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THE OLIVE TREE IN PALESTINE: characteristics and stories
submitted by Toine Van Teeffelen

The Arab Research Institute: "The olive is an attractive evergreen tree with gray-green foliage. It was under cultivation long before the time of earliest recorded history, originating in the eastern Mediterranean area."

The Jerusalem Times, an English Palestinian newspaper in East-Jerusalem, says about the history of olive tree cultivation: "Palestine used to be the Islamic kingdom richest in olives and most productive in olive oil. Its oil tax used to be about 300 thousand tons of oil, and 200 thousand dinars for the safe of the Abbusid Caliph, Al-Maa'moun."

The Arab Research Institute: "Olive trees are well acclimatized to low rainfall, drought, and hot summers prevailing in the region, making them the most important cultivated trees. Olive trees live for many hundred of years, if the tops die a new tree often develops from the roots."

"Olives are the major crop in the rainfed areas covering about 45% of the total plant production in the West Bank, and up to 25% of the gross agricultural income.... As a whole, olive cultivation, picking, pressing and marketing involves more than 100.000 people and is an important economic base in the West Bank."

"Palestinians also believe that planting permanent trees such as olives protects lands from Israeli government confiscation."

"Olive trees are very well suited to the climate and soil of Palestine. Climactic requirements for commercial olive production include considerable winter chilling; absence of hot, dry winds or prolonged, wet, cool conditions during bloom; and the presence of sufficient heat during the summer for fruit maturation."

The British botanist Hepper: "Although the fruit is perfectly formed by the end of July it is still green, and the oil content of olives increases progressively until the skin turns black when it is really ripe."

"At maturity the pulp may contain at least 75% oil."

The Bethlehemite Geries El-Ali describes customs with regard to the olive tree in a book devoted to the history and folklore of Bethlehem: "The olive tree must be trimmed at least once a year. Some of the branches from its centre are cut off so they do not intertwine and thus hinder the gatherer. Also the branches which hang to the ground are cut short."

Hepper: "Many old trees actually develop holes in the side of the trunks which themselves are hollow: the holes result from old side branches rotting away. The numerous branches form a dense, shady tree which is favoured by animals in the heat of the day."

Olive: picking and preparation

Hepper: "Harvesting of oil olives takes place in the autumn: during October for green table olives and December for black ones."

El Ali: "The Municipality used to send out a crier to roam the city streets to announce: 'Oh, people of the town, by the order of the Municipality, olive gathering will be on Monday the tenth of October, will those present inform those absent!' Wooden ladders, baskets, cloths and the like would be prepared."

"The owners of the olive tree groves then make an agreement with 'the gatherers,' the men who gather the olives letting them fall on the ground, and the 'pickers,' the women who pick up the grains from under the trees after the men's work is over."

"Olives are gathered into canvas bags and carried on mule or camel back to the press (badd) to extract the oil. In the past oil was extracted through primitive presses, one of which still remains in An-Najajrah quarter. Formerly the press was run by a big stone wheel drawn by a horse. Oil flowed by manual presses."

The Jerusalem Times: "An old, traditional and bad method of picking is to hit the crop with a stick and drop the tree on the ground. This naturally results in weaker olives in the following year."

Crowfoot and Baldensperger: "When gathered the olives are packed into baskets or goatskin bags ... and are carried to the mill. There the olives are piled in a great stone basin and crushed by an upright millstone, through the center of which goes a long pole harnessed at the other end to some animal. This is usually a camel, and is blindfolded so that it shall not grow dizzy, and round and round it goes all day until the olives are reduced to pulp. The pulp, or marc, is then put into flat baskets or bags, which are placed one on top of another and pressed in a rude kind of press until the oil runs out."

Olive as food and cure

The Jerusalem Times: "Olive oil is an important food for Palestinian peasants and many foods and dishes include oil. It is unsaturated fat, and diminishes the percentage of cholestorol in the body. It also helps prevent veins and arteries from blocking, and thus prevents heart attacks. It is used with thyme, which is also a staple food for the peasant."

"Oil is also used to cure flus and colds. It is heated and rubbed on the sick person's chest after a shower. The branches of the olive tree which grow on the lower part of the trunk, are used to cure a scorpion's bite. The branch is crushed and boiled, and the liquid is then put on the bite to absorb the poison. The oil is also used as a message lubricant."

