|The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem|
The word Gethsemane appears in the Greek of the Gospel of Matthew (26:36) and the Gospel of Mark (14:32) as Γεθσημανἱ (Gethsēmani). The name is derived from the Assyrian Gaṯ-Šmānê, meaning “oil press.” Luke (22:39) speaks of them going to the Mount of Olives, but says nothing of a Gethsemane. We get the phrase “the Agony in the Garden” from John (18:1), which says Jesus entered a garden (κῆπος) with his disciples. Combining the two, we end up with the familiar Garden of Gethsemane. Tradition locates a Gethsemane on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, but the exact spot remains unknown.
The olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin; wild olives were collected by Neolithic peoples as early as the 8th millennium BC. The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor…now modern Turkey. A widespread view exists that the first cultivation took place on the island of Crete. The earliest surviving olive oil amphorae date to 3500 BC (Early Minoan times), though the production of olives is assumed to have started before 4000 BC.
|An Ancient Oil Press|
The olive tree and its oil were major components in the culture and rituals of Ancient Israel and the economy of its inhabitants. Its prominent status is revealed by numerous verses in the Old and New Testament, the Mishnah and the Talmud.
The olive tree served as a symbol of beauty (Isaiah 11, 16), freshness and fertility “your sons are like shoots of olive around your table” (Psalms). In (Judges 9,8), Jotham tells the fable of the trees choosing the olive tree as their king. The Holy Land and the olive tree are a “land of olive and oil” (Deut 8, 8) and later “olive trees will be growing everywhere” (Deut 28, 40).
Proof of the importance and antiquity of olive oil can be found in the word’s origins. Our English word oil derives from Anglo-French olie, which came from the Latin oleum “oil, olive oil” from Gk. elaion “olive tree”, which may was derived from the Phoenician use of el'yon meaning “superior.”
As long as we’re on the eytomology of words and phrases, it’s interesting to note that the first manmade floor covering was composed of linseed oil combined with wood flour or cork dust, powdered limestone and color pigments over a jute or canvas backing. Its name was derived from the Latin names for two natural materials: flax (linum) and oil (oleum)…linoleum. As you can see, it is all natural, whereas vinyl flooring is composed of petrochemicals. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember when the stores sold something called oleomargarine as a butter substitute. Do you also remember smoshing the packet of yellow food coloring into the white block of margarine?
|A One-Man Oil Press|
As early as 2,000 BC, Dynastic Egyptians imported olive oil from Crete, Syria and Canaan making oil an important item of commerce and wealth. Remains of olive oil have been found in jugs over 4,000 years old in a tomb on the island of Naxos in the Aegean Sea. Sinuhe, the Egyptian exile who lived in northern Canaan about 1960 BC, wrote of abundant olive trees.
The first recorded oil extraction is known from the Hebrew Bible and took place during the Exodus from Egypt, during the 13th century BC. During this time, the oil was derived through hand-squeezing the berries and stored in special containers under guard of the priests. Over 100 olive presses have been found in Tel Miqne (Ekron), where the Biblical Philistines also produced oil. These presses are estimated to have had output of between 1,000 and 3,000 tons of olive oil per season.
|A Two-Man Oil Press|
The fruit and its oil were major constituents of the ancient Israelites diet. Olive oil was used for cooking, fueling lamps, as an emollient for grooming and conditioning the skin and hair, as well as a healing balm. Olive oil was used in the Temple sacrifices. Anointing of any type was always been done with olive oil…a practice carried over into the early Church. This chrism, oil blessed by the Bishop, was used at Baptism, ordinations, anointing of sick, and at Last Rites.
The Kingdom of Israel founded several industrial villages devoted to the production of oil, probably under royal auspices. Two examples of such sites were found at the Kla’ and Khirbet Khadash sites. In provincial towns in the hill country and mountain region of Judea, industrial areas become part of urban planning. Such a royal economy during King David's rule is spelled out in Chronicles 27:25-31, where the names of the various officials administering the king’s holdings are listed.
Surprisingly, the region of Galilee apparently did not share in mass production during the biblical period. Only 14 oil presses (compared to hundreds in Samaria and Judea) dated to the tenth to eighth century BC have been found. The Phoenicians brought an improved system utilizing a peripheral collecting to their colony at Tel Shiqmona. This colony served as the royal administrative center of the Land of Kavool, which was given by King Solomon to King Hiram of Tyre (Zor in Hebrew). During the third century BC the center of oil production in the Judean Hills moved to the Sidonite colony of Maresha, where 18 oil press caves were carved in the soft limestone around the city.
Olives, by weight, can contain up to 25% oil and getting it is a two-step process. First, the olives must be crushed. A crushing mill consisted of a large, circular stone upon which a millstone (memel) was placed. The memel was rotated around a central axis, rolling over the olives and crushing them.
|Remains of a Donkey-Powered Mill|
The remains of large mills where an animal was harnessed to the axle of the millstone and would turn the stone by walking a continuous circle.
After crushing and breaking them, the olive pulp was gathered and taken for pressing in aqalim, baskets woven of coarse fabric or ropes. The aqalim were squeezed in a press and the olive oil was extracted as a result of this action. The baskets served as a filter whereby the liquid dripped out leaving the pits and pulp waste behind. Later improvements to the process included the addition of troughs that drained the oil into holding vats. In larger facilities, several presses might all feed a central vat.
|A Large Lever Press that Used Weights for Crushing|
The first use of a mechanic pressing tool dates to around 1500 BC. The system used a large beam that acted as a lever. One end of the beam was held stationary and weights were hung from the other. As the weighed of the beam was mechanically lowered, it gradually raised the force applied to the olive pulp in the aqalim, forcing out the oil. During the Byzantine era this method was supplanted by the introduction of a direct screw press that allowed the user to continue cranking a plate, or large piece of wood, down against a crushing basin with increasing pressure.
Olive trees were planted across the entire Mediterranean basin during the period of the Roman republic and empire. According to the historian Pliny, Italy had "excellent olive oil at reasonable prices" by the first century AD, "the best in the Mediterranean." Thus olive oil was very common in Hellenistic and Latin cuisine. According to legend, the city of Athens obtained its name because Athenians considered olive oil essential, preferring the offering of the goddess Athena (an olive tree) over the offering of Poseidon (a spring of salt water gushing out of a cliff).
Until next time, we wish you Peace and Blessings.