The Olive Route


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Like the Silk Road, the Frankincense Route and the Spice Route, the Olive Route--stretching 2,200 miles (3,540 km) from Gibraltar to northern Syria--enjoys a historic past filled with epic adventure.

The olive was native to Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin 6,000 years ago. It is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world. History shows it was growing on Crete by 3,000 BC and may even have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan kingdom.

The Phoenicians took the olive to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe and evidence of the fruit was discovered in Egyptian tombs dating from 2,000 years BC.

The olive culture spread from the early Greeks to the Romans and, as they extended their empire, they took the olive with them. The trees on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem are reputed to be over 2,000 years old. Meanwhile, shrub-like 'feral' olives still exist in the Middle East and represent the original stock from which all other olives of the region are descended. In 2007, Unesco World Heritage brought together a team to map out an Olive Heritage Trail around the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin. Carol Drinkwater, author of the Olive Trilogy, a series of books that look at the history of the olive throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East from a personal perspective, was asked to join the team, composed of geologists, geographers, history scientists, and archaeologists. The project comes within Unesco's cultural programme, while some of the sites that might make up the trail fall under the Unesco world network of biospheres such as Jabal Moussa, in Lebanon. The Jabal Moussa site was added to the list in mid 2009. Located on the shoulders of the western slopes of the northern Mount Lebanon chain, it is renowned for its unspoiled, ancient agricultural terraces, and trails that date back to Roman times. The region boasts historic olive groves and many important plant species, as well as undisturbed wildlife habitats. Lebanon is also home to some of the oldest known olive trees; at 6,000 years old these are to be found in the village of Bechaleah, near Mount Lebanon. Another area steeped in olive history is Palestine, where current endeavours to produce organic olive oil for export are well under way, having achieved European distribution in stores including Sainsbury's and Waitrose.

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Organic farming

Organic farming would appear to be the way forward for preserving the remaining flora and fauna of our planet, with Drinkwater a keen proponent of the movement. "I think the organic route is a shift that is being pushed by international concern for the damage being caused to the earth, to our environment and all the other creatures and plants sharing this earth with us.

"In fact, a major positive effect of organic farming is the proliferation of insects, butterflies and, in particular, bees that are under serious threat. A third of the western world's honeybees have disappeared. Pesticides, habitat loss, parasites, intensive farming, all have been cited as causes and I believe there is an urgent need for awareness about land management. It has now been discovered without any doubt that certain chemicals particularly those of the nicotinoid variety are lethal to honey bees. Several of these insecticides have been banned in Europe and there is call for their withdrawal from the American markets. I also believe that no matter where we live, no matter how small our patch (even window boxes) we have the possibility to help avert the deepening of this crisis."

Interestingly, Paris, where Drinkwater has a home, is a European example of urban beekeeping; it is said to be fast becoming the urban beekeeping capital of the world. The city now boasts some 400 hives and the number is growing steadily. For the past 10 years the French capital has officially been a pesticide-free zone, which may well explain its success with the bee population. …

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