Economic activities and social life in Crete are closely intertwined with the cultivation of the olive tree and the production of olive oil. Even 3.500 years ago the inhabitants of the island cultivated olive trees systematically, as indicated by archaeological findings and, particularly, by a fresco found at Cnossos depicting an “olive grove ritual”. The trees are lined up, thus proving that Cretans had already developed olive cultivation techniques in the Minoan Period. Since those times they have never stopped cultivating the olive tree and producing olive oil which is used in the everyday diet, in worship as well as in cosmetics. The olive tree itself has a part in worship, mainly in rituals of the Orthodox Church. Today approximately 35.000.000 olive trees are cultivated on the island. A few thousands of them are many-centuries old and some olive groves date back to Christ’s time. Cultivation methods constitute precious skills passed from one generation to another. There is particular experience in cultivating olive trees on hilly and barren land, in mountainous and semi-mountainous areas. Small terraces have been created with the building of dry stone walls, sometimes common for a number of olive trees and other times separate for each one tree. Today the age of these constructions can be estimated; it has been found that some of them were built even 2.300 years ago. In addition, there is a wide range of customs associated with the olive and olive oil, including sacraments of the Orthodox Church and ritual processions with olive branches on Palm Sunday. Olive oil is a staple product throughout the whole island. According to data from the International Olive Oil Council, no other population group consumes so much olive oil as Cretans (35 litres/person/year).
Olive groves are managed by their owners themselves. The same applies to the olive pressing factories, as well as to the package and trading units. However, there are organizations working systematically for the promotion and support of olive growing and olive oil production, the most important of which is the “Cretan olive Oil Network”.
Olive growing plays an important financial role in Crete (it is the primary source of income in rural areas) and it is deeply intertwined with culture. The olive tree has been regarded as a sacred tree since very ancient times. For that matter, Greek mythology states that the earliest domesticated olive tree in Greece was planted by Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Later the olive tree was associated with Christ’s life and engendered a great number of narratives and popular traditions which have been preserved until today. A considerable number of sacred olive trees are still extant in Crete, which are associated with worship, with local traditions or with the lives of holy persons. In older years the rural family depended on the olive to a larger extent than today. Olive oil has diachronically been the basic numismatic – exchange unit. During the preindustrial period all houses were lit with special oil lamps, either metallic, stone or ceramic, some of which are exceptional samples of the local popular art. Olive oil is taken to the churches, even to small chapels, as a votive offering. Today it is used for the lighting of the oil lamps hanging over the saints’ icons.
The systematic cultivation of the olive tree and the production of olive oil is the main source of income in the rural areas of the island, as well as in trading – export enterprises. Yet, olive growing has not been fully exploited as a cultural asset at present. Both ancient and young olive-groves can be sites of attracting visitors. People in the countryside can develop olive-based activities, such as teaching the visitors the procession of olives in order to make them edible, the use of olive oil in local gastronomy and other usages. The olive-oil presses may also function as visitor attractions, not only the modern but also the old ones, those which were operated without electric power, with the use of traditional techniques. A number of them have been preserved in good condition and it is possible to open them again for tourist purposes. Olive oil has been the basic beauty product since ancient times. In Crete it has always been used as a cosmetic, either by itself or as an ingredient of products based on it, such as soap (up until the middle 20th century soap making was the most important industry on the island). At present there are only a few small enterprises making cosmetics based on olive oil and their prospects seem to be favourable. Moreover, there are opportunities for starting small businesses dealing with the production of homemade soap and the organization of soap-making seminars.