December 20, 2022
The olive tree and the history of Mediterranean civilizations are closely intertwined. According to recent archeological findings in North Africa, Southern Europe, and Western Asia, early Homo sapiens used olive tree wood and fruits. Over the millennia the olive has become a staple of Mediterranean culture.
It all started with the Phoenicians
Cultivation of olive groves began in the Levant region 7,000 to 8,000 years ago in the area that today includes the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan. The Phoenicians, seafarers and merchants coming from Lebanon, played amajor role in bringing olive groves to North Africa. They established Carthage in present day Tunisia in 814 B.C. The Carthaginians, also known as Punics, planted one of the world’s oldest olive trees, the 2,500 year old patriarch of Echraf located inthe Tunisian peninsula of Cap Bon.
Two key figures contributed to Tunisian olive oil history
Upon their invasion of Carthage in 146 B.C., the Romans discovered a thriving olive culture due to the area’s favorable climate and soil conditions. Much of the credit for the great development of the olive sector during this period is given to Mago, the author of a treatise on agriculture which, based on local Berber and Punic traditional practices, became a point of reference on this topic for several centuries.
During the Roman conquest of Carthage, resulting in the destruction of most of the Punic libraries, the Romans sought, however, to preserve Mago’s work, suggesting that the conquerors had grasped the relevance of his studies. Known as the “African pioneer of agronomy”, quotations from Mago’s manual can be found in the works of major classical authors, to name but a few, Pliny the elder’s “Naturalis Historia” and the early medieval books “Geoponica”. Their recommendations on olive farming refer to Mago’s precepts.
Ancient history tells us that olive oil was used primarily for healing purposes and sacred rituals. Rituals were conducted at Byrsa in the Carthaginian temple dedicated to the god of healing and renewal of life, Eshmun. Olive oil has been used over millennia to heal wounds and burns and is considered effective in the treatment of gastro-intestinal diseases, colic kidney pains, and fevers of variouskinds. It was administered to treat mycosis and scabies, used as a laxative, and to treat poisonous snake bites. Pliny summarized the importance of the golden liquid to the ancients – “There are two liquids that are especially agreeable to the human body, wine inside and oil outside – both of them the most excellent of all the products of the tree class, but oil an absolute necessity.”
By the 2ndcentury, the olive oil demand in the city of Rome resulted in blossoming export trade from the Tunisian ports. An ingredient in perfumes and ointments, olive oil was used for massages before and after the thermal baths and to treat athletes’ muscle fatigue and prevent injuries. Olive oil production on Tunisian territory flourished in large part thanks to new Roman hydraulic works such as the Zaghouan aqueduct, one of the longest aqueducts in the Roman Empire.
Following the invasions ofthe Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs over the centuries, the sector started waning during the Middle Ages. It was not until late 1800, with the establishment of the French Protectorate in Tunisia that a new impetus was given to olive farming in an attempt to recreate the “olive grove of Rome”. Yet this meant policies of exploitation and subordination of the local population.
Tunisian Olive Oil – A Promising Future
Today, olive oil is widely recognized by science for its antioxidant, antimicrobial characteristics along with its nutrient, moisturizing and soothing properties and serves as a basic substance for cosmetics and cooking. The Republic of Tunisia is steadily advancing as one of the world’s most important producers of extra virgin olive oil with constant growth of the sector overrecent decades. With the development of favorable policies related to the sector, Tunisian olive farmers are increasingly engaged in meeting the growing global demand for quality andhealthy products, exemplified by the extensive application of organic farming methods.
Since the establishment of the Olive Tree Institute at the University of Sfax in 1983, over 200 olive varieties have been registered and many are still to be characterized– a rich olive biodiversity that promises to make Tunisia a major player in the future of the olive oil industry.