Olive Tree in the Ancient Mediterranean Region

Olive Tree in the Ancient Mediterranean Region
In ancient times, the olive played a major role in the Mediterranean area. There have been reports of olive trees in the eastern region that are believed to be several thousand years old. When trees become several centuries old, the tree is often rejuvenated when old shoots near the base begin growing.

Some specific areas in the ancient world were known for their fine quality olive oil. These included Andalusia, which exported oil to Egypt and Iraq where the trees were less commonly grown.

The island of Santorini, once known as Thera, is located north of Crete. Archaeologists found fossilized remains of olive trees in this island.

According to various sources, olive trees were first grown on Crete between 5000-3000 B.C. They might have been brought to the island by Phoenicians or possibly by others. According to a National Geographic article, the olive was first cultivated in Crete around 2500 B.C.

Olive oil was a major crop for ancient Crete. The island was widely known for its olives and olive oil, particularly during the Bronze Age (3000-1000 B.C.).

From Syria, the plant apparently spread in a westerly direction to Greece, North Africa, Italy, and Spain by 3000 B.C. However, some sources say the olive tree has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for over 5000 years. In Spain, both olive trees as well as fossilized pieces of wild trees date to around 3000 B.C. Greek colonists introduced the plant first to North Africa in the eighth century B.C. and then to France.

Olive Tree in the Minoan Civilization

Based on Crete, the Minoans (2800-2400 B.C.) founded the first major civilization in Europe. They built the palace at Knossos, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption around 1628 B.C. Each Minoan town had a similar palace, which served as an administrative center.

The Minoans, who were named after King Minos, grew olives and exported olive oil. Archaeologists have found a very large number of ancient storage jars in the remains of the Knossos palace. Those jars contained olive oil flavored with herbs. The oil was stored in the palaces until it was exported. The area shipped oil to Greece, North Africa, and Asia Minor.

Archaeologists also found Minoan jewelry with depictions of olive twigs and leaves.

Olive Trees in The Mycenaean Civilization

The Minoans were succeeded by the Mycenaean civilization, based on Crete and the Greek mainland from around 1600-1100 B.C. They lived in small separate kingdoms. These people established colonies in Cyprus and Rhodes.

In ancient Mycenae, various aromatic plants were added to the olive oil. These included juniper, water cress, sage, sesame, mint, and fennel.

A very ancient art work depicts images of olive trees. This miniature fresco, found at Knossos, Crete dates to about 1500 B.C. This shows people dancing around olive trees.

The Phoenicians and the Olive Tree

The ancient Phoenicians lived in the southern coastal areas of the Mediterranean where Israel, Lebanon, and Syria are now located. They grew olive trees, which they called miliarii, by around 1500 B.C. Phoenicia exported much of the olive oil it produced for the Phoenicians were known as traders.

Columella described the pressing method used by the Phoenicians. According to Pliny, these people also took the trees and knowledge about its cultivation and use to Sardinia, southern Spain, the southern Balearic Islands, and Greece, while the Greeks took it to Italy. Others credit Semitic peoples as well as the Phoenicians with introducing the tree to Africa.

Post-Mycenaean Era

Following the decline of the Mycenaean civilization, the farmers in the area began to replace field crops, such as grains, with olive groves. One of the main reasons for the change was that olives would grow on poor soils and survive drought whereas grains couldn’t. The trees planted on hillsides also slowed the process of erosion during the era.

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