A Symbol of Peace, Victory, and Abundance: The Millennia-Old History of the Olive Tree
People In many countries around the world cannot imagine their cuisine without olive oil. Apart from gastronomy, the gift of oil from the magnificent olive tree is also used today for other purposes, like cosmetics and medicine. In ancient times, the products of the olive tree were used daily for a variety of purposes and benefited many communities.
The first evidence of olive trees is dated to the 7th millennia BC. The first known olive trees grew in the Levant, in the lands of Persia and Mesopotamia. The olive tree also appeared on tablets and pieces of wood hidden in ancient tombs. People who lived millennia ago saw the olive tree as a life-giving tree. It also provided one of the first goods used for trade. Early evidence of the appreciation and usage of olive oil is known from archaeological sites in Crete, Israel, and Syria too.
Distribution map of the Olive tree. (CC BY 4.0)
The first known commercial plantation of olive trees was created on Crete by the Minoan civilization in about 3000 BC. This idea by the mysterious tribe changed the history of Greece and the entire Mediterranean Sea area.
A wonderful Greek legend about the roots of the olive tree is supported by remarkable fossilized remnants of an olive tree dated to 37,000 BC. The pieces were discovered on the island of Santorini. Moreover, the ground of Santorini also hid remnants of an olive tree from 60,000 BC. It is unknown, however, when people first started to consume the tree’s delicious fruits or make olive oil.
19th-century illustrations of olives and an olive tree branch. (Public Domain)
Providing Ancient Wealth
Many people still believe that there is no danger of going hungry if they have bread and olive oil in their households. In Egypt, there was not enough space to have many olive trees, but some leaves were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Olive trees and their products obviously were cherished in the ancient past. They even appeared in literature.
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Howard Carter and associates opening the shrine doors in the burial chamber. (Public Domain)
Homer believed that he saw a 10,000-year-old olive tree. Chapter XVIII of The Iliad provides one of the oldest descriptions of this type of tree:
“As he spoke he struck Menelaus full on the shield, but the spear did not go through, for the shield turned its point. Menelaus then took aim, praying to father Jove as he did so; Euphorbus was drawing back, and Menelaus struck him about the roots of his throat, leaning his whole weight on the spear, so as to drive it home. The point went clean through his neck, and his armor rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground. His hair which was like that of the Graces, and his locks so deftly bound in bands of silver and gold, were all bedraggled with blood. As one who has grown a fine young olive tree in a clear space where there is abundance of water- the plant is full of promise, and though the winds beat upon it from every quarter it puts forth its white blossoms till the blasts of some fierce hurricane sweep down upon it and level it with the ground- even so, did Menelaus strip the fair youth Euphorbus of his armor after he had slain him. Or as some fierce lion upon the mountains in the pride of his strength fastens on the finest heifer in a herd as it is feeding- first he breaks her neck with his strong jaws, and then gorges on her blood and entrails; dogs and shepherds raise a hue and cry against him, but they stand aloof and will not come close to him, for they are pale with fear- even so no one had the courage to face valiant Menelaus.”
Menelaus and Hector fighting over the body of Euphorbus. (Public Domain)
Olive trees also appear in many other ancient texts. Theophrastus described them in his works titled On the Causes of Plants and The Enquiry into Plants. This specialist in botany was impressed with the olive tree. Moreover, Vitruvius mentioned it in his famous De Architecture. Pliny the Elder believed that olive trees grew with vines and fig trees in the heart of the Roman Forum as symbols of power. This important tree also appears in the Bible and Quran. The olive tree seems to be one of the major plants appreciated by ancient people. The famous philosopher Aristotle even described how to grow this notable tree in detail.
A Symbol from the Past
Olive oil was related to rituals and considered a sacred liquid in antiquity. On the other hand, the olive tree branch was a well-known symbol of glory, peace, victory, purity, and abundance. The leaves were offered to deities (such as Athena) and used as decorations during important events.
Athena and Heracles on an Attic red-figure kylix, 480–470 BC. (Public Domain)
Some olive trees have grown for millennia and they have become important symbols of the lands where they live. For example, Bshaale, Lebanon has an olive tree that is believed to be over 6,000 years old. The city of Amioun, in the same country, has an olive tree that is at least 1,500 years old. Athens has an olive tree that is believed to be the one where Plato taught his academy. That tree is about 2,400 years old.
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Olive trees on Thassos, Greece. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The olive trees in the Americas were brought by the Spanish, and with time this tree’s fame spread around the world. Nowadays, many cities have taken the olive tree as a symbol - not only those located near the Mediterranean region either. For example, the Galician city of Vigo has an olive tree in their coats of arms. People who live in the Mediterranean area still consume the precious golden liquid produced by olive trees, and millions of people around the world have followed in this custom.
Top image: An olive tree in Israel. Image credit: Doreen/Adobe Stock
Lewington, A., & Parker, E., Ancient Trees, 1999.
Lanza, F., Olive: a global history, 2011.
History of Olive Trees by Patrick Malcolm, available at:
Olive tree and olive oil, available at:
The Origins of the Olive Tree Revealed by Tia Ghose, available at:
The Iliad, by Homer, available at: