In Greece the olive branch symbolizes peace and prosperity as well as resurrection and hope. The olive prevails in many forms all over Greece – in ancient ruins, in colorful displays in the markets, in salads at restaurants, in the form of jewelry in shops, and in countless other ways.
It wasn’t until I walked several kilometers from the ruins of the ancient Byzantine city of Mystras to present-day Sparta, in which I passed endless groves of olive trees, that I started asking myself how olives, and more specifically the olive branch, came to be so important in Greek history and to Greece in general.
The mid-evil city of Mystras, now home to a few nuns in one of its monasteries, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is where the Byzantine empire’s richly artistic and intellectual culture made its last stand before an invading Ottoman army in 1490, almost 1000 years after its foundation.
On this walk I was with a friend from the States who joined me for a couple of weeks of travel. Once inside the old city’s crumbling walls, we wound our way down the mountainside on narrow rugged stone paths, occasionally taking a wrong turn and coming to a dead end. We wandered through historic Byzantine churches, many with restored frescoes, which were surrounded by stunning views. Small patches of black smoke could be seen rising from the middle of expansive olive groves below. We were later told small olive branches left over from the harvest of olives were usually burned in the fields.
As we descended from Mystras on our way to Sparta, we passed through small villages doted with old stone houses. Beautiful snow-covered mountains were constantly in view. The mountain air was crisp. Interspersed among the fields of olive trees with their distinctive gnarled trunks, oranges seemed to be dripping off unattended trees and carpeting the ground and pavement around them. We tasted the sweet fruit – delicious! We were told that because of current economic factors, it isn’t worth it for farmers to pick the fruit.
As we approached an olive factory outside a village we met a man who appeared to be in charge of it who graciously showed us around. Large cans of fresh olive oil were stacked and ready for delivery. Machines of various shapes jutted out from the walls. All was silent. It was obvious that the olive processing season was finished here.
The new Acropolis Museum in Athens, which lies in the shadow of the Acropolis, addressed the question of the origin of the olive tree from the point of view of Greek Mythology. Goddess Athena contested and won dominion over the land of Attica in competition with Poseidon. Afterward she offered its inhabitants the olive tree. Athens is her city, the olive tree, which she created, is her tree.
Because olive oil covered a wide range of needs – foodstuff, lamp fuel, cosmetics and cult – it became the most important agricultural produce in antiquity.
I now find myself thinking twice before stepping on an olive branch which may be lying in my path. Feeling this fallen branch deserves some degree of respect, I usually step over it or go around it.
Ahhhh, nothing is the same once you have been to Greece – especially the olive branch.