The modern olive tree, olea europaea, is the only olive species cultivated for its fruit. It is native to the Mediterranean basin and is thought to have originated from a wild olive species, olea chrysophylla, that has grown there for millennia.
Nobody is sure how, where and when this wild spiny olive shrub was domesticated into the stately olive-producing trees we know today, but most experts agree that olive trees were being actively cultivated in Crete and Syria at least 6,000 years ago. From that time forward, the ebb and flow of olive cultivation and olive oil production closely mirrored the progress of Western civilization itself.
In Syria, near the city Aleppo, evidence of olive cultivation was found in the form of clay tablets dating back to 2400 BC. These were part of an extensive library of clay tablets that were perfectly preserved when baked by a fire that destroyed the king’s palace.
From Syria, it is believed that olives traveled to Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, and then west through Egypt and North Africa. Ancient Egyptians credited their goddess Isis for giving them the knowledge to grow olive trees and produce oil. Olive oil was widely used in cooking, for medicine, lighting lamps, and for religious ceremonies. The head of Tutankhamun was adorned with an olive wreath and olive oil dating back to 1325 BC was found in his tomb.
Many believe that the Minoans from the island of Crete first brought olive oil and olive tree cuttings to Greece around 1500 BC. No Mediterranean culture revered the olive tree and its oil more than the Ancient Greeks, being an integral part of their daily life. In Athens, the Greeks worshipped an ancient olive tree growing on the Acropolis which they believed was planted by the goddess Athena herself. When invading Persian armies destroyed Athens in 480 BC, it is said that this olive tree quickly grew back, thus becoming a symbol of fertility, prosperity and hope.
Olive oil was used in every aspect of Greek life. Prior to sporting events, including the Olympic Games, athletes would rub it on their bodies before competing and containers of olive oil were awarded to the winners. The birth of a child was announced by hanging an olive wreath on the front door. Olive oil was prescribed by Hippocrates as a cure for muscular pain, cholera, and ulcers. Masseurs rubbed it on their clients at public gymnasiums and baths. Homes and public places were lit with olive oil lamps. Olive oil was such an important part of spiritual, economic and everyday life in Ancient Greece that it is no wonder the Greek poet Homer referred to it as “liquid gold” in his epic work, the Odyssey.
As the Roman Empire gained importance, olive plantings and oil production became even more widespread, taking its place next to wine and wheat as the economic powerhouse of Ancient Rome. Its value was so great that Rome accepted it as payment for taxes and tribute from its
subjects. Specialized ships were built for the sole purpose of transporting olive oil over great distances in two-handled terra cotta jars called amphoras. Some of these amphoras carried up to seventy kilos of olive oil and generally were used only one time because of their porosity. It is said that there is a mountain in Rome, Mt. Testaccio, which measures forty-nine meters high and one kilometer wide made up entirely of discarded amphoras.
The importance of olive oil in these ancient Mediterranean civilizations is emphasized by its repeated use in their spiritual life and religious ceremonies. Greek and Roman mythology explained that the olive tree originated directly from their gods. There are more than 140 references to olives and olive oil in the Christian Bible and the word Christ is said to come from the Greek word chrism which means “to anoint with oil.”
Religious references to the olive were made throughout Mediterranean history. The first record of extracting oil from olives is written in the Hebrew Bible during the Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BC. The dove returned to Noah’s ark with an olive twig to signal the end of the great flood. The Ark of the Covenant was consecrated with olive oil. Religious offerings, sacrifices, anointments, consecrations, and the lighting of alters and holy places very often involved olive oil.
Following the decline of the Roman Empire, when Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, the cultivation of olives was carefully preserved within religious communities until the beginning of the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, along with the rise of political stability and cultural awareness of the Renaissance, olive cultivation once again regained its former importance in Mediterranean countries where Spain, Italy, Greece, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco and Portugal are still, by far, the largest producers of olive oil in the world.
Today, olive oil production and consumption continues to grow, with annual world production of olive oil in 2009 standing at about 2,900,000 tons (equivalent to about 730 million gallons) .