The Mediterranean has been, and still is today, a crossroads of peoples and cultures. It is the meeting point of the Western and Eastern worlds. It has been an important trade, travel and cultural passage since antiquity and for about four thousand years it has been the centre of world history and human civilisation. Fernand Braudel, historian and scholar, as well as many other historians, described the Mediterranean as a single space, a complex totality, which, with its diversity, its ‘magnificent and turbulent life’ and its ‘extraordinary human wealth’, has been a historical space for the fermentation of civilisations.

In the light of the above, the Mediterranean is a geographical area with natural features and cultural elements created or modified by human activity and reflecting human relations and interactions with this landscape.

In this context, the dominant position of the olive tree in the natural and cultural landscape of the Mediterranean due to its long-standing presence in it, makes it an integral part not only of the historical but also of the social evolution and development of the region.

The Olive Tree

The origin of the olive tree is lost in time and his presence coinciding and mingling with the expansion of the Mediterranean civilisations which for centuries governed the destiny of mankind and left their imprint on Western culture.

Olive leaf fossils have been found in different places around Mediterranean and the existence of the olive tree therefore dates back to the twelfth millennium BC.

The wild olive tree appears to have spread from Syria to Greece via Anatolia and is considered that Asia Minor to have been the birthplace of the cultivated olive some six millennia ago.

Taking the area that extends from the southern Caucasus to the Iranian plateau and the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Palestine (Acerbo) to be the original home of the olive tree, its cultivation developed considerably in these last two regions, spreading from there to the island of Cyprus and on towards Anatolia or from the island of Crete towards Egypt.

In the 16th century BC the Phoenicians started disseminating the olive throughout the Greek isles, later introducing it to the Greek mainland between the 14th and 12th centuries BC where its cultivation increased and gained great importance in the 4th century BC when Solon issued decrees regulating olive planting.

From the 6th century BC onwards, the olive spread throughout the Mediterranean countries reaching Tripoli, Tunis and the island of Sicily. From there, it moved to southern Italy. Cultivation moved upwards from south to north, from Calabria to Liguria. When the Romans arrived in North Africa, the Berbers knew how to graft wild olives and had really developed its cultivation throughout the territories they occupied.

The Romans continued the expansion of the olive tree to the countries bordering the Mediterranean, using it as a peaceful weapon in their conquests to settle the people. It was introduced in Marseille around 600 BC and spread from there to the whole of Gaul.

Olive growing was introduced into Spain during the maritime domination of the Phoenicians (1050 BC) and after the third Punic War, olives spread towards the central and Mediterranean coastal areas of the Iberian Penisula including Portugal. The Arabs brought their varieties with them to the south of Spain and influenced the spread of cultivation so much that the Spanish words for olive (aceituna), oil (aceite), and wild olive tree (acebuche) and the Portuguese words for olive (azeitona) and for olive oil (azeite), have Arabic roots.

Mediterranean : The cultural landscapes of the olive tree

Cultural landscapes have been recognised as the interface between nature and culture. They are geographical areas that represent the combined work of nature and man. They reflect the evolution of human society over time, under the influence of their natural environment, but also under the influence of successive social, economic and cultural forces; in other words, they are shaped by the ‘interaction of people and nature over time’. Cultural landscapes are living landscapes, changing at the same rate as culture, climate and the natural environment change in and around them. The character of the landscape thus reflects the values of the people who shaped it and who continue to live in it.
Olive landscapes have existed in all countries of the Mediterranean basin for hundreds, if not thousands of years. By landscapes we mean all the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts that contribute to the shaping of Mediterranean olive-growing areas, both from a physical and human perspective. These landscapes and all that they represent are an element of cultural homogeneity and a close link between all the regions and countries of the Mediterranean, from one coast to the other, and can be used to consolidate Mediterranean identity and promote cooperation.


The olive oil culture is an important element of the Euro-Mediterranean history, an emblematic example of a civilization. To put it like the historian Fernand Braudel, “where the olive tree ends, the Mediterranean also ends”.

The Mediterranean olive culture as Intangible cultural heritage, means, citing Art. 2 of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills that the communities of the Mediterranean Area recognize as part of their cultural heritage. “A cultural heritage, from generation to generation, constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and providing them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity “.

The knowledge and cultivation of the olive tree have been part of the culture of the whole Mediterranean for millennia. The olive tree was considered a sacred tree and the olive oil extracted from its fruits was also used for religious and ritual purposes: the Egyptians considered it a gift from the Gods, the Phoenicians traded it as “liquid gold”, the Greeks and Romans used it for medicinal purposes and as fuel for votive lamps, the Jews used it to anoint their King, Muslims considered it a sacred tree and Christians have always used it in Sacramental rites. A long history of the olive culture that has structured the cultural landscape of the Mediterranean, the uses and customs of the inhabitants and its socio-economic life.

The olive tree, representative element of the Mediterranean olive-growing culture, contributes both to defining the boundaries of many of the Regions that surround it, and to testify its socio-cultural identity characterizing, since ancient times, the landscape and enhancing, today, those characteristics that can protect and safeguard the various areas of reference. Moreover, the rediscovery of the territory as a resource for local development leads to a review of the role of rural areas and agriculture in general, with both economic and social functions that promote their protection and specificity as well as the formation of a specific collective local identity. The culture of the olive tree, in particular, contributes not only to supporting the value of the gastronomic productions linked to it, but also to enhancing marginal areas in terms of rediscovering the roots and identity values, contributing decisively to the conservation of the local landscape.

Olive cultivation in the Mediterranean identifies man-made landscapes of excellence, as an expression of the historical and cultural link between man, the olive tree and its traditions. In the olive oil obtained from olives – the only fruit oil, and as such to be considered an authentic juice, the highest possible expression of naturalness – there is not only the history of many civilizations that have succeeded over time, with the memory therefore of those who, over the millennia, through the usual gesture, are repeating an elementary operation that translates into the act of pouring that strand of oil raw as in cooking, at the table as in the kitchen, but also elsewhere, on the skin, in the hair, everywhere; that strand of olive oil that finally makes explicit and evident the extraordinary and unique nature of a truly superb and inimitable product. There is no exaggeration, because when we look closely we are dealing with an unparalleled history and culture, given that in the repeated flow of millennia, the elegance and nobility of a plant have been preserved intact in the memory of the peoples, what is the olive tree? , and a precious olive juice, which is olive oil, which today, after a thousand-year journey, has become ethnic food, confined within the countries bordering the Mediterranean, inter-ethnic food, thus involving distant peoples and strangers by tradition in its consumption.

Where then is the merit if not in that component of values made of history, traditions, environment, landscape, experiences and passions of many olive growers who have made it in the eyes of nutritionists a functional food, therefore not only sign of good aromas and flavors, from time to time different according to the areas of production, but also an evident sign of well-being and of a lot of good health, having become in all respects even presidium of preventive medicine. Health, quality and taste are therefore the key values that the modern consumer prefers and recognizes as his own.