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History of Figs

Kanika Goswami
Figs, one of the oldest known fruits, are endowed with some of the best nutrients known to man. It is no wonder then that the Bible talks of it, with as much affection as we do. Starting with the original leaf covering, that still motivates fashion designers, to ape leaves, the fruit of the same tree adds value to our life in many ways.
There have been traces of figs found in excavations of Neolithic sites dated 5000 BC, almost seven thousand years ago. The ancient Greek civilizations treasured the fruit, and Pliny the Elder is supposed to have known almost 29 varieties of it. It finds mention in an ancient Babylonian hymn book, dated about 4000 years ago.
Legend maintains that it was the Autumn Fruit, as revealed by the Greek Goddess Demeter, and the tree is still held sacred in most parts of the Mediterranean. The Romans regarded figs as being given by Bacchus, the God of wine; so, he is almost always depicted as wearing a crown of their leaves.
A native of West Asia, the little bulbous fig was distributed across the Mediterranean area by migrating people. With time, its cultivation is believed to have spread throughout, what is now Western and Central Europe, stretching between Afghanistan in Asia, to Germany, and even Canary islands.
It must have been quite a popular choice of fruit to get that kind of dispersal. In the mid-fifteenth century, it arrived in England, and by then, it was already growing in gardens of wealthy households of China. The European variety had also reached India, Japan, South Africa, and even Australia.
In the New World, they came in 1560, but reached the United States only in 1699, when it was first planted in Virginia, sailing from Europe. The fruit plantations soon spread to almost all the states of the country. In Bahamas and the Bermudas, it was already known from earlier times.
Figs were, perhaps, one of the first fruits to be dried and stored by man. It is not a mere co-incidence that their leaves happened to be around, when Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness; if the Garden of Eden was anywhere close to where Christ was born, it could have been the most popular tree there. However, it is still debatable, whether this fruit was actually a forbidden one, or was it the apple.
A very interesting anecdote here is the origin of the word "sycophant", a flatterer of the wealthy and influential. In Greek, the phrase is "to show the fig". In ancient Greece, figs were valuable and sacred, and so, their export was banned. At that time, sycophants were people who would reveal the fruits being exported and accuse the robbers, thus getting into the good books of the wealthy noblemen.
Mithridates, the Greek king of Pontus had declared the fruit as a cure for all ailments, and made it mandatory for all his citizens to eat it daily. To give the fruits their place of honor, they were presented to the winners at the Greek Olympics, too.
The ancient Greeks and Romans attached a lot of importance to the fruit is amply proven, by the commonly held idea that figs were a storehouse of nutrition, and could be used to cure almost all ailments known to them.
So much so that they were the favorite fruit of Cleopatra, and the aspen that bit her was brought to her in a basket of this fruit, which she really relished.
The honors heaped on this little fruit are not meaningless. It is, indeed, highly nutritious, and contains almost all the nutrients our body needs to grow. The fruit contains iron, potassium, beta-carotene (with anti-aging properties), benzaldehyde (anti-cancer compound), and flavonoids.
It also adds on a digestive enzyme called ficin. With these nutrients, it is useful in the prevention of constipation (with their high levels of dietary fiber), anemia, and also help protect against cancer.
A little known fact is that it contains a chemical, Psoralens, which has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years to cure skin pigmentation diseases.
The nutrition found in figs is especially good for our busy lifestyles today. A quarter-cup serving provides almost one-fifth of our daily requirement of fiber, which helps improve digestion.
It also adds on 1.2 mg (6%) iron, 53 mg (6%) calcium, and 244 mg (7% of the daily value) for potassium that our body needs; all this with no fat, sodium, or cholesterol. It is also one of the best alternatives to sugar; in fact, its puree can also be used as a sweetener in many recipes.