Crowfoot and Baldensperger: "In Palestine it is still the common use to light churches, mosques and shrines with olive oil ... The lamps are usually of glass, small open vessels, made at Hebron, hung in metal containers, and they are lit by cotton wicks supported by little tin and cork holders soaked in the oil floating on water. Not only is there a blessing on oil vowed and given for this holy use, whether of the 'pure beaten oil' or of whatever quality the donor can afford, but the oil placed in such lamps acquires an added sanctity and is reckoned of curative value."

"On festive occasions heads are still anointed with oil, and it still drips down the beard and on to the skirts of the clothing; we noted that in the sad recalling of the famine years of the war one of the commnest laments was: 'We were so poor we hadn't even a thimble full of oil to put on our heads.' Babies, too, are rubbed with oil and salt to make them strong. Did not the Prophet Mohammed himself say 'Eat of the oil and anoint yourself with it, for it is from a blessed tree'? ... Old-fashioned people will often begin the day by drinking a little cupful of it, and all are glad to dip their bread in it..."

Olive wood

El-Ali: "The thin twigs are used as fuel for houses and ovens but the thick ones are sold to stores specializing in olive wood works. From these, statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are made. They also make camels, donkeys, bozes, frames and other tourist articles."

Olive: customs and stories

El-Ali: "During the gathering and transport of the olives a man passes in the streets carrying pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Behind him follows his donkey bearing four tins. He asks those with olives to contribute a little oil to the convent of Al-Khader, crying "Oil for Al-Khadr, oil!" People come out of their homes carrying bottles and glasses full of oil which they empty in the tin and then kiss the picture.

Crowfoot and Baldensperger: "The olive tree is sometimes called 'the blessed tree' or the 'tree of light'."

"When comes September down comes the oil into the olives."

"On the feast of the Virgin, Mother of Light, streams the oil into the olives" (August 15).

"Songs are sung during the picking, mostly improvisations and chorus: 'O olives become lemons; O lemons become olives.'"

"From the work at the mill we have the following proverbs ...
'Only the press will give the oil.'
'Who will say his own oil is not clear?'
'You measure my oil in the dark, but God sees.'"

"The Palestinian peasants used to say that the olive tree is like a Bedouin woman who grows everywhere and is satisfied with little."

"When the Prophet Mohammed died all the trees mourned and cast down their leaves. Then came one and said to the olive tree, 'O Olive Tree, the Prophet is dead and all the trees mourn and why do you not mourn?' The Olive Tree replied, 'Break my wood and see the grief within at my heart.' So he broke a branch from the Olive Tree and saw the grief in her heart. For her grief was within and not to be seen of by men.' So to this day you can see the black streak in the wood of the olive, that is the sign of her mourning."

The Jerusalem Times: "The Christians believe that the olive trees bend their bark so as not to look at God's face during the Epiphany and the Feast of the Cross. ... The Greek Orthodox Christians pay special attention to the olive tree which is often represented on top of the altar. The olive tree is depicted bending its trunk in respect to the Theotokos ... The Olive Tree was honored and revered as holy during Palm Sunday. Young Christian servants used to appear at the Caliph's castle wearing big golden crosses, carrying palm and olive branches. In Jerusalem, the Christians used to carry a whole olive tree from Bethany all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and walk the streets of Jerusalem with a cross."

"Nowadays there is an annual Tree Day festival for olive tree planting. The Palestinian National Authority distributes free seedlings to the peasants. This is done in part to replace ones uprooted by the Israeli army."



Geries El-Ali, Bethlehem: The Immortal Town, Bethlehem, 1991.

Applied Research Institute (Jerusalem), Dryland Farming in Palestine, 1994.

Grace Crowfoot and Louise Baldensperger, From Cedar to Hyssop: A Study in the Folklore of Plants in Palestine, The Sheldon Press, London, 1932.

Phyllis Glazer, "Autumn Harvest," The Jerusalem Post, October 10, 1997.

J.E. Hanauer, The Holy Land: Myths and Legends, 1996 by Senate, Random House, London, first published in 1907 as "Folklore of the Holy land" by the Sheldon Press, London.

F. Nigel Hepper, Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Plants, Leicester 1997.

Olives, History and Culture, The Jerusalem Times, October 13, 1995 (translated from Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah).

Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, Speak Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian-Arab Folktales, Cambridge University Press 1989.

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