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It is hard to imagine a color most beautiful than the color green. It is the color of fertility, of mystery, of life itself (which, unless you are an undersea tubeworm, depends on photosynthesis). Green is also the color of Islam. Today is June 8th and I have a short post about a long and complicated subject. June 8th of the year 632 (common era) was the day that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina in his wife Aisha’s house. Other principle figures of major world religion died in the distant past, or ascended bodily into heaven, or underwent other mysterious supernatural transformations. Muhammad’s end was not like that. He died at a real date and in a real place and he was buried where he expired—in Aisha’s house next to a mosque. Islam subsequently became a mighty force in the world, and the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina grew into an enormous edifice swallowing up the original house and grave. Muhammad’s final resting place, however is only marked by a somewhat austere green dome (which was built by the Ottoman Turks, many centuries after the time of the Prophet).
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Somewhat shamefully, my feelings about Islam fluctuate greatly based on extraneous circumstances, however I have always liked the green dome enormously on aesthetic grounds (indeed it has become a symbol of Medina and of Islam itself). It is a lovely shape and captivating color. The dome’s touching mixture of subdued grandeur and human scale has protected it from those who have wished to replace it with a grander edifice, and from those who wish to replace it with austere nothingness. The Wahhabi version of Islam, which is ascendant in Saudi Arabia right now, inclines towards the latter view, and some Wahhabi religious scholars have called for the razing of the green dome (an act which would infuriate other Islamic sects). The kings of Saudi Arabia love gaudy finery but they detest antiquities (which speak of a more cosmopolitan and permissive Arabia which existed before their absolutism and their oil-soaked personal opulence). Throughout Saudi Arabia, elegant old buildings have vanished to be replaced with monstrous modern travesties. I wonder if the double-edged sword of Wahhabi asceticism/Saudi decadence will claim the green mosque in the same way it has hollowed out the revelations of Muhammad.
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2000_40_1---Number-forty_web

Since I am not much of a mathematician, I don’t generally write about numbers. I am afraid that if I do so, there will be a loud band and a flash and one of my disgruntled arithmetic teachers from secondary school will appear with a red pen to berate me (also numbers sort of squirm around like little spiders on the page in a deeply unsettling way). Nevertheless, today, for entirely obscure reasons, I thought I might dedicate a post to the natural number forty (40), a number which seemingly has great spiritual significance within the three Abrahamic faiths.

"No, we are not stopping for directions!"

“No, we are not stopping for directions!”

In the Old Testament forty crops up again and again. The flood which rained out the sinful people off the world (which Noah escaped via zoological ark) lasted forty days and forty nights. Not only did Moses and the Hebrew people live in the Sinai desert for forty years, but most famous Israelite kings also had forty year reigns (examples include Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Samuel 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42)). The giant Goliath challenged the Israelites two times a day for forty days before they finally found a champion to defeat him.

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

The principal figures o Christianity with 40 holy virgins

Christ was a Jew and Christianity kept up the fascination with forty. Jesus fasted for forty days and night in the desert before he was tempted by the devil. When he returned from death, he lingered for forty days in the world before ascending bodily to heaven and the great beyond. Lent lasts for forty days before Easter.

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Islam has even more references to forty (although unfortunately I am not nearly as familiar with Muslim traditions or theology). Mohammed was forty years old when he received his divine revelations. The evil false prophet Al-Masih ad-Dajjal roams (or will roam) the world for 40 day (40 year?) increments. The mourning period for devout Moslems is forty days. Perhaps most famously, righteous men will be rewarded in the afterlie with forty houri—beautiful black-eyed virgins who cater to every whim: although this tradition is riddled with textual difficulties—the number may be seventy-two instead of forty and houri may actually be a mistranslation or raisins. These are important distinctions and it would be good to sort them out, but, sadly, faith does not easily trade in ironclad certainties…

Seriously? Forty raisins?

Seriously? Forty raisins?

So what is behind this obsession with forty? Is there some divine numerological secret which underlies the three great Monotheistic religions? Do the Pentateuch, the Bible, and the Koran all hint at profound number magic which would put endless power in our hands? Well, actually, scholars suggest that forty was such a large number that it just meant “a whole bunch” to the original authors Genesis. Additionally a forty year period was reckoned to be the Subsequent religious writers seemingly used the number to lend ancient gravitas to their own texts. Of course numbers sometimes confuse me (as does monotheism), so maybe I am missing something here. I anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

The Citron Fruit (Citron Medica)

People love citrus fruit!  What could be more delightful than limes, grapefruits, tangerines, kumquats, clementines, blood oranges, and lemons?   This line of thought led me to ask where lemons come from, and I was surprised to find that lemons–and many other citrus fruits–were created by humans by hybridizing inedible or unpalatable natural species of trees.  Lemons, oranges, and limes are medieval inventions!  The original wild citrus fruits were very different from the big sweet juicy fruits you find in today’s supermarkets.  All of today’s familiar citrus fruits come from increasingly complicated hybridization (and attendant artificial selection) of citrons, pomelos, mandarins, and papedas.  It seems the first of these fruits to be widely cultivated was the citron (Citrus Medicus) which reached the Mediterranean world in the Biblical/Classical era.

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

Large Citron in a Landscape (Bartolomeo Bimbi, ca. 1690s, oil on canvas)

The citron superficially resembles a modern lemon, but whereas the lemon has juicy segments beneath the peel, citrons consist only of aromatic pulp (and possibly a tiny wisp of bland liquid).  Although it is not much a food source, the pulp and peel of citrus smells incredibly appealing–so much so that the fruit was carried across the world in ancient (or even prehistoric times).  Ancient Mediterranean writers believed that the citron had originated in India, but that is only because it traveled through India to reach them.  Genetic testing and field botany now seem to indicate that citrons (and the other wild citrus fruits) originated in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Australia.

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In ancient times citrons were prized for use in medicine, perfume, and religious ritual.  The fruits were purported to combat various pulmonary and gastronomic ills.  Citrons are mentioned in the Torah and in the major hadiths of Sunni Muslims.  In fact the fruit is used during the Jewish festival of Sukkot (although it is profane to use citrons grown from grafted branches).

"Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?" (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

“Um, how do you tell if this has been grafted?” (Image from Abir Sultan / EPA)

Since citron has been domesticated for such a long time, there are many exotic variations of the fruit which have textured peels with nubs, ribs, or bumps: there is even a variety with multiple finger-like appendages (I apologize if that sentence sounded like it came off of a machine in a truck-stop lavatory but the following illustration will demonstrate what I mean).

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Varieties of Citron Fruit

Citron remains widely used for Citrus zest (the scrapings of the outer skin used as a flavoring ingredient) and the pith is candied and made into succade.  In English the word citron is also used to designate a pretty color which is a mixture of green and orange.  I have writted about citrons to better explain the domestication of some of my favorite citrus fruits (all of which seem to have citrons as ancestors) but I still haven’t tried the actual thing.  I will head over to one of the Jewish quarters of Brooklyn as soon as autumn rolls around (and Sukkot draws near) so I can report to you.  In the mean time has anyone out there experienced the first domesticated citrus?

The color citron

The color citron

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