Outside Bethlehem, men beat the branches and handpick olives during the fall harvest. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Next comes the sorting of what has collected in cloths beneath the trees. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Later, women await their turn at the olive press in Bethlehem. (photo: Gerald Ring)
After millstones mash the olives, they are spread on fibre mats, stacked, and hydraulically pressed. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Finally, fresh olive oil is ready for use. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Each autumn the pungent aroma of olive oil wafts from Bethlehems olive press. It is a fitting place to meet this seasonal ritual which dates back thousands of years. The kind of oil used in the Bible for anointing kings and priests is produced within sight of the Church of the Nativity, where the Messiah the Anointed One was born.
The olive press, deserted for most of the year, becomes a bustling hive for a few weeks from late September until early November. Villagers come from around Bethlehem to have their crops pressed here. Traditionally clad Palestinian women literally surround the building. They sit on bursting sacks of olives as they await their turn at the press. Amid empty plastic and tin containers, their children scramble around to pass the time. In nearby coffeehouses men in flowing robes and headdresses discuss this years crop and the price it will bring.
Since biblical times, this thick, green liquid has been a precious commodity. It has always been essential to the lives of the native population. They use it for food, lighting, and medicine. It also is a symbol of wealth and nobility. After being perfumed, it was used to anoint kings and other nobles. Hezekiah kept oil in his treasure house along with his gold and silver (II Kings 20:13).
Ownership of a large grove was and is a sign of prosperity, and oil is synonymous with joy and gladness (Is. 61:3). Failure of the olive harvest, therefore, is considered a calamity (Hab. 3:17-18).
In biblical times, the many olive trees in the Holy Land made it a land of olives, oil, and honey (Deut. 8:8) even more than it is today. Indeed, they probably covered the Mount of Olives. Gethsemane, at the foot of this hill east of Jerusalem, got its name because this was where olives were pressed. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years. Some trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are so old that they are impossible to date.
Although olive trees grow throughout the Holy Land, except in desert areas, most are found in the hill country. While ordinary farming is difficult there because of the stony ground and sloping terrain, olive trees proliferate. The hills surrounding Bethlehem and north to Jerusalem are especially rich in Palestinian and church-owned groves.
In addition to being vital to their income, the olive tree holds a special place in the hearts of Palestinians. Palestinians who live and work in the oil fields of the arid Gulf states fondly recall their villages surrounded by the gnarled, silver-green trees. Their economic and political plight may have forced them to help extract the black oil from the ground, but their hearts desire is still the golden-green oil of their homeland. Palestinians rightly consider their oil superior and are eager to obtain it when they are overseas.
Until recently, olive oil was the only oil used by Palestinian villagers. Today, however, they use other, less costly edible oils for many purposes. Yet their distinctive dishes take their unique flavor and aroma from pure cold-pressed olive oil.
The harvest of olives in late September through October requires the labor of the whole family and Palestinian families are usually large! Often more than a dozen people work in a grove each day.
The easiest way to harvest olives is to beat the trees with sticks to loosen them from the boughs. Even though this technique is not considered good for the trees, most grove owners do it at least to remove the ripest part of the crop. The alternative of handpicking is a tedious, lengthy task.
Large cloths spread beneath the trees catch the ripe olives when the men, using long poles, beat the branches. When the cloths are full, the women remove bad fruit and bits of twigs and leaves. Then they gather the corners of the cloth and pour the olives into sacks. Around 80 percent of the olives can be harvested this way. The rest are handpicked by men on tall ladders.
In groves owned by religious people, especially the Greek Orthodox Church, they leave a portion for the poor (Deut. 24:20). Religious Muslims observe a similar duty to the poor. After the harvest, landless Arabs can be found gleaning the remaining fruit from the groves.
When the harvesting is finished, the grove owner decides what proportion of the crop will be pressed into oil. His decision will depend on the market price. If the years yield is low, he will probably press the entire crop because prices will be high. Most olives kept back for preserves are green; black olives have a higher oil yield.
The large commercial groves will have more than 10,000 kilos of olives for pressing. Their owners take them to modern presses, which can handle up to 30,000 kilos of olives per day over two shifts. The buyers wait around these presses to make sure they get the best oil. They taste it, savoring its bouquet rather like wine-tasters. Most of the yield is sold on the spot.
By contrast, the typical village grove has a modest harvest 500 to 1000 kilos of olives, and often less. From these land-holdings farmers come to the smaller though still modern presses, such as the one near Manger Square in Bethlehem. The poorer people come away with only enough oil for their own use, and perhaps a little for market. Still, being a staple in their lives, the yield of their harvest is treasured.
Pressing time always creates excitement. It breaks the daily routine of the land laborers. Clattering machinery, babbling voices, and the heady aroma of raw pounded olives fill the air.
The olives are weighed before being poured into a vat. Here they are crushed by two large revolving millstones, which create an almost deafening noise. The stones of the Bethlehem press are 55 years old they still do their job loud and strong! The ground pulp falls through into a lower vat, where it is shoveled out or scooped up by the armful by men wearing aprons splattered and stained by the mashed black and green olives. The walls also wear the mash, and the floors are slippery with the oily mush.
The pulp is next spread onto fiber mats about two feet in diameter with a hole through the middle. These are then threaded one on top of the other onto a steel spindle about six feet high. When the spindle is full of mats, the whole pile is put under a powerful hydraulically operated press, which squeezes out all the juices. In a modern press, this liquid which is a mixture of water and oil drains through a series of pipes and into a centrifugal machine which separates the oil from the water. At last the pure, virgin oil pours into the final vat.
The pressed pulp left behind in the mats is scraped off to be sold to cosmetics manufacturers who use steam pressure to extract more oil for use in soap and beauty preparations. Some is also sold as a very efficient fuel. Cakes of it are burned to fire traditional bread-baking ovens and to generate winter warmth.
For the olive grove owners, their thoughts are on the steady stream of smooth fluid which slowly drains into the stainless-steel tub at the end of the press. The grove owner or his wife brings cans to be filled. Their yield is calculated according to the type of olive, at twenty to thirty percent of the gross weight. Five to ten percent of the yield goes as payment to the press owner.
The atmosphere around this last vat is always charged with expectancy. Serious, tense faces watch as their yearlong labor flows through a funnel into the containers. Finally, they can relax and savor their efforts and the earths bounty.
Man and wife proudly carry away another satisfying years treasured harvest, as others have done for hundreds of years. With the precious oil strapped to their donkey, they begin the journey home with the joyous flush of completion, as if they had been anointed for their blessings.
Gerald Ring, a free-lance writer and photographer traveling extensively in the Near East, is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.