gimignano-2:
Savannah: [in
Edinburgh-New Town:,%20Midlothian/IMG_9890.jpg [in
Edinburgh-castle: [in
Manhattan: [in
Taj Mahal: [in
Angkor Wat: [in
Angkor Wat Gods: [in
Kyoto Tofukuji rock garden: [in
Kyoto Kinkakuji: [in,31489,2049375_2049370_2048907,00.html%5D
Kyoto Gingakuji: [in
Château de Chenonceau: [inâteau_de_Chenonceau%5D
Château Azay-le-Rideau: [inâteau_d’Azay-le-Rideau%5D
Alhambra: [in
Alhambra-2:!!-!!4.jpg [in
Sydney Opera House: our photo
East Wing National Gallery: [in
Labrang: [in
Stowe gardens: [in
Stowe gardens-House: [in
Fountains abbey: [in
Fountains abbey gardens-1: -[in
Fountains abbey gardens-2: [in
Bryce canyon: [in
Canyon de Chelly: [in
Atlas Mountains: [in (Toubkal National Park)
Atlas mountain village: [in
Milford Fjord New Zealand: [in
Namibia-Dune 45: [in
Amazon River: [in
Alps in Trentino:×800/67/alps_italia_italy_trentino_alpi_1280x800_66754.jpg [in
Sequoia national park: [in
Scottish Highlands: [in