For thousands of years the inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries have cultivated the olive tree and used its products in their daily needs. The edible olives and oil were used in their food, the leaves and oil had therapeutic powers or were used as incense and the oil was also used as an offering to the gods.
Different researchers have so far offered a range of opinions on the cultivation and spread of the olive tree in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The majority opinion, however, favours the route of the modern cultivation to be from the olive tree olea chrysophylla. Also the honour of having domesticated wild olive trees into ones that were cultivated belongs to the villagers of the island of Crete.
Archaeological evidence from Myrtos, near Ierapetra, and Knossos, near Heraklion, uncovered systematic cultivation of olive trees. These date to the Early and Middle Minoan Period, 2800 – 1560 BCE. Oil lamps found in the Cretan digs also point to some of the earliest use of olive oil for lighting.
Burial customs before 1500 BCE also have been found to include olives as the stones have been found with human remains in graves. A possible indication of food being thought necessary for the long journey or an offering to the gods.
Golden amulets in the shape of olive leaves and olive branches depicted in a girl’s hair in a fresco indicate the importance that artists put on the olive in everyday life.
THE OLIVE TREE AND OIL IN THE CLASSICAL PERIOD
As years went by information about the olive tree and its oil became more readily available. The olive tree became more valuable and measures were taken to protect the trees. In the 5th century BCE the Athenians introduced special measures to protect olive trees while at the same time some trees were sacred. These sacred trees were believed to be descended from the very same olive trees that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, had planted on the holy rock of the Acropolis. This was believed to be the first olive tree planted in the whole world! Zeus, the great god of the Greeks, was the protector of these holy trees.
ROMAN AND BYZANTINE PERIODS
During Roman times olive oil became much more widely known in many more areas. The Roman Empire often took measures to ensure the citizens did not suffer from a shortage of olive oil. Consequently there was a large trade in olive oil. In the Byzantine period large-scale production of olive oil was developed, especially in certain areas like the Peloponnese.
CRETAN OLIVE CULTIVATION
From the third millennium BCE Crete has been an olive oil producing area. This is due mainly to the climatic conditions being ideal for the growth of the trees. Even as other areas have developed and the island’s trade declined Crete continued to produce large quantities of olive oil. During the 4th and 5th centuries BCE olive oil was an important export for the Egyptian market. After this there was a decline in olive cultivation probably due to the increase in demand for Cretan wine. Crete was ruled by the Arabian-Saracens from Spain between 828 and 961 CE. The island was freed and became a Byzantine district, which was later subdued by the Jesuits in 1204 CE. The Jesuits sold the island to the Venetians in 1211 CE and from then until 1669 CE the island was under Venetian occupation. Then the Turks took control of Crete and stayed on the island until 1898 CE. Since that time Crete has been free. An increase in the cultivation of olive trees seems to have started in the 16th century CE. In particular the production of olive oil tripled from the beginning to the end of the 18th century CE. This increase in production has continued since then. With the production of soap this has also increased the olive oil production continuing through to the present day.