The History of the Olive
The Olive was a native to Asia Minor and spread from
Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the
Mediterranean basin 6,000 years ago. It is among the
oldest known cultivated trees in the world - being
grown before the written language was invented. It
was being grown on Crete by 3,000 BC and may have
been the source of the wealth of the Minoan kingdom.
The Phoenicians spread the olive to the
Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe.
Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2000
years BC. The olive culture was spread to the early
Greeks then Romans. As the Romans extended their
domain they brought the olive with them.
1400 years ago the Prophet of
Islam, Muhammad, advised his followers to apply
olive oil to their bodies, and himself used oil on
his head. The use of oil is found in many religions
and cultures. It has been used during special
ceremonies and also as a general health measure.
During baptism in the Christian church, holy oil,
which is often olive oil, may be used for
anointment. At the Chrism mass olive oil blessed by
the bishop, "chrism", is used in the ceremony. Like
the grape, the Christian missionaries brought the
olive tree with them to California for food but also
for ceremonial use. Olive oil was used to anoint the
early kings of the Greeks and Jews. The Greeks
anointed winning athletes. Olive oil has also been
used to anoint the dead in many cultures.
The olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
are reputed to be over 2000 years old, still
relative newcomers considering the long
domestication of the olive. We don't know the exact
variety of the trees on the Mount. The olive tree
has been manipulated by man for so many thousands of
years that it is unclear which varieties came from
which other varieties. Varieties in one country have
been found to be identical to differently named
varieties in another. Some research is now being
done using gene mapping techniques to figure out the
olive family tree. Shrub-like "feral" olives still
exist in the middle East which represent the
original stock from which all other olives are
In the past several hundred years the olive has
spread to North and South America, Japan, New
Zealand and Australia.
Athens is named for the Goddess Athena who brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift. Zeus had promised to give Attica to the god or goddess who made the most useful invention. Athena's gift of the olive, useful for light, heat, food, medicine and perfume was picked as a more peaceful invention than Poseidon's horse - touted as a rapid and powerful instrument of war. Athena planted the original olive tree on a rocky hill which we know today as the Acropolis. The olive tree which grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree.