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History & Culture

Olive  trees  have  always  been  related  to  the  Mediterranean  area. According  to  archaeological  and  historical  research  studies, the olive  tree  is  part  of  the  indigenous  flora  of  Mediterranean  countries  and  researchers  confirm  its  presence  for, at  least, the  latest  5000  years (Braudel:1985, Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).

As  expected, the  first  olive  trees  were  not  intentionally  planted. Wild  olive  tree  was  the  first  of  the  kind  and  can  still  be  located  in  some  places  of  the  Mediterranean, including  Crete (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003)1 .

 However,  evidence shows that, quite  soon, the  need  appeared  for the  population  to  control  the  cultivation  of  olive  trees; there is  a  clear  evidence  of  the  fact  that  olives  and  olive  oil – the  products  which  come  from  olive  trees – had  already  become  part  of  people’s  diet.

Crete  is  one  of  the  first  potential  regions  where locals  found  ways  to  domesticate  the  wild  olive  tree  during  the  prehistoric  period (Faure:1973). 

In  the  region of  Kolymvari and at the  village “Ano  Vouves”, stands  one of  the  oldest domesticated  olive  trees, the “Monumental Οlive Τree of Vouves”.  It is  considered one of  the  oldest olive  trees  in  the  world with an aproximate age of at least 2500 years.

Archaeological  findings  confirm  the  fact  that  the  great  first  Cretan  civilization, the  Minoans, not  only  was  based  on  agricultural  economy, but  also  had  broad  commercial  relations  in  the  East  Mediterranean based  on  its  agricultural  products (Treuil-Darcque-Poursat-Touchais:1989). One  of  the  most  important  products traded was  olive  oil. Generally, the  cultivation  and  processing  of  olive  trees  is  shown  to  be  a  main  occupation  during  the  Minoan  period  in  Crete, proof  provided  by  smashed  olive  seeds, ancient  kinds  of  lamps  using  olive  oil, vast ceramic jars  where  olive  oil  was  stored  etc. (Sakellarakis:1988).

However, olives  and  olive  oil  was  not  just  a  means  of  survival  or  economical  transactions. They  were  used, as  well, in  other  cultural  activities, apart  from  nutrition, pointing  out  its  great  importance  for  Cretan  culture  and  way  of  living. One  of  them  was  in the worship2 of  their gods  and  goddesses. Another  was  the  conscientiousness  of  the  dead. Often, olive  seeds  have been found next  to the  dead  in  Minoan  graves, in  order  to  be  used  in  life  after  death. Moreover, combining  the  worshiping  character  of  the  olive  tree  with  their  artistic  abilities, Minoans  have  passed  on  to  us  great  mural  paintings  portraying  the  holy  tree  either  by  itself  or  next  to  worshiping  symbols (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).

Moving  on  to  the  Mycenaean  Period, olive  oil  is  proved  to  be  part  of  many  activities  not  only  for  the  local  population, but  also  for  the  broader  population  of  southern  Greece. The  decoded  writing  of  Mycenaeans  and  the  new  scientific  methods  of  analyzing  remainders  in  amhporas  (storage vessels) confirms  the widespread use  of  olive  oil, which  seemed  obvious  from  earlier  archaeological  excavations: Cretans  had  developed  methods  of  storing  olive  oil  and, in  addition, they  used  it  broadly  when  cooking  vegetables, legumes  or  meat (Tzedakis-Martlew:1999). Moreover, olive  oil  is  mentioned  as  a  product  for  cosmetics  or  as  a  way  of  honoring  gods (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003).

There  is  no  doubt  that, during  the  centuries, olive  tree  products  kept  playing  their  role  in  the  life  and  economy  of  Mediterranean, as  well  as  Greek  and  Cretan  population. The  growing  transactions  of  agricultural  products  among  the  countries  surounding the Mediteranean sea  became  even  more  intense  during  the  great  empires’  periods. The  Roman  Empire  promoted  monetary  trade  and  agricultural  products  became  a  means  of  wealth  accumulation (Alfoldy:1984). It  was  then  that  olive  oil  became  a  product  of  wider  exportation  in  places  out  of  the  Mediterranean  sea. Moreover, the  growing  urban  population  of  those  years  demanded  more  imports, in  order  to  prevent  a  potential  lack  of  olive  oil  for  the  citizens  of  towns  or  of  Rome  itself. The  same  goes  for  the  following  Byzantine  Empire. In  its  capital, Constantinople, olive  oil  was  transferred  in  huge  amphoras  by  ships. The  broad  use  of  olive  oil  in  nutrition, illumination  or  even  cosmetics  was  the  reason  of  oil  shortage  from  time  to  time, which  resulted  in  occasional  prohibition  of  olive  oil  exports (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003). 


Moreover, during  the Byzantine  Period, Christian  religion had  already  become widespread. It  was  then that  olive  oil started  to  be used  in  Christian masses  and  was, once more, a  product  related to  god  worship. Baptism, confirmation  and extreme  unction  are three  of  the most  typical  Christian sacraments, in  which  olive oil  has  a domain  role.  

Crete  remained  an important olive  oil  production  region  through  those  centuries. However, during  the  latest  Venetian  Period (17th century), exports  became  more  systematic, due  to  the  organization  of  trading  methods adopted by  the  Venetian  state. Olive  oil  and  wine  were  the  leading  exported products  of  the  island (Detorakis:1990). During  the  19th  century, in  addition  to  the  existing  uses  of  olive  tree  products, came  the  development  of  soap  industry. In  fact, one  could  say  that  the  transition  to  the  dominance  of  olive  oil  production  in  Crete  has  its  foundation  on  the  19th  century. The  exclusive  use  of  olive  oil  in  Crete  combined  with  a  growing  economy  based  on  products  and  exports  of  olive  oil, resulted  in  a  vast increase  of  olive  groves  on  the  island (Psilakis-Kastanas:2003, Detorakis:1990). Cretans  have been called  to  regularize  what  they  did  for  the  latest  five  millenniums: to  grow  olive  trees  and  produce  olive  oil.


• Alfoldy G., Romische Sozialgeschichte, Wiesbaden, 1984.
• Braudel F., Coarelli F., Aymard M., La Mediterranee, l’ espace et l’ histoire, Flammarion, 1985.
• Detorakis T., Istoria tis Kritis, 1990.
• Faure P., La vie quotidienne en Crete au temps de Minos, Hachette, 1973.
• Platon N., Zakros, To neon minoikon anaktoron, En Athinais Arxaiologiki Etaireia, 1974.
• Psilakis N.& M., Kastanas I., O politismos tis elias-To elaiolado, Karmanor, 2003.
• Sakellarakis G.& E., “Neolithiki kai Minoiki Kriti” in Panagiotakis N. M., Kriti, Istoria kai Politismos, v. A, 1988.
• Treuil R., Darcque P., Poursat J.-Cl., Touchais G., Les civilizations egeennes du Neolithique et de l’ Age du Bronze, Presses Universitaires de France, 1989.
• Tzedakis G., Martlew H., Minoiton kai Mikinaion Gefsis, 1999.

1 Terra Creta had the chance to offer to the participants of Terra Creta’s International Conference in October 2012, a token of gratitude with a wooden box, which was decorated by a gilded leaf of wild olive tree from the region of Kolymvari.

2 A quite interesting archaeological finding and typical example as regards the connection of olive tree products to religion is the following: during the 1970s in eastern Crete the archaeologist N. Platon with his team excavated a ceramic jar, which contained olives, from the bottom of a well. Taking in consideration the surrounding data, the team concluded that the olives were an offering to a goddess of Earth, who was believed to be responsible for a great earthquake, which later destroyed the palace in the specific area. Olives were offered in the bottom of the well, as a way to be closer to the center of earth, where earthquakes came from (Platon:1974).

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