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Olive tree

 Where the Mediterranean ends there are not more olives tree.

Origin, History and Legend

Many ancient authors

sentence shows the enormous importance of the olive tree and its oil for the Mediterranean basin. The origin of the olive tree is lost in time. Its expansion coincides with the civilizations that developed in the Mediterranean from east to west. The most recent analysis of ancient botany confirms that wild olive trees existed around the Mediterranean. Various fossilized olive tree leaves and fragments of oleaster pits that have been found in Eneolithic and Bronze Age excavations allow us to state that there were olive trees there in the XII millennium B.C. But probably their ancestors had appeared in the Villefranche period according to some authors, or in the Tertiary Age according to others. Since then, they spontaneously grew and developed around the margins of the Mare Nostrum (Mediterranean).

According to most authors, the cultivated olive tree originated in Asia Minor, between present Syria and Iran. Although other theories maintain that its cultivation may have started in the Phoenician colonies of the present territories of Palestine and Lebanon, much nearer to the Mediterranean, at the beginning of the Neolithic period, i.e. around the year 6000 B.C. From there, the olive tree expanded towards the West. First, to the coasts of Egypt and the island of Crete; then, to Lybia, Greece and Sicily, from where it extended throughout the Italic peninsula.

While Greeks and afterwards Romans propagated its cultivation in the Northern Mediterranean coasts, Phoenicians, who founded Carthage in present Tunisia, developed it in the South, from Libya and Tunisia to Algeria, Morocco and Spain.

Expansion of the Olive Tree

Although the origin of the cultivated olive tree dates back 6000 years B.C., its first vestiges are later. Tablets found in Ebla, in the Northern region of Syria, reveal a high production of olive oil. Something similar occurs in Crete around 2000 B.C. In this island, at the palace of Knossos, huge amphoras were found that were used for oil transport and storage.

In Egypt, the oldest and more trustworthy reference to this tree is the import activity that took place during the Fourth Dynasty, 2600 years B.C., and the existence of a sacred olive tree in the city of Heliopolis, in the Lower Egypt, during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty. In the inventory of plants that Irena cultivated in her orchard in Thebes, while Hatshepsut was queen, 1500 years B.C., the olive tree is mentioned, and an olive tree branch appears at the sarcophagus of some Pharaohs, like Tutankhamun.

The olive tree was brought from Asia Minor to Greece by Cecropia, who according to the tradition founded Athens in the year 1582 B.C. The ancient inhabitants of Greece, who were familiar with the wild olive tree, imported cultivated ones and techniques for oil production from the Eastern Mediterranean.

Its cultivation in Italy started in the seventh century B.C. during the realm of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, called "the Old", the fifth legendary king of Rome, and reached its splendor in the second and third centuries.

The olive tree continued its expansion towards the Gallia (France), where it was brought by the founders of Marseille, called Phocenses, around 600 years B. C

After the Punic Wars, the Romans reached Africa, and they found out that the Berbers were already cultivating the olive tree and that in the Carthaginian territories a true olive culture existed since the ninth century B.C. In the north of Africa it was introduced by the Phoenicians, who began the colonization of Western Mediterranean. The Aegean Sea, Cyprus, Crete, Sardinia and the North of Africa were further milestones in this colonizing process. In Spain at the Dawn of History, by R. J. Harrison, it is stated that towards 3000 B.C. olives were harvested and eaten in Spain. Its cultivation, nevertheless, was introduced there by the Phoenicians, probably from their bases in Northen Tunisia in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. It was from the seventh and sixth centuries on that the cultivation of the olive tree in Spain took hold specially in the Baetica (present Andalucía) under the Carthaginian domination, and in Eastern and Northeastern Spain under the influence of the Greek colonizers.

The first "golden age" of the Andalucian olive grove coincides with the Roman period, from third century B. C. until the second century A. D. It was then that the oil exports from the Baetica to Rome peaked. Permanent witness is Mount Testaccio, formed with remnants of oil amphora that carried the Spanish oil. Lucius Moderatus Columela, a Hispano-Roman agronomer born in Cádiz in the year 3 B.C., profusely and knowingly describes in his treatises De re rustica (On rustic affairs) and De arboribus (About trees) olive tree care and oil production; he even mentions the ten main varieties that were cultivated in Roman Spain, and the various flavors of its oils.

In the Arabian Andalucía, the olive tree was cultivated with extreme love, so that the Andalucian land was transformed into a compact forest of well groomed olive trees.

The expansion of the olive tree in the New World was undertaken by the Spanish Conquistadors from the beginning of the Sixteenth Century. Some 1520 documents in the "Casa de Contratación" (now at the Archive of thee Indies, in Seville) mention transfers of olive trees plants to the Americas. At the beginning it was introduced in the Antilles, and afterwards in the American continent. Mexico had olives groves in regular production towards the end of the Sixteenth Century. From here, they expanded to Peru and then to Chile. At about the same time the plant was introduced in Argentina where it adapted perfectly well in the provinces of La Rioja and Catamarca. In the Arauco region, in the North of Argentina, one can still see the so-called "Olivo de Arauco" or Old Arauco Olive Tree, that was planted when Charles III was king of Spain (1759-1788).

The olive tree reached the United States, concretely California, in the Eighteenth Century, when it was introduced by Fray Junípero Serra, founder of the San Diego de Alcalá mission. Years later olive trees were planted by Franciscan fathers in the missions they established along the 600 miles of the Californian cost. Presently, the olive tree variety called "mission" is related to those foundations


Of all the ancient people only Assyrians and Babylonians did not know the olive tree. It, however, occupies a prominent place in ancient books. The Bible provides us with one of the oldest quotations regarding its legend. The book of Genesis narrates that after the "universal flood", around the fourth millennium B. C., "Noah awaited seven days, after which he freed a dove, that returned with an olive tree branch in its beak as sign that the deluge had ended".

In ancient Greece, a quarrel erupted between Pallas Athena, beloved daughter of Zeus, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, for the sovereignty of the city of Athens and the right to confer the name to the city that Cecrops would found. Both intended to give to the Attica the best possible present. Poseidon offered a speedy horse capable of carrying man and helping in his works. Pallas Athena had an olive tree appear, capable of providing man with light and food, curing his illnesses and alleviating his evils. After deliberating, the council of gods decided to confer victory to Pallas Athena, who had promised the most valuable present.

The Iliad and the Odyssey also contain numerous references to the olive tree, the tree of Athena. Homer in the Iliad compares the fall of Euforbos, defeated by Melenaus in the battlefield, to the fall of the olive tree that …"grows handsome, agitated by all kinds of winds, covered with white flowers, that suddenly, when a hurricane comes, is from the earth uprooted and thrown to the ground".

It was with oil that Auricle anointed the body of Ulysses, the hero. Of olive tree wood was the log that killed Polyphemus.

Such was the veneration for this tree that an old Jewish law forbids the destruction of any productive olive tree, even if owned by an enemy. In the Book of Judges, of the Ancient Testament, a legend is told that confirms this tree as supreme among all the tree species and speaks of the special wisdom held by the users of its fruit.

Olive trees were exceptional witnesses to the sufferings of Jesus Christ in the Orchard of Gethsemani, the mount of olives. The Koran mentions it reverently more than two hundred times. Finally, Picasso, the painter from Málaga, of universal fame, selected as symbol of peace a dove carrying a branch of olive tree in its beak.





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