are twisted, they kneel to pray, and they raise their
arms, members tyrannized by movement, all elbows and
knees. The bent roots suck the golden oil from the
heart of the earth for the lamps of the saints and
the salad of the poor”
Myrivillis, Greek poet
olive plays a fundamental role in Lebanese life, and
olive oil has been treasured for generations. It is
certainly valued in my family. I will never forget
the story my husband Henri told me, of how his grandparents
left their village of Hadath el-Jobbeh in northern
Lebanon to seek a new life in Africa during the 1920s.
As they sailed overseas, leaving all their possessions
behind, they insisted on taking a few gallons of their
precious olive oil with them. Now, whenever their
grandson travels for work, he always takes some with
him, too. He insists that the taste of Lebanese olive
oil is unsurpassed.
ago, when Henri was driving down the mountain from
Faraya Mzaar, Lebanon's largest ski resort, he came
across an old olive wood trunk, abandoned in the fields,
destined to be sold as firewood by some farmer. With
help from our dear friend and restoration expert Nagi
Chartouny, he turned the trunk into the base for our
unique dining table.
imagine that many of you only know Lebanon from the
news headlines as a country torn by war and riddled
with political strife. In fact, it is one of the most
diverse and hospitable countries in the world and
hides amazing riches within its borders.
is a country of some four million people all crammed
into just 10,452 km2 of land along the Eastern Mediterranean
between Syria and Israel. Lebanon is shaped by the
twin mountain ranges that separate it from Syria.
Its heavily inhabited, narrow coast is lined with
orange and banana plantations, behind which the slopes
of Mount Lebanon, the range that gives the country
its name, rises steeply. The mountains, which are
carpeted with pine trees and olive groves, rise to
a maximum height of just over 3,000 meters and are
covered in snow each winter. Lebanon is blessed with
plentiful supplies of water and is the only country
in the region that has no desert. The Bekaa Valley,
which lies between Lebanon's twin mountain ranges,
is one of the most fertile regions in the Middle East.
of its natural bounty, Lebanon has always attracted
outsiders. It has been invaded by everyone from the
Egyptians in the 13th century BC, through to the Assyrians,
the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans and finally
the French, who withdrew in 1946. The mountains have
traditionally provided refuge for those fleeing war
or persecution, and Lebanon's villagers are every
bit as welcoming today. Coastal dwellers have been
traders and entrepreneurs ever since their Canaanite
and Phoenician ancestors took to the seas thousands
of years ago and even now, the Lebanese are renowned
for their culture of enterprise and business.
countryside is full of olive trees, some centuries
old, some more recently planted; an estimated 13 million
olive trees account for 20% of Lebanon's total cultivated
area. Almost everyone you speak to in Lebanon, from
city executives to the village grocer, has a connection
to olives. They either own a couple of trees themselves
– or at least their neighbor does – or
they own an immense grove somewhere in the mountains.
of the oil that comes from them is produced using
traditional methods of cultivation and pressing, handed
down from generation to generation, that elsewhere
would be deemed outdated, although more modern methods
have also been gradually introduced in recent years.
oil is essential in the Lebanese kitchen. Most homes
have a bowl of zaatar (dried wild thyme) and olive
oil at hand for dipping bread and generally have several
bottles stashed in a cupboard for drizzling over plates
of labneh, a type of strained yoghurt which is the
staple of any Lebanese table. All Lebanese emigrants
miss their oil and there have been many attempts to
market it abroad, but it is fair to say that for the
most part, Lebanese olive oil is underappreciated
and has yet to attract global consumers. That may
soon change. Just as people are becoming more discerning
with regards to Lebanese wines, Lebanese olive oil
lovers are increasingly demanding only the best. The
local industry's reputation has grown rapidly and
as Lebanese olive oil becomes better tasting, and
of higher quality, it may begin to attract the global
recognition it deserves.
mild winters and temperate summers of Lebanon's mountains,
where the bulk of olives grow, are perfectly suited
to growing olives. So ubiquitous is the olive tree,
from ancient colossi to younger striplings, that it
is impossible to imagine Lebanon's countryside without
them. They are crucial to the village way of life,
which is closely tied to the cycles of cultivation.
