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Olive the Greek History You Ever Need to Know!

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George Dalaras

The weather is nice, the people are friendly and the sea is beautiful, but let's face it: the best thing about being in the Mediterranean is the food! I'm a trekker with my priorities straight, and it was apparent as soon as we hit Morocco that we had arrived in the land of abundant, yummy food!

From the tajine of Morocco to the paella of Spain to the Greeks' salads and gyros, one thing has remained a constant-the olive. Green or black, salty or hot and spicy, as an oil or as a paste-since I've been here I don't know if I've had a meal yet that didn't in some way contain some form of olive! And I'm not complaining! Even Monica, who insisted that she hates olives, has come around, and now admits they're "pretty good." They're a lot better here than from a can, that's for sure!

As any Greek will tell you, the olive isn't just any old...hmmm…is it a fruit or a vegetable? Well, let's just say it's not JUST an ordinary food. As a matter of fact, Greek mythology says that the olive tree was a gift from the gods, given right here in Athens, at the Acropolis.

The story goes that the gods of Olympus held a competition in which the city would be named after whichever deity could produce the most valuable legacy for mortals. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea, competed for the honor.

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Monica checks out the olive tree
Poseidon struck the ground with his mighty trident (leaving a hole which still exists on the top of the Acropolis!), and out sprang a horse. The horse symbolized strength and fortitude, and, eventually, revolutionized war. Athena, on the other hand, produced the olive tree: a symbol of peace and prosperity that provided food, cooking oil, lubrication and oil for lamps. The wood of the olive tree is dense, yellow and swirly, and makes good bowls and firewood.

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An Olive Press from the days of old
Athena, of course, won the competition: hence the name Athens. The olive tree was so revered as a gift from Athena that, in the 6th century B.C., cutting down an olive tree was punishable by death! The olive became the cornerstone of the Mediterranean economy, and vast tracts of land were cleared to plant olive trees. I even saw ancient olive presses outside the homes in the old Roman ruins of Volubilis in Morocco.

Historians and archeologists, however, don't agree with Greek mythology, no matter how cool it is. The say olives were first domesticated in the Levant region (what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine) around 6,000 years ago.

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Hanging out in the olive grove
Wherever they came from, olive trees are pretty amazing. The short, gnarled, twisted trees can live to be over 1,000 years old. They're not as majestic as the ancient redwoods of Northern California, but they're almost as old.

The ironic thing is that this most revered tree has caused great environmental destruction in Greece. Although ancient Greek texts sing praises to the lush, forested landscape of the Greek homeland, most of modern-day Greece is rocky and barren.

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Olives galore!
Native forests were cleared to make way for the blessed tree, but the land was hilly and unsuitable. The native trees held the topsoil in place with their extensive web of top roots. The olive tree, however, has a large taproot that goes very deep, allowing the fertile topsoil to be washed away so that native trees, plants and animals can't survive.

Athena and the gods of Olympus certainly couldn't have known the devastating environmental impact the olive tree was to have on Greece, or Poseidon would have won the competition. Now, nothing short of another divine intervention will bring Greece back to the fertile land it once was. Fortunately, though, the olive trees do well in the rocky terrain that they created, so we'll always have olives!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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