The olives, like the dates, holds great value in ancient and modern cultures. The dove holding an olive branch in its mouth has become a universal symbol of peace. It is said to have originated in the story of Prophet Noah (peace be upon him). The dove appeared as a sign that the flood, which had been sent as a punishment, would abate. Let us have a closer look at this familiar fruit whose tree is known as the Blessed Tree.
The botanical name of olive is Olea Europaea Linn. In Arabic the olive is known as Zaith and in the Qur’n it is referred to as Al-Zaitun. We shall note the names in several other languages: Olive (English, French and German), Zaitun (Arabic Persian, Hindi, Urdu and several Indian languages), Oliva (Russian, Latin and Italian), Olivo (Spanish), Elia (Greek), Zayit (Hebrew) and so on.
The olive tree has a rich history. The ancients knew these virtues, and olive oil became a key to their religious and political ceremonies, from the temples of Ra in Egypt where lamps burned olive oil, to the temple of Soloman, where kings were anointed with oil based ointments. The olive was native to Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin 6,000 years ago. It is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world – being grown before the written language was invented. Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2000 years BC. The olive trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are reputed to be over 2000 years old, still relative newcomers considering the long domestication of the olive.
The olive tree grows to less than 10 metres high. It is an evergreen tree with leaves that are pale green above and silvery below. The bark is pale grey and the flowers are numerous, small and creamy-white in colour. Olives are cultivated through grafting, the method routinely used to propagate fruit trees. The stem or bud of one plant is joined to the stem or bud of another to form a new plant. It can take more than five years for a tree to start producing fruit. The trees can be harvested annually and continue to produce fruits until they become very old and hollow. The fruit of the tree is a drupe with fleshy fruit and a hard seed. The oval-shaped olives are approximately 2 to 3 cm long. Olives go through a number of growth stages. They start out as a green fruit, which turns yellowish, then, reddish and finally black as they ripen. An olive contains 10-40% oil by weight. Though olive fruits are very nutritious it is not usually eaten due to its metallic taste. Olives are usually consumed in the form of pickles and preserved in salt or vinegar solutions.
One can find an astounding array of olives from green and black varieties to stuffed ones in the market stores. One can also find a variety of olive oils in market. Olive oil is produced through a process known as crushing and pressing. While machines have taken over most of the work, traditional methods of extracting oil are still in use. Different methods of crushing and pressing are used to extract olive oil. Types of olive oil include:
Extra virgin considered the best, least processed, comprising the oil from the first pressing of the olives.
considered the best, least processed, comprising the oil from the first pressing of the olives.
Virgin – from the second pressing.
– from the second pressing.
Pure – undergoes some processing, such as filtering and refining.
– undergoes some processing, such as filtering and refining.
Extra light – undergoes considerable processing and only retains a very mild olive flavour.
– undergoes considerable processing and only retains a very mild olive flavour.
Every part of the blessed tree of olive is fully utilised as the medicinal and cosmetic uses are many: the fruits are eaten or used to produce olive oil; the leaves possess medicinal value; and the wood of the tree is highly valued for carpentry work. The Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is reported to have said: Take oil of olive and massage with it – it is a blessed tree. Olive oil is applied to the skin as it brightens the complexion, softens the skin. It is used in the treatment of eczema and several other skin ailments. The olive oil is extremely nutritious as it is rich in anti-oxidants and the vitamins E, A, D and K. It is useful in balancing the fats and lowering the cholesterol and controlling the blood pressure. Olive oil also relates to the maintenance of a healthy digestive system.
The smoke-less burning of olive oil is a peculiar feature, which produces a bright light. The Qur’n stresses the importance of the olive on several occasions. This luminescent property of olive oil is powerfully illustrated in the following parable in the Qur’n:
“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things.
(Surah 24, Al Noor, the Light, verse 35)
The olive tree, one of the blessings of the plant kingdom, not only has nutritional, medicinal and cosmetic value, but also fulfils a religious function as a sign. Since the time of Adam, the olive has been said to represent those seeking God.
[The writer is associated with Engineering Department, Salalah College of Technology (SCOT), Salalah, Sultanate of Oman and can be reached at [email protected]]