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The Olive Tree


In Palestine, the olive tree is prized for its historical presence, its beauty, its symbolic significance, and most importantly for its economic importance. Olive trees are a major commercial crop for Palestine, and many families depend on these trees for their livelihood.

Olive Harvest

During the second half of October until the end of November, the annual olive harvest season occurs, one of the most important harvest seasons for the livelihood of Palestinian peasants.  Traditionally in Palestine, harvesting the olive trees was a joyous time. All the family members leave school and work and take to the hills and valleys where their olive trees are abundant, and work in olive-picking from dawn till dusk, day after day. Children, parents, and grandparents, each have a role to play. Relatives and friends offer a helping hand. Schools and universities take a long weekend holiday towards the end of the month of October to help in picking olives. The younger ones climb the tree to pick the olives and throw them on the large mat placed beneath the tree.

Picking Olives 1936

Some trees have been producing olives from the times of Jesus, Omar Ben Al-Khatab, Salah Eddin, and Napoleon Bonaparte.   These ancient olive groves have provided livelihoods for generations.  There are approximately 12 million olive trees in Palestine.  The olive tree is often called "the Blessed Tree"  (el shajarah el mubarakah) and Fellahin sometimes swear by it, saying:  "By the life of the Tree of Light"  (wihyat shajarat el nur). In Palestine it is still common to light churches and shrines with olive oil and not any other kind of oil, even with the invention of electricity and use of electric bulbs. Babies, too, are rubbed with oil and salt to make them strong. Old people often begin the day by drinking a small cupful of olive oil because of its healthy attribute of giving strength and energy.

An Old Olive Tree

Oil  Lanterns at
the Nativity Church

There are stories and proverbs alluding to the high value of oil, whether used raw or cooked. "A man had two wives, one the beloved and the other, the hated one. Therefore the beloved one and her child were fed with semneh” (clarified butter) and the hated one and her child had oil to eat. The children were of the same age and the mothers perceived that when they quarreled, the one who took olive oil was stronger.  So the beloved wife went to a wise man and asked 'why is it that my child who has good food is not the stronger?' He replied, 'Semneh for beauty, but oil for strength' (El semneh lil zen, w el zeit lil 'asab), and his saying is repeated as a proverb to this day. Another similar saying is, "Eat oil and knock down the wall" ( Kol il zeit wintah il heit), i.e., you will be as strong as a goat which butts its head against the wall.

Many products are extracted from the olive tree: among them are olives, olive oil, olive wood, and olive-based soap.

A Bethlehem artist carving Olive wood


Nablus Soap



The olive tree has great importance for Palestinian culture and identity.  The olive tree also symbolizes steadfastness because it weathers all kinds of climate. The olive tree is known around the world for its symbolism of peace and tranquility. The expression "to hold out an olive branch" means to seek harmony and peace.
  - From Cedar to Hyssop: a study in the folklore of plants in Palestine, by Grace M. Crowfoot, The Sheldon Press, 1932
  - Uprooting Olive Trees in Palestine, by Atyaf Alwazir, 2002
  - Bethlehem 2000, by Mitri Raheb, Palmyra, 1998


- This week in Palestine Issue No. 90, October 2005: "The Palestinian Olive Oil Industry", by Basem Khoury


- The Glory of Bethlehem, by Bargil Pixner, The Jerusalem Publishing House, 1981


- Jerusalem through my Father's Eyes, by Kevork Kahvedjian, Elia Photo Service, 1998


- Palestine the Holy Land, PECDAR, 1999


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