Olea europaea, the scientific name of the species of the olive tree found in Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, is as much a part of the story of the Holy Land as any other flora, fauna or geographical location found in the Bible or Christian tradition. Rugged, enduring, and capable of flourishing in the extreme sun-drenched climate, the olive tree is very much emblematic of the Holy Land; indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine the region without it.
Olive Tree In The Tradition
The olive tree is known to have been cultivated for its fruit since the Bronze Age; approximately three millennia before the time of Christ. All the peoples and civilizations of the Holy Land have valued the olive tree for its fruit and wood. The Palestinian people hold the olive tree – hashab zeitun in Arabic – with great regard, and the olives and its oil – zeitun and zeit – are staples of Palestinian cuisine. A traditional, informal Arabic term for olive oil is “liquid gold,” and in ages not too terribly long ago, land could be purchased for olive oil. Traditionally, in Arab Christian communities, olive oil was one of the most common donations to churches and monasteries in lieu of cash, both for lighting lamps before icons and shrines, and also for consumption by the priest, monks and caretakers.
Olive Harvest Season
The olive harvest season, which peaks in mid-autumn, is a special time in Palestinian villages and the countryside when families and friends gather together to harvest olives, which are then either brought to olive presses to be produced into olive oil or are made more palatable through a brining process. The olive trees are pruned in the late winter to ensure the longevity of the trees, which can last for centuries, and in some cases millennia. Indeed, the oldest olive trees were often given names by their owners and became extensions of family lore as generation after generation lived and died by the cultivation, harvest, and care of each tree.
Yet even the incredibly long lifespan olive tree has an end, and each year, a certain number of trees are cut down. While always a melancholy occasion, this is not the end of the olive tree, as the less valuable wood is then used for fuel, but more importantly, the best segments are turned into handicrafts through skilled artisans; most of which reside in the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour.
Olive Wood Production
Hundreds of Palestinians within the Christian community directly or indirectly sustain their families through the production and sale of olive wood products, ranging from simple rosaries and crucifixes to elaborate figurines and Nativity creches. Many workshops specialize in particular pieces, with some artisans even designing their own tools to complete specialized carvings. The production of olive wood handicrafts is an intensive, multi-stage process requiring patience and skill, and the market is highly competitive. During periods of economic and social crisis, the industry is often the first to be negatively impacted due to the lack of pilgrims purchasing their products in the tourist shops in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Nazareth, as well as the slow-down of international sales by families and business partners who market their products across the world. Time and time again, however, the market recovers and the workshops begin production once again. Through good years and bad, the artisans pride themselves on their work and upholding their family trade-craft and consider it to be a fitting end to the cycle of life of the beloved olive tree.
Conventional Palestinian wisdom holds that there is one good year for every weak year of the olive harvest. This autumn, as we begin the olive harvest in Bethlehem, we will hope for a good harvest as the end of what has been one of the most challenging years in all of our lives draws to a close. We will be grateful for whatever fruit is given to us by our beloved trees, and mourn those who have given their last harvest as the wood is hauled away to be transformed into handicraft products in the hope that our city streets will be filled with visitors looking for keepsakes of their time in our land once more. But we will also plant new saplings with the belief that our children, grandchildren, and untold generations after them will share in the beautiful, life-sustaining existence of the olive tree.