Olea europea L.

The olive tree is considered the jewel among Palestinian plants. It has a very long lifespan, with a slow rate of growth. It is claimed that the oldest olive tree in the world is in Jerusalem’s southern hills (in the village of al-Walaja). The Palestinian Olive Oil Council estimates its age at over 5,500 years. The olive is an evergreen tree, planted without irrigation (rainfed) in most Palestinian regions. It is widespread in hilly terrain and higher altitudes, and sufficiently heat-resistant to withstand the high temperatures of summer. The olive harvest generally occurs between October and November, while in good seasons, it can extend to December. Olive harvest seasons are categorised as either almasiyya or a ‘diamond year’, for a good crop, or shalatuniyya for a poor harvest.

Olive trees are of the greatest economic and social importance for Palestinians. The olive is one of the most widespread trees and is cultivated in all regions of Palestine. There are many different varieties of olive, such as nabali and sori. Olives are highly nutritious due to their high level of unsaturated fatty acids, in addition to containing other significant healthy substances such as antioxidants. Numerous studies show that olives are useful in preventing heart disease and cancer. Olive products are also used in cosmetics and body care. The wood is used to carve religious artefacts, especially in the Bethlehem area, because it is solid and naturally ornate with beautiful wood grain patterns. An olive-based soap industry developed in Palestine, especially in Nablus.

The olive tree is intimately bound with Palestinian heritage and culture. Its branch symbolises peace, and numerous rhyming folk sayings feature its name, such as: ‘Olive oil is the foundation of a home’; ‘In September, oil forms in olives and bitterness in lemons’; ‘Eat olive oil and butt the wall’; ‘Wheat and olive oil are two lions in the home’; and ‘Its oil is yummy while picking its olives is crummy.’

The holy books also mention the olive. In the Quran (Sura: An-Noor, 35)
it is written:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.

And in the Old Testament (Psalms 128:3), children are compared to olives: ‘Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.’

Palestinians invoke its name in chant and song:

Olive tree, it’s all your fault
Force the oil out from your vault
You puny Armoushi olives, come now
Some gold and cash can you muster, be my cash cow


Open up your olive barrel, Jaber,* so we light up the attic
We can wear our caps skewed, your reputation raised our heads up**

Open up the olive barrel, Jaber, so our mouths don’t stay dry
Hearing about you makes us raise our flutes high


Our olive tree is abundant with fruit, and his jars full of oil
May God help that young man build a flourishing home from his toil
Our olive tree is abundant with fruit, dripping with oil
May God grant that young man ever more, with many children to spoil


May olives become as big as lemons in the hands of their harvesters***


*    A hypothetical person whose olive trees have given him a rich harvest.
**    Wearing one’s hat or headdress skewed when walking in public is considered an expression of swagger/self-importance and snobbishness.
***    Given the prosperity that lemons are supposed to bring, or it could be a wish for olives to produce as much oil when pressed as lemons do juice when squeezed.


Source: A Garden Among the Hills: The Floral Heritage of Palestine. © The Palestinian Museum 2019