The olive is one of the plants most often cited in western literature. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus crawls beneath two shoots of olive that grow from a single stock, and in the Iliad, (XVII.53ff) is a metaphoric description of a lone olive tree in the mountains, by a spring; the Greeks observed that the olive rarely thrives at a distance from the sea, which in Greece invariably means up mountain slopes. Greek myth attributed to the primordial culture-hero Aristaeus the understanding of olive husbandry, along with cheese-making and bee-keeping. Olive was one of the woods used to fashion the most primitive Greek cult figures, called xoana, referring to their wooden material; they were reverently preserved for centuries. It was purely a matter of local pride that the Athenians claimed that the olive grew first in Athens. In an archaic Athenian foundation myth, Athena won the patronship of Attica from Poseidon with the gift of the olive. Though, according to the 4th-century BC father of botany, Theophrastus, olive trees ordinarily attained an age of about 200 years, he mentions that the very olive tree of Athena still grew on the Acropolis; it was still to be seen there in the 2nd century AD; and when Pausanias was shown it, c. 170 AD, he reported “Legend also says that when the Persians fired Athens the olive was burnt down, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.” Indeed, olive suckers sprout readily from the stump, and the great age of some existing olive trees shows that it was perfectly possible that the olive tree of the Acropolis dated to the Bronze Age. The olive was sacred to Athena and appeared on the Athenian coinage.
According to Pliny the Elder a vine, a fig and an olive tree grew in the middle of the Roman Forum, the latter was planted to provide shade (the garden plot was recreated in the 20th century). The Roman poet Horace mentions it in reference to his own diet, which he describes as very simple: “As for me, olives, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance.” Lord Monboddo comments on the olive in 1779 as one of the foods preferred by the ancients and as one of the most perfect foods.
Storing olives on Dere Street; Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century,
The leafy branches of the olive tree – the olive branch as a symbol of abundance, glory and peace – were used to crown the victors of friendly games and bloody wars. As emblems of benediction and purification, they were also ritually offered to deities and powerful figures; some were even found in Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Olive oil has long been considered sacred; it was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece. It was burnt in the sacred lamps of temples as well as being the “eternal flame” of the original Olympic Games. Victors in these games were crowned with its leaves. Today, it is still used in many religious ceremonies. Over the years, the olive has been the symbol of peace, wisdom, glory, fertility, power and purity.
The olive was one of the main elements in ancient Israelite cuisine. Olive oil was used for not only food and cooking, but also lighting, sacrificial offerings, ointment, and anointment for priestly or royal office.
The olive tree and olives are mentioned over 30 times in the Bible, in both the New and Old Testaments. It is one of the first plants mentioned in the Bible, and one of the most significant. For example, it was an olive leaf that a dove brought back to Noah to demonstrate that the flood was over. The olive is listed in the Hebrew Bible (Deut 8:8) as one of the seven species that are noteworthy products of the Land of Israel.
The Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem is mentioned several times. The Allegory of the Olive Tree in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (which reappears in greatly expanded form in the Book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon) refers to the scattering and gathering of Israel. It compares the Israelites and gentiles to tame and wild olive trees. The olive tree itself, as well as olive oil and olives, play an important role in the Bible.
The olive tree and olive oil are mentioned seven times in the Quran, and the olive is praised as a precious fruit. Most notably, it is mentioned in one of the most famous verses of the Quran, Ayat an-Nur: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The metaphor of His Light is that of a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, its oil all but giving off light even if no fire touches it. Light upon Light. Allah guides to His Light whoever He wills and Allah makes metaphors for mankind and Allah has knowledge of all things.” (Quran, 24:35). Olive tree and olive-oil health benefits have been propounded in Prophetic medicine. The Prophet Mohamed is reported to have said: “Take oil of olive and massage with it – it is a blessed tree” (Sunan al-Darimi, 69:103).
Olives are subsititutes for dates (if not available) during Ramadan fasting, and olive tree leaves are used as incense in some Muslim Mediterranean countries.
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean region and Western Asia, and spread to nearby countries from there. It is estimated the cultivation of olive trees began more than 7000 years ago. As far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete; they may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan civilization. The ancient Greeks used to smear olive oil on their bodies and hair as a matter of grooming and good health.
Theophrastus, in On the Nature of Plants, does not give as systematic and detailed an account of olive husbandry as he does of the vine, but he makes clear (in 1.16.10) that the cultivated olive must be vegetatively propagated; indeed, the pits give rise to thorny, wild-type olives, spread far and wide by birds. Theophrastus reports how the bearing olive can be grafted on the wild olive, for which the Greeks had a separate name, kotinos.
