What is the history of olive cultivation around the world?

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Julie Feng | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Cultivation of the olive is as old as the civilizations that encircle the Mediterranean Sea. Evidence that people had learned the secrets to making olives edible date from the isle of Crete in about 3,500 B.C. The Egyptians recorded their knowledge of the olive around 1,000 B.C., and the Phoenicians exported it to Greece, Libya, and Carthage. The Greeks carried the olive even further to Sicily, Southern Italy, and Spain. The Romans also mastered olive cultivation. Around 600 B.C., they had a merchant marine and stock market just for the oil trade. Becauses of the Romans, Sardinia and the south of France became olive-growing regions.

Olive branches, leaves, and wood gained sacred connotations in both Testaments of the Bible, like the dove's return to Noah's Ark with an olive leaf in its beak. In the Olympic Games in Greece, the victors were symbolically awarded crowns of olive branches and leaves. Oil figured in the anointing of athletes, rulers, and religious authorities and was used as lamp oil by most ancient civilizations on the Mediterranean rim. It was olive oil that burned on empty for eight days in the Hebrews' eternal flame during the miracle celebrated as Hanukkah. The olive's fragrant wood was reserved exclusively for altars to the gods, and all of these uses helped make the olive a symbol of peace.

In the 1500s, Spanish missionaries brought the both the grape and the olive to California. In South America, Italian immigrants planted the olive, and they were also responsible for plantings in Australia and southern Africa. The olive achieved new fame in California when, in 1870, an inventive bartender added the fruit to a new concoction named the Martinez for the town he lived in; the olive-ornamented cocktail is known today as the martini.

Sources: "Olives." How Products are Made. Ed. Stacey L. Blachford. Vol. 5. Gale Cengage, 2002

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