Olives and olive oil are also essential to the moune,
the winter preserves and pickles prepared by villagers
journey of discovery into the world of Lebanon's olive
traditions began with a meeting with Dr Rami Zurayk,
professor of agriculture at the American University
of Beirut. An advocate of organic produce, he introduced
me to a range of olive oils marketed under the name,
La Route des Oliviers, the Olive Route. I took these
oils as the starting point of a journey that I now
want to share with you - a route that will allow you
to discover Lebanon not as the biblical 'Land of Milk
and Honey' but rather as the 'Land of the Olive'.
It is a journey that took me from the beautiful hidden
valleys of the South to the terraced terrains of the
North, every step of the way leading me to welcoming
and hard-working people who will remain etched in
my memory, and hopefully in yours too, forever.
is home to 19 different, and sometimes conflicting,
religious groups but its villagers are all united
in their overwhelming hospitality and love of the
land. Whilst researching this book, I entered the
homes of perfect strangers who were only too happy
to tell me their stories over cups of Arabic coffee
or tea and often a tiny glass of their olive oil as
well. Such villagers have resisted the winds of change
and remain true to their traditions, leading resolutely
Origin of the Olive Tree
Olea Europaea, the olive tree as we know it today
is one of the oldest cultivated trees in the world.
It is descended from the oleaster, which was just
a humble Levantine evergreen until some clever farmer
grafted it with a fruit-producing tree and created
northern villages of Amioun and Bshaale are home to
some of the oldest olive trees in the world, many
of which date back at least 1,500 years. If you have
visited Lebanon, you may well have driven past them
without giving them a second thought, but generations
of villagers have cherished these ancient survivors
and have kept them standing even when they no longer
produced fruit, while village children have for centuries
played in their hollow trunks and hidden their treasures
in them. We have become so accustomed to these natural
monuments that it is hard to imagine a time when they
were not here.
Age – Canaanite Period (3500 – 1200 BC)
Olive oil shipped to Egypt for trade. It is used to
anoint kings, embalm the dead and light temple lamps.
A wall painting in a Theban tomb depicts olive cultivation.
Age – Phoenician Period (1200 – 300 BC)
Phoenicians introduce Greece to the alphabet and the
olive. They spread olive cultivation around the Mediterranean.
Period (300 BC – 64 BC)
An olive branch and oil is awarded to winners of the
Olympic games. New pressing methods are developed
in the Levant.
Period (64 BC – 399 AD)
Romans develop a taste-based classification system
for olive oil.
Period (399 – 636 AD)
Thousands of distributors trade in olive oil and use
in cooking, massage, body-care and lighting is widespread.
Ancient Roots of the Olive Tree
on Lebanese soil, you get the feeling that this country
is thousands of years deep and that beneath you lie
centuries of hidden treasures.
it is true that the Phoenicians, one of the ancient
inhabitants of modern Lebanon, played a major role
in spreading the tree around the Mediterranean. As
far back as 1600 BC, they introduced olive trees to
the Greek isles and later to the Greek mainland, Italy,
southern France, Spain and finally North Africa.
many centuries, the Phoenicians were the main traders
of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They established
trade colonies in Spain and North Africa and on many
Mediterranean islands, including Cyprus, Sardinia
and Malta. These early merchants laid the foundations
of many Mediterranean port towns, including Marseille
in southern France, which today is a major producer
of olive oil soap.
the Bronze Age (3500 -1200 BC) the coast of the Levant
was inhabited by the Canaanites, a people thought
to be descended either from Chalcolithic (4500 –
3500 BC) or Neolithic (7500 – 4500 BC) settlers.
of their settlements, Byblos, a coastal town in central
Lebanon, became the major port of the Mediterranean.
From here, cedar wood and olive oil were exported
to Egypt, the former for shipbuilding and tomb construction,
and the latter for use in funeral rituals and cosmetics.
In return, Egypt sent gold and papyrus to Lebanon.
wall painting in a late Bronze Age tomb in Thebes,
which dates to the reign of the Pharaoh Amenhotep,
attests to this trade and shows Canaanite merchants
carrying jars from their boat to the marketplace.
