History of the olive tree


Olive tree is a blessed tree

The olive is one of the oldest cultivated trees in the world. Since antiquity it has symbolised peace and power. It has been used to crown sports winners and Olympic Champions and since antiquity has inspired poets and writers. Its juice, olive oil, is a blessed product which has for thousands of years nourished, healed, protected, stimulated, illuminated.

The Mediterranean: Home of the olive tree

Archaeological finds are witness to the fact that the olive tree grew wild in the Middle East and Mediterranean coastal region and its fruits have been used since prehistoric times.

The olive tree, along with wine, was one of the first plants to be cultivated and the practice spread from Central Asia and Mesopotamia to Egypt and Phoenicia and then on Greece. It made its appearance in the Mediterranean region thousands of years ago.  Whether the origin of the plant is actually Eastern Mediterranean or it comes from Central Asia is not clear. Undeniably, the olive tree is one of the oldest and most interesting cultivated plants in the Mediterranean region.

The olive has been deeply connected with Mediterranean history for millennia and has left its mark on the landscape and culture of the Mediterranean. The olive tree is a typical Mediterranean tree and is perfectly adapted to grow, to bear fruit and to give its ‘green liquid gold’ in the mild climate of the Mediterranean region.

It is estimated that the cultivation of the olive commenced more than 7000 years ago. It has been proved that the olive tree has been cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean region (Crete) at least for 5000 years.  The olive tree played a very important role in the island’s economy and may have been (together with shipping), one of the main sources of the wealth of the Minoan civilization (2000 to 1500 BC). With the decline of Minoan civilization and the rise of the Mycenaean civilization, cultivation passed over to the mainland of Greece and from there spread firstly to the Greek colonies in the Mediterranean coastal region. After the Roman conquest of the Greek empire, olive tree cultivation spread to the southern and western Mediterranean coastal regions.

Olive tree: the tree of life

This blessed tree flourishes in dry, stony Mediterranean areas with mild short winters and long hot summers, even under unfavourable conditions of drought, high winds and extreme temperatures.

The olive tree is known as the “tree of life” for its incredible endurance. Because olive trees can survive droughts and strong winds, and because of their resistance to diseases and to unfavourable conditions, they can reach an age of over a thousand years. Some olive trees in Greece, Italy, Palestine and in other Mediterranean countries are claimed to be from between 1000 to 3000 thousand years old. Olive trees are more resistant to diseases and insects than any other fruit tree, and therefore are sprayed less than any other crop.

Olive: the soul of Greek culture

The olive tree, its fruits and its juice are deeply and closely connected with Greece and the Greek soul and have had effects on cultural, social and economic life throughout its history.  It was a principal commodity of the Greek economy and an essential part of nutrition as far back as 1500 BC. Along with being an essential part of the Hellenic diet, olive oil is a blessed product for the Greeks and has been used for medicine, cosmetics, lighting, heating and religious ceremonies. The olive, in particular in Greece, was and is a symbol of hope, peace and victory. For the Greeks the olive tree was and to some extent still is a holy tree.

Olive tree: the best gift of the gods


During thousands of years of Greek history many myths and legends have grown up around the olive tree. Greek mythology records that Athena, Goddess of wisdom, art and peace, brought the first olive tree, gave it as a gift to the city of Athens and taught people to cultivate it and to use its fruits and juice.

According to the myth, the Greek gods Athena and Poseidon both competed for the favour of the largest and most influential city of the time. But Zeus and the other gods of Olympus devised a contest for them, specifying that the one that could provide the best and most useful gift to the people of the city would be chosen as its patron.

Poseidon, the mighty god of the seas, struck the ground with his trident, and gave to the dry region a fountain. But from him just flowed salt water. But Athena, the goddess of wisdom, thrust her spear into the ground of the rock of Acropolis and an olive tree grew up. The gods, led by Zeus, decided that the olive tree, as a symbol of peace and agriculture, was a much better and useful gift than Poseidon’s salt water fountain.   So Athena won the duel and became the patron of the city of the olive tree. The city where the olive tree appeared and grew was named Athens in her honour. Athena’s new tree, the olive tree, was a new immortal tree whose fruits and juice could be used as food or medicine or for beauty, for light, and its wood gave warmth. Since then, the olive trees were considered as ‘holy’ and whoever cut down even one of these trees was banished to exile or even condemned to death. Local legend tells us that Athena’s original olive tree still grows after many centuries on the ancient holy site.

