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THE HISTORY OF THE OLIVE TREE

 

Symbol of peace, wisdom, fertility, prosperity, luck, victory. No fruit bearing tree in our land has been praised, painted, sung, as much as the olive tree. This tree, that loves the sea and the Mediterranean sun, grows even on arid and rocky soils and survives under drought conditions and strong winds. It has accompanied the inhabitants of this land in times of both prosperity, and deprivation and has left its imprint in every aspect of the cultural tradition of the Mediterranean people.

In the Greek tradition, when a child is born, an olive tree is planted. The olive tree and the child will grow up together and when the child will become 6 years old, the olive tree will give its first fruit. It will grow with the family, survive through decades, and will still be there for all the coming generations to always remind us the continuity and the evolution of life.

The expected life of an olive tree is 300 to 600 years, yet there are olive trees more than 1,000 years old. The history of the olive tree began around 7.000 years ago in the Mediterranean region and more precisely in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is speculated that it first appeared in Syria, as indicated by various depictions on vessels and by the multitude of myths of the people around the Mediterranean. It was Greece however, through Phoenician merchants, who brought it in the European Mediterranean area- Italy, France, Spain, Portugal- from where it spread to America and Australia.

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Wild olives in Greece were being collected since the Neolithic period already, but the place where the domestic cultivation of the olive tree began, most probably was Crete. Archaeological data and historical findings confirm that during the Minoan period (3000-1000 BC) olive cultivation and olive oil trading was widespread in Crete, which also accounts partly for the economic boom that occurred on the island during this period. In the Palace of Knossos pottery (jars) and cisterns of stone for olive oil storage have been found, while at Phaistos one can see findings of an oil mill of that time.

The ancient Greeks brought olive cultivation to their colonies: Sicily, southern France, the west coast of Spain and the Black Sea coast. They loved and deified the olive tree and attributed a religious and sacrosanct character to its origin, condemning to death anyone who destroyed an olive tree. Messengers would come to conclude peace carrying an olive branch, while the only award for the winners at the Olympic Games was a wreath from an olive branch. Many Greek philosophers studied the medicinal properties of this sacred tree. Dioscorides, Diocles, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Hippocrates; the Hippocratic code features more than 60 olive treatments.

Realizing the value of the olive oil, the Romans contributed to the spread of the olive tree throughout the territories of their empire. Trade grew even more and Roman ships were carrying large quantities of oil in areas where olive trees were not cultivated, or in areas where there was a lack of olive oil due to low production. It was the period when new olive extraction techniques were developed and great progress was made in the dissemination of the olive-related knowledge.

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In Byzantine times the traditional olive cultivation centers were maintained, while the olive groves of the Christian monasteries accounted for a large part of the total production. Olive oil distribution followed the ancient schemes: it was stored in special jars, loaded onto vessels and led to major urban centers or wherever there was an increase of demand. The need for light (illumination of temples, palaces and houses), alongside other uses, created a rising demand, meaning the Empire was continuously deficient in olive oil. It is not surprising therefore that quite often the authorities would prohibit exports, even though the Byzantine Empire was the largest exporter of olive oil worldwide.

In the years of the Ottoman Empire a further rise of olive oil trade occurred and maritime transportation was developed, facilitating the sea routes from the Aegean Sea to Western Europe. In the era of the Ottoman occupation, not only did oil trade reinforce local economies, but also boosted soap production, which in turn created dynamic manufacturing units. In oil producing regions such as Crete, consulates of European countries were gradually settled. In the 18 ° century oil exports supply the European markets not only with an edible product, but also with the raw material for the production of soap. This marks the establishment of ABEA by the French chemist July Deis in the late nineteenth century in Nea Hora, with a goal of exporting pomace in Marseille, the most powerful industrial center soap of that era.