Jars like those in the painting have been found during
excavations in Athens and are believed to have contained
olive oil. This makes sense, as the Egyptians did
not produce olive oil themselves. The Egyptians used
olive oil to light temple lamps, for conditioning
the skin and hair and also for massage and embalming.
Levant has been home to the olive tree for millennia.
Sites in the ancient southern Lebanese city of Sidon
contain evidence of clay jars, used for storing olive
oil, dating back to the Bronze Age. Both the museum
at the American University of Beirut and the Beirut
National Museum have such jars on display, as well
as smaller vessels used as oil lamps. In the village
of Oumm el-Amed, there is a stone basin used for the
crushing of olives that is thought to date back to
the Hellenistic period (300 – 64 BC), further
evidence that the Lebanese were pioneers of olive
oil pressing methods. Meanwhile, at archaeological
sites in Beirut, traces of olive wood and carbonized
olive pips dating back as far as Roman times have
most significant discoveries, however, were in the
southern Lebanese villages of Shimm, Marjiyat and
Ras el-Ain, where large pottery jars used for storing
olive oil dating back to the 4th millennium were found.
Archaeologists even unearthed the remains of Roman
houses and a temple as well as several intact olive
presses – the oldest ones found in Lebanon so
far – and stone basins with shallow channels,
all of which suggests that southern Lebanon was a
significant centre of olive oil production in Antiquity.
Khan Khalde, a few kilometers south of Beirut, and
the Metn region mountain village of Beit Mery, which
had its own Roman olive presses, also appear to have
been centers of oil production.
Symbols and Legends
seems to flow through the branches of the olive tree.
It has been used as a religious symbol of peace, life
or fertility by all of the civilizations of the Near
East and Mediterranean. In ancient Greece, courageous
soldiers were honored with a crown made of an olive
branch; mythology tells us that Hercules, who is credited
with founding the Olympic Games, gave them to valiant
players as a celebration of their victory. The first
Olympic torch was a burning olive branch. Later, the
Romans used the olive branch as a symbol of peace
and the tree was considered so sacred that those found
guilty of cutting one down were condemned to death
or exile. For early Christians, the olive was a symbol
of renewal. It was with an olive branch delivered
by a dove that God told Noah of the end of the Flood
and the beginning of a new world.
oil has been regarded as sacred for thousands of years.
Modern excavations of Egyptian tombs have unearthed
containers of olive oil. As Egyptians were only buried
with their treasures, this is proof of how precious
this substance was. In the temples of Baalbek in Lebanon's
Bekaa Valley, oil was offered to the gods at the end
of a good harvest to give thanks, and since Antiquity,
olive oil lamps have been used to light temples and
later, churches and mosques.
ancient Egyptians believed that it was Isis, the Mother
of the Universe, who taught mankind to extract the
oil from the olives. Greek legend tells of how Athena,
the goddess of Wisdom, during a dispute with Poseidon,
god of the Sea, over ownership of the land where Athens
was later built, planted an olive tree where the Acropolis
now stands. The olive tree that grows near Athena's
temple on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion, is supposedly
descended from the tree that the goddess and founder
of Athens planted there millennia ago.
belief that olive oil conferred strength and youth
was widespread, which is why ancient Greek athletes
rubbed olive oil on their bodies before tournaments.
All over the ancient world, olive oil was infused
with flowers and grasses to produce medicine and cosmetics.
A text found in Mycenae, in the Peloponnesus, listed
aromatics like fennel, sesame, celery, watercress,
mint, sage, rose and juniper as some of the ingredients
added to olive oil in the preparation of ointments.
references to the olive tree date at least to the
Greek philosopher Sophocles (496 – 406 BC) who
referred to the tree in his play Oedipus at Colonus.
