BEH “quince, Cydonia”
Beh, from Mid. Pers. bēh or bīh (byh), also written bahī or behī (with ī from īk), cannot be traced further back than Mid. Pers., and an attempt to reconstruct older forms would be futile because too many possibilities are open. The initial consonant being always b, the word cannot be equated with New Pers. beh (good, better), which is from Mid. Pers. vēh and Old Pers. vahyu. Nevertheless this has long been a cherished folk-etymology, as shown in the phrase behī wa hūa ḵayr (likewise also in Ṭabarī, I, p. 1049 l. 14) and in a punning half-verse by Jāmī, andar kaf-e to beh-ī če nīkūʾst. In contrast, the Arabic word for quince safarjal is popularly supposed to be made up of safar (journey) and jalā (exile) and therefore to be inauspicious (ZDMG 68, 1914, p. 275). In Eastern Turkish, behī (in Sart bahī) reappears as an obviously borrowed Iranian word (M. Räsänen, Versuch eines etymologischen Wörterbuches der Türksprachen, Helsinki, 1969, p. 68a).
The ideogram for Mid. Pers. byh given in the Frahang ī Pahlavīk (4.20, slightly garbled) is Aramaic səfargəlā, which corresponds to Talmudic ispargəlā and Syriac espergəlā and was taken into Arabic as safarjal (I. Löw, Aramäische Pflanzenname, Leipzig, 1881, p. 114 and passim). This word goes back to the middle of the Assyrian period, being attested by Akkadian supurgillu (in one text ša-par-gil-lu; W. von Soden, Akkadisches Handwörterbuch, Wiesbaden, 1959-, p. 1061a), which must have been a borrowing from some foreign language. A place name uruSu-pur-gi-il-lu (probably referring to local abundance of quinces) occurs in an inscription of Tigletpilesar III (745-27 b.c.). The undoubtedly late and artificial ideogram for quince is gišḫašḫur/šennur-kur-ra, i.e., “apple” or “medlar of the highland” or “the foreign land.” The word from its appearance might be Indo-European and specifically Iranian (perhaps spargo + al), but it cannot be traced further back (see Eilers, “Demawend,” Archív Orientální 22, 1954, p. 370). The Armenian word for quince serkewil sounds vaguely similar.
In addition to beh or bahī and Arabic safarjal, literary texts present another word for quince, namely ābī “juicy” (cf. New Pers. golābī replacing amrūd, the older word for pear). As early as the 5th/11th century ābī is given as a synonym for bahī, with a citation from Farroḵī, in the Loḡat-e fors of Asadī Ṭūsī (ed. ʿA. Eqbāl, Tehran, 1319 Š./1940, p. 520). The Arabic adjective bahī and noun bahā (brilliance) are derived from New Pers. āb (Ancient Indian ābhā) in the sense of polish (ZDMG 67, 1913, pp. 491f.).
Further words for quince current in the Alborz region are listed by Ḥ. Ṯābetī (Deraḵtān-e jangalī-e Īrān, Tehran, 1326 Š./1947, p. 97): šaḡālbeh, sometimes contracted to šālbeh, in Māzandarān, Rāmīān, Katūl; tūč in Lāhījān, Daylamān, Rūdsar; sanga at Rāmsar, Šahsavār; hīvā or āyvā at Āstārā. The last has been adopted by the Turks as their word for quince, ayva. None of these synonyms gives a clue to the etymology of New Pers. beh.
Wild quince trees are found in the Caucasus, and the cultivated variety may have originated there. The Greek name “Cydonian apple” indicates that Cydonia in the northwest of Crete was a halfway house in the spread of the quince to Europe. Always and still renowned are the quinces of Isfahan, which are big and juicy and can be eaten raw. In ancient times the quince was valued as an aphrodisiac and customarily given to brides to eat before their weddings. Among the Moslems in the middle ages, the quince was important in fortune-telling and dream-interpretation (for details, see P. Schwarz, ZDMG 67, 1913, pp. 491ff.; A. Fischer, ZDMG 67, pp. 681ff., and ZDMG 68, 1914, pp. 275ff.; I. Eisenberg, ZDMG 68, 1914, p. 226). Furthermore quinces and quince seeds (behdāna) were used in medicine (Schlimmer, Terminologie, p. 175).
Place names in which beh demonstrably means quince are rare. According to Razmārā, Farhang VI, p. 64, the name of Behbahān, a city in southwestern Iran near the ruins of Arrajān, means “tent,” perhaps being a collective plural of *behān from Mid. Pers. *vidān.
Behestān (Old. Pers. Bagastāna, Greek tò Bagístanon ʾóros), today Bīsotūn, the site of the famous cliff-inscription of Darius, can be interpreted as “quince orchard” but of course originally meant “abode of the god.”
According to Yāqūt (cited by Schwarz, Iran, p. 724), there was another Behestān in the district of Qazvīn. Razmārā has entries for villages named Deh-Beh (Quince Village?) near Fīrūzābād (Farhang VII), Behdān, and another Behestān in the district of Zanjān (vol. 2), Behak and another Behdān (vol. 9).
In the village names Behābād (Farhang, vols. 9 and 10), Behdeh and Behūya (vol. 7), the beh component is unlikely to mean quince and almost certainly means good (cf. the numerous toponyms of the Sasanian period with prefixed vēh). For other entries in gazetteers no evidence in support of either meaning is available.
The old name Behrūd for the Oxus (Jayḥūn, Āmū Daryā) is derived from Mid. Pers. Vēhrōt (Good River) and had nothing to do with quinces.
Bibliography : Given in the text.
