“Wisdom is a tree of life for those who embrace her.”  Proverbs 3:18

For millennia, the olive tree has been the pillar of Palestinian agrarian culture. This noble tree was domesticated during the Chalcolithic era, and there is evidence of olive oil production from 5,000 years ago in this region. Today, olives comprise almost 40% of all fruit produced in Palestine, and the primary product is quality (“cold pressed”) olive oil, a valuable source of healthy nutriments, valuable cosmetics, and also, in ancient times, of light. Many local trees are hundreds of years old, and in Galilee two individual trees have been dated to over 3000 years. Although Palestinian life today is increasingly urban, still the olive tree remains a beloved symbol of the creative relationship between the people and the land.

The wood of the olive, finely grained and beautifully textured, is ideal for delicate woodcarving. Since the earliest days of pilgrimage to Bethlehem, visitors to the town have taken home olive wood souvenirs, rosaries, boxes, nativity scenes and carved statuary, all made by local artists. The wood used for carving is never obtained by felling trees; such brutal practice would destroy whole groves of priceless trees. Rather, the necessary annual pruning of the olive branches provides ample material for carving, so farmers and woodcarvers enjoy a symbiotic economic balance.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Franciscan friars from Damascus are credited with introducing the mother-of-pearl industry to Bethlehem, bringing teachers of the craft from Genoa to train local artists. From that time, mother-of-pearl, silver, glass and mosaic artistry joined the traditional olive wood crafts in Palestine, and all of these arts flourish still today.

The olive tree is a spiritual symbol found in the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three indigenous faiths of the Holy Land. Perhaps the most familiar biblical reference is the Genesis story of Noah’s Ark, in which the dove brings a branch of the olive tree back to the ark at the end of the Flood. This is the beginning of the traditional association of the olive branch with peace, since in both Hebrew (shalom) and Arabic (salaam), “peace” derives from a root meaning “whole” and “complete.”  The wholeness of the earth, with the restoration of the dry land after the Flood, is a model for the  holistic integrity of human life lived with mutual respect and dignity.

Christianity inherited the Jewish symbolism of the olive, adding an important New Testament theological reflection in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, where the olive tree symbolizes the living relationship of the old faith (the root of the olive) to the new (the grafted branch). An old Palestinian Christian tradition holds that the cross of Christ was in fact made of olive wood, and a local monastery in Jerusalem still enshrines a living olive tree regarded by pilgrims as a descendant of the tree of the cross.  Although Western Christians might find this tradition strange, from a historical perspective it is certain that Romans crucified their victims on local olive trees in the first century. This is supported by the discovery near Jerusalem of an ossuary from that period containing the remains of a crucified man, his heel-bone pierced with an iron nail still embedded in a piece of olive wood.

In Islam, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted in a hadith as saying that the olive is “a blessed tree”, and that olive oil is especially healthy for massaging the feet. In the Qur’an, the olive tree appears in the mysterious reference of Sura 24: “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth… like a lamp… kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil glows of itself… Light upon light, Allah guides us to His light…”  The reference to the olive tree “neither of the East nor of the West” has prompted some scholars to understand this to mean that the olive tree is none other than the “Tree of Bliss” (shajarat al-tuba) of Muslim tradition, which grows in the middle of Paradise.

In recent years, sadly, due to the local conflict in the area, thousands of Palestinian olive trees have been damaged and destroyed, with grave consequences for the local agrarian economy. Replacing uprooted trees, aiding Palestinian farmers in the annual olive harvest, and of course the purchase of olive wood carvings, are increasingly recognized today as peaceful ways of giving moral and practical support to a people struggling to live in dignity and justice on their ancestral land.

Deeply rooted in the living traditions and in the ancient soil of the Holy Land, the olive remains a “tree of life” and a “blessed tree” for the artisans of Bethlehem. The exquisite carvings they make of the olive’s glowing wood are artistic treasures of contemporary Palestinian cultural heritage.