In Homer's Iliad, the olive gets numerous mentions,
proving its importance to the Greek economy –
although in my battered old translation, I have never
come across the "liquid gold" reference
mentioned by so many writers, but perhaps this is
only in the original version.
visited Bshaale, a small village in northern Lebanon,
where local belief has it that the massive olive tree
on a hill overlooking the village is the oldest in
the country and possibly the world. They say this
is the tree from which the dove took the branch to
Noah. This seems more plausible if you believe, as
many Lebanese do, that Noah eventually died in the
Bible itself is packed with over 140 references to
the value of olives and olive oil. In the Old Testament,
it is said that men who worked the olive harvest were
exempt from the army. In Jeremiah, the olive becomes
Lord called thy name, a green olive tree, fair, and
of goodly fruit: with the noise of a great tumult
he hath kindled fire upon it, and the branches of
it are broken." (11:16)
it is a source of sorrow, as we learn that the worshippers
of the pagan god Baal are punished by having their
most precious possession, their olive trees, taken
from them; it was on the Mount of Olives, just outside
the walls of Jerusalem, that Jesus spent that fateful
evening with his apostles, waiting for Judas and the
Roman soldiers. Trees, which are believed to date
from that time, some 2,000 years ago, still stand
today in the garden of the church built to mark the
today, the olive plays an important role in Eastern
Christianity. During Lebanese Easter celebrations,
olive branches are handed out on the last Sunday of
Lent in memory of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Oil is blessed by bishops and then distributed to
churches to be used during baptisms and confirmations,
to ordain priests and consecrate churches, as well
as for anointing the sick and the dying. Pilgrims
visiting religious sites like Harissa and Mar Charbel
in northern Lebanon take home small bags containing
oil-soaked cotton balls, which they give to other
family members as a blessing. The bag is often put
under a child's pillow to ward off evil spirits.
a Greek Orthodox wedding, the couple is anointed with
oil, much in the way newborn babies are baptized in
a Maronite (Lebanese Catholic) or Roman Catholic ceremony.
In both cases, this signifies entry to a new life.
For their part, Greek Orthodox babies get a more comprehensive
soaking and are completely covered in oil. If a part
of the body is missed, it is said that area will remain
weak for the rest of the child's life. The parallels
with the ancient Greek myth of Achilles and his weak
heel, the only part of his body his mother had forgotten
to dip in the death-defying waters of the river Styx,
isn't just Christians who value the olive. In addition
to being named as one of the trees growing in Paradise,
both the tree and the oil are often mentioned in the
Koran. In the Sura of the Light (24:35), olive oil
appears as a symbol of light:
is the light of the heavens and earth… lit from
a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the East or West,
whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce
touched it...” Oil fuels the lamp, which gives
light. As light is divine, so is the oil that lights
olive was also the blessed tree of the prophet Mohammed.
and pomegranates, similar (in kind) and different
(in variety): eat of their fruit in their season,
but render the dues that are proper on the day that
the harvest is gathered. But waste not by excess:
for God loveth not the wasters." Sura of the
olive oil is given as a traditional gift to pilgrims
coming to Mecca for the Hajj.
its spiritual significance is shared by many religions
in the Middle East, both past and present, the power
of the olive branch as a Roman symbol of peace and
hope has transcended its early origins to become universal.
Today, all over the world people talk about “offering
an olive branch" when they wish to make peace.
In Lebanon, olive groves were planted right up to
the barbed wire border with Israel, after the latter
withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year
occupation. Liberation, rebirth, renewal, peace: the
olive tree encompasses them all.
N. 2385 of 17/1/1924 as amended by law N. 76 of 3/4/1999
( articles 2, 5, 15, 49 and 85 ) lays down as follows:
The author of a literary or artistic work, by the
very fact of authorship, has absolute right of ownership
over the work, without obligation of recourse to formal
procedures . The author will himself enjoy the benefit
of exploitation of his work, and he possesses exclusive
rights of publication and of the reproduction under
any form whatsoever. Whether the work in question
comes under the public domain or not those persons
will be liable to imprisonment for a period of one
to three years and to fine of between five and fifty
million Lebanese pounds, or to either one of these
penalties, who 1-will have appended or caused to be
appended a usurped name on a literary or artistic
work; 2-will have fraudulently imitated the signature
or trademark adopted by an author, with a view to
deceiving the buyer; 3-will have counterfeited a literary
or artistic work; 4-or will have knowingly sold, received,
or put on sale or into circulation a work which is
counterfeit or signed with a forged signature. The
punishment will be increased in the event of repetition.