Olive Oil production and symbolism
Cultivated olive trees were present in Europe (Crete) as early as 3000 B.C. and have continued to be of agricultural importance in the Mediterranean region. While olive trees have grown in Cyprus for several millennia, they were not intensively cultivated until the Bronze age (2nd century B.C.). The olive tree pictured below is located at the Golden Donkeys Farm, Skarinou, with an estimated age of 1500 years.
A harvest of olives on these ancient branches is a marvellous sight! The olive tree can grow for millennia as the trunk and branches are renewed when they die by the root of the tree. It is also self-pollinating, which may prevent mutations from the genes of other plants and thus enable longevity.¹
In ancient times the olives were harvested, washed and crushed using a large millstone similar to the one pictured below. The pulp from the crushed olives was collected, kneaded and put into baskets. A weight was placed on top to release the oil from the pulp. The extracted liquid, which was a mixture of oil and water, was then decanted. The second image depicts a reconstructed press from the Byzantine period with a wooden lever and screw to raise the limestone weight. Methods have not changed much today apart from mechanized presses.
Cyprus has a number of high-quality organic olive oil manufacturers. Recently, I visited the Terra Oliva Farm (Ktima Sofokleous) near Lefkara, which has 7000 olive trees and a fruit orchard. A protected 800 - year old olive tree is part of the property. The shop offers a variety of organic olive oil and other olive products, including paste, jam, sweets and handicrafts made from olive wood.²
The phrase to extend an olive branch is found in our English lexicon, meaning to make peace. This has its origins in the book of Genesis, when the dove brought back an olive branch to Noah in the ark as he waited for the water to recede from the earth.
Olive trees were cultivated in the Middle East during Biblical times. Oil production played an important role in fueling lamps, anointing kings, nutrition and hygiene products. The olive tree is referenced symbolically in several places of the Bible, portraying the peace and prosperity of those who trusted in God:
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever. Psalm 52:8
The nation of Israel was also named Green Olive Tree in Jeremiah 11:16 and it is significant that Paul describes Gentile believers as being grafted into the olive tree:
... you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree ... Romans 11:24
Those who have accepted the Messiah by faith are grafted into the family of God. His Spirit takes root in our hearts and produces a harvest of spiritual fruit.
A further reference to olive trees is found in the name Gethsemane in Jerusalem, which is from the Hebrew for oil press. Today this garden contains several ancient olive trees from New Testament times. Christians remember it was the place where the Lord was crushed while He contemplated bearing our sins on the cross:
And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. Luke 22:44
A symbol of peace, the olive tree reminds us that peace with God is possible through Christ's sacrificial death on the cross. The Prince of Peace imparts peace in our hearts through faith and will bring world peace in a coming day.
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Image from pxfuel
The current Cypriot flag, adopted in 1960, bears two olive branches. A precious symbol!