The quince tree, Cydonia vulgaris Pers. (= C. cydonia Pers., Pyrus cydonia L., etc.), a native of Iran, Asia Minor, and probably also of Greece and the Crimea (see The New Encyclopaedia Britannica IX, 1985, s.v. “quince”), is, in its wild state, still widespread in middle-altitude mountainous Caspian woods from Āstārā to Katūl (in Gorgān); it has also been reported from Jahrom (in central Fārs Province). Local names are: heyvā/hīvā/āyvā (in Āstāra), šāl-bē (in Gīlān), tūč/tüč/toč (in Lāhījān, Deylamān, Rūdsar), sangah/sengeh (in Rāmsar, Šahsavār), šāl(-e) beh (in Māzandarān, Rāmīān, Katūl; lit., “jackal quince”), etc. (cf. beh, i).
As the first synonym above indicates, this fruit-tree occurs only in one genus and in one species, but several edible cultivars do exist in Iran, which have been obtained by grafting on wild quince stocks or, sometimes, on pear-trees etc., and which have been propagated in Iran wherever climate and soil quality are favorable to their cultivation. In our times, reputedly the best quinces are from Isfahan, but Bīrūnī (362-440/973-1048; Ketāb at-ṣaydana fi’l-ṭebb, ed. H. M. Said, Karachi, 1973, Arabic text, p. 222, s.v. safarjal) reports that “the esteemed ones thereof are from Rīvand in Nīšāpūr, where one finds fragrant large quinces, a single one of which often exceeds 1 1/4 man (sic).”
Although numerous officinal virtues and uses are indicated for quince both in religious (Islamic) works (e.g., Ebn Qayyem al-Jawzīya, al-Ṭebb al-nabawī, ed. ʿA. Amīn Qaḷʿajī, 2nd ed., Cairo, 1982, pp. 369-70) and in laic ones (e.g., in Arabic, Dāʾūd Anṭākī, Taḏkeratūli’l-albāb wa’l-jāmeʿ le’l-ʿajab al-ʿojāb, Cairo, 1308/1890-91, p. 165, and, in Persian, Moḥammad Moʾmen Ḥosaynī Tonokābonī, Toḥfat al-moʾmenīn, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981-82, pp. 485-86), nowadays in Iran the only part of quince used therapeutically is its mucilaginous seeds, beh-dāna, employed in infusion either by themselves or in the popular traditional compound čārtoḵm(a) (“the four seeds,” i.e., those of beh, bārhang or Plantago major L., qoddūma or Sisymbrium alliaria Scop., and sepestān or Cordia mixa L.), administered as a demulcent and expectorant in pulmonary affections. Quince seeds are also exported to some foreign countries, where its mucilage is used mainly in perfumery or for dressing cotton fabrics.
Botanically related to beh, the beh-e žāponī (Japanese quince), Chaenomeles lagenaria (formerly classified as Cydonia japonica Pers.), has been widely naturalized and cultivated in Iran during the past few decades as a favorite early-blooming ornamental shrub.
Ḥ. Ṯābetī, Jangalhā, deraḵtān o deraḵṭčahā-ye Īrān (H. Sabeti, Forests, Trees and Shrubs of Iran), Tehran, 1355 Š./1976.
K. Sāʿī, Jangal-šenāsī, Tehran, 1327 Š./1948-49.
M. Salah Ahmed, G. Honda, and W. Miki, Herb Drugs and Herbalists in the Middle East, Tokyo, 1979.
The best-known use of quince in Persian cooking is in ḵᵛorešt-e beh, in which chunks of lamb are stewed with slices or cubes of tart quince, and yellow split peas; this dish is always served with rice. Quince is reportedly also used in a variety of ḵᵛorešt-e fesenjān (Āšpazbāšī, pp. 20-21). Another way in which quince is used in Persian cuisine is in āb-gūšt-e beh, a thick soup in which cubes or slices of quince are combined with lamb shanks, various dried legumes, tomatoes, onions, and seasonings. Served with bread, this soup makes a complete meal.
Quince is also used to make toršī-e beh, pickled quince, as well as šarbat-e beh-līmū, a tartish sweet syrup in which lemon juice, sugar, water, and quince syrup are combined. Mixed with water and ice, this syrup makes a refreshing, cool drink; such drinks are normally served to visitors during hot weather.
A delicious, thick preserve made with quince is called morabbā-ye beh. The fruit’s tart flavor combines well with the sugar and water in which it is cooked; quince jam is traditionally served for breakfast but also as a side dish and snack. The early 10th/16th-century chef Bāvaṛčī (pp. 42-43) mentions a sweet bread (komāj-e beh) made with quince, flour, ghee, milk, almond paste, pistachio paste, and rose water.
Ḥājī Moḥammad-ʿAlī Bāvaṛčī Baḡdādī, Kār-nāma, in Ī. Afšār, ed., Āšpazī-e dawra-ye ṣafawī, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981.
Mīrzā ʿAlī-Akbar Khan Āšpazbāšī, Sofra-ye aṭʿema, Tehran, 1353 Š./1974, pp. 4, 20, 22.
N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking, Charlottesville, 1982, pp. 14, 146-47, 252-53, 269.
Recipes for stuffed quince are given by C. Roden, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, New York, 1982, p. 112, and by M. R. Ghanoonparvar, Persian Cuisine I, Lexington, Kentucky, 1992, p. 112; for quince soup, āb-gūšt-e beh, see idem, II, p. 134; and for baked eggs on a bed of quince, šešandāz-e beh, ibid., p. 154.
(Wilhelm Eilers, Hūšang Aʿlam, Nesta Ramazani)
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1989
This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 1, pp. 86-88