Vitruvius describes of the use of charred olive wood in tying together walls and foundations in his De Architectura:
The thickness of the wall should, in my opinion, be such that armed men meeting on top of it may pass one another without interference. In the thickness there should be set a very close succession of ties made of charred olive wood, binding the two faces of the wall together like pins, to give it lasting endurance. For that is a material which neither decay, nor the weather, nor time can harm, but even though buried in the earth or set in the water it keeps sound and useful forever. And so not only city walls but substructures in general and all walls that require a thickness like that of a city wall, will be long in falling to decay if tied in this manner.
The Spanish colonists brought the olive to the New World where its cultivation prospered in present-day Peru and Chile. The first precious seedlings from Spain were planted in Lima by Antonio de Rivera in 1560. Olive tree cultivation quickly spread along the valleys of South America’s dry Pacific coast where the climate was similar to the Mediterranean. The Spanish missionaries established the tree in the 18th century in California. It was first cultivated at Mission San Diego de Alcalá in 1769 or later around 1795. Orchards were started at other missions but in 1838 an inspection found only two olive orchard in California. Oil tree cultivation gradually became a highly successful commercial venture from the 1860s onwards. In Japan the first successful planting of olive trees happened in 1908 on Shodo Island which became the cradle of olive cultivation. It is estimated that there are about 865 million olive trees in the world today (as of 2005), and the vast majority of these are found in Mediterranean countries, although traditionally marginal areas account for no more than 25% of olive planted area and 10% of oil production.
Old olive trees
The olive tree, Olea europaea, is very hardy: drought-, disease- and fire-resistant, it can live to a great age. Its root system is robust and capable of regenerating the tree even if the above-ground structure is destroyed. The older the olive tree, the broader and more gnarled the trunk becomes. Many olive trees in the groves around the Mediterranean are said to be hundreds of years old, while an age of 2,000 years is claimed for a number of individual trees; in some cases, this has been scientifically verified.
Pliny the Elder told about a sacred Greek olive tree that was 1,600 years old. An olive tree in west Athens, named “Plato’s Olive Tree”, was said to be a remnant of the grove within which Plato’s Academy was situated, which would make it approximately 2,400 years old. The tree comprised a cavernous trunk from which a few branches were still sprouting in 1975, when a traffic accident caused a bus to fall on and uproot it. Since then, the trunk has been preserved and displayed in the nearby Agricultural University of Athens. A supposedly older tree, the “Peisistratos Tree”, is located by the banks of the Cephisus River, in the municipality of Agioi Anargyroi, and is said to be a remnant of an olive grove that was planted by Athenian tyrant Peisistratos in the 6th century BC. Numerous ancient olive trees also exist near Pelion in Greece. The age of an olive tree in Crete, the Finix Olive is claimed to be over 2,000 years old; this estimate is based on archaeological evidence around the tree.
An olive tree in Algarve, Portugal, is 2000 years old, according to radiocarbon dating.
An olive tree in Bar, Montenegro, is claimed to be over 2,000 years old.
An olive tree on the island of Brijuni (Brioni), Istria in Croatia, has been calculated to be about 1,600 years old. It still gives fruit (about 30 kg or 66 lb per year), which is made into top quality olive oil.
The town of Bshaale, Lebanon claims to have the oldest olive trees in the world (4000 BC for the oldest), but no scientific study supports these claims. Other trees in the towns of Amioun appear to be at least 1,500 years old.
There are dozens of ancient olive trees throughout Israel and Palestine whose age has earlier been estimated to be 1,600–2,000 years old; however, these estimates could not be supported by current scientific practices. Ancient trees include two giant olive trees in Arraba and five trees in Deir Hanna, both in the Galilee region, which have been determined to be over 3,000 years old, although there is no available data to support the credibility of the study that produced these age estimates and as such the 3000 years age estimate can not be considered valid. All seven trees continue to produce olives. Several trees in the Garden of Gethsemane (from the Hebrew words “gat shemanim” or olive press) in Jerusalem are claimed to date back to the purported time of Jesus.
Some Italian olive trees are believed to date back to Roman times, although identifying progenitor trees in ancient sources is difficult. A tree located in Santu Baltolu di Carana (municipality of Luras) in Sardinia, Italy, named with respect as the Ozzastru by the inhabitants of the region, is claimed to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old according to different studies. There are several other trees of about 1,000 years old within the same garden. The 15th-century trees of Olivo della Linza located in Alliste province of Lecce in Puglia were noted by Bishop Ludovico de Pennis during his pastoral visit to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nardò-Gallipoli in 1452.