The olive tree: a protected tree

The Greeks began to systematically cultivate  the olive tree in the 8th century BC .  Between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC, physicians and historians undertook its botanical classification and referred to the healing properties of olive oil and its history.  It was Aristotle who elevated olive cultivation to a science.  It is known that the Athenians introduced specific measures to protect the olive tree. The first Olive Protection Law was introduced in the 5th century BC by Solon, the greatest lawmaker in Athens, prohibiting the cutting down of more than two trees a year in each olive grove.

Symbol of Power and peace

For the ancient Greeks, the olive tree symbolised, among other things, power and peace: power, because of its longevity and its ability to flourish in stony and dry areas; peace, possibly because of its solitary tranquillity.  For this reason, wars between states were suspended and the winners of the ancient Olympic Games, who represented the same ideals of strength and peace, were crowned with a wreath, the ‘kotinos’, made from wild olive twigs.

At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, winning athletes were also awarded olive wreaths made with olive tree twigs, mirrors of the sacred prizes awarded to champions at the ancient Olympic Games.

Additionally, to show their peaceful intentions, peace ambassadors offer an olive branch to their interlocutors.

Still today the olive branch symbolises peace and unity, one of the well-known examples being the symbol of the United Nations.

Olive oil for lighting, workshops and religious ceremonies

Throughout antiquity, Greeks and Romans continued to use olive oil as lighting fuel. The sacred lamp that was used in classical Greek culture for darkroom illumination of the night was supplied by the oil fuel .

From the Antiquity to modern religions, olive oil has been used in religious ceremonies and many citations can be found in the Bible and the Quran.

The olive tree is mentioned over 30 times in the Bible, in both the New and Old Testaments. It was an olive branch that a dove brought back that told Noah that the Flood was over.

Christians continued the ancient custom of using oil in different religious ceremonies. Olive oil has put its seal on Greek traditions with which it is deeply connected.  Being the sacred symbol of the cycle of life, it is used at every important moment and at birth, christening, marriage and others ceremonies.

Olive oil for body care and hygiene

In Antiquity olive oil was a key product used for body care and hygiene. According to mythology, the Goddesses of Olympus used a kind of “paste” prepared with olive oil. In ancient Greece women used aromatic olive oils for beauty, they applied olive oil to their skin and hair after bathing in order to protect them and to maintain a pleasant fragrance and men used pure olive oil for cleaning and hygiene. It is known that early Olympic athletes coated their bodies with olive oil to protect their skin. Athletes, for health reasons, also used to coat their bodies with olive oil before daily exercise in gyms, in training and athletic competitions. During Panathenea, major festivals in the honour of the Goddess Athena, olive oil itself was taken as the prize for the winner of the competition.

Olive in the modern Greece

Olive oil continues nowadays to be the main and the most important component of the Greek diet. The olive tree is still a blessed tree for the Greeks and it is still related to their everyday life, their culture and their soul. There are about 132 million olive trees in Greece (about 12 olive trees per capita),shaping the Greek landscape. Greece produces approximately 350,000 tons of olive oil annually, of which about 85 percent is extra-virgin. This makes Greece the world’s largest producer of extra virgin olive oil, topping Italy (where 40-45 percent of olive oil produced is extra virgin) or Spain (where 25-30 percent of olive oil produced is extra virgin). The production of olive oil in Greece amounts to between 16% and 20% of world’s production. This makes Greece the 3rd largest producer of olive oil in the world, after Spain and Italy. It is the world’s top producer of black olives and has more varieties of olives than any other country.  Greece consumes more than 16 litres per year and per capita, the highest olive oil consumption per capita worldwide. Spain, Italy, Tunisia, and Portugal also top the per-capita consumption list.

Olive oil and the European Union

Olive oil production is concentrated in the Mediterranean basin countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.

About 800 million olive trees are cultivated worldwide, 95% of which are in the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean region provides 98% of the world’s olive oil supply.

The European Union is the leading world producer, accounting for 80 % of world production. The European Union is not only the largest oil producer, but also the largest consumer. It accounts for 71% of world consumption.

Olive production is a significant land use in the southern Member States of the EU, with important environmental, social and economic considerations. The main areas used for olive oil production are in Spain, followed by Italy, Greece and Portugal.

Due to rising demand from Northern Europe and other countries, the cultivation of olive trees has increased significantly.  Olive trees are now also grown, in limited areas, in Japan, the Himalayas, in the southern United States, in some regions in Latin America and in Australia. Syria, Turkey and Tunisia are the largest oil and olive producers outside the European Union. Olive cultivation is the livelihood of many people.