Traditional Turkish Olive Cultivation Practices Recognized by UNESCO

The U.N. agency said Turkey’s traditional grafting, milling and table olive production methods are valuable to our global culture and must be safeguarded.

A traditional olive mill in Turkey. (Photo: Yılmaz Ulus)
By Daniel Dawson
Dec. 14, 2023 17:51 UTC
A traditional olive mill in Turkey. (Photo: Yılmaz Ulus)

Traditional olive cul­ti­va­tion knowl­edge, meth­ods and prac­tices in Turkey have been rec­og­nized in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding for 2023.

Turkey is one of the world’s largest olive-grow­ing and olive oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries. In the 2022/23 crop year, the coun­try yielded a record-high 421,000 tons of olive oil and 735,000 tons of table olives.

According to Levent Köstem, the founder and owner of the Köstem Olive Oil Museum, olive oil pro­duc­tion has a long his­tory in Turkey, with the old­est mill dat­ing back to the 6th or 7th cen­tury BCE. Traditional ani­mal and human-pow­ered stone mills were com­monly used until 15 years ago and are still used today in some places.

See Also:Celebrating South America’s Historic Olive Trees

UNESCO made the recog­ni­tion because olive grow­ing and oil pro­duc­tion are fun­da­men­tal parts of the cul­ture in west­ern Anatolia.

Several rit­u­als, fes­ti­vals and social prac­tices, includ­ing plays, dances and feasts, mark the begin­ning and end of the har­vest sea­son, which gen­er­ally runs from November through January.

These include com­mu­nity efforts to har­vest the olive trees from each family’s grove. At the end of the har­vest, the com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pates in the ba​şak tra­di­tion, where the olives left on the top of the trees are knocked to the ground and donated to the poor­est mem­bers of the com­mu­nity for per­sonal con­sump­tion or to sell to local mills.


Extracting olive oil with traditional methods. (Photo: Yılmaz Ulus)

Along with the social impor­tance of olives and the olive har­vest, UNESCO also rec­og­nized the region’s unique kalem (mean­ing pen­cil in Turkish) method of graft­ing wild olive trees, known as an erkence graft.

Farmers carve two small grooves along oppo­site edges of a nar­row tree stump, also known as a root­stock, using a knife. Next, they take two olive tree scions and sharpen each base to insert into the two grooves on the root­stock.

Farmers then cover the top of the root­stock and base of the scions with mud to pro­tect them from air and sun. The part of the root­stock below where the scions are inserted is also cov­ered with mud to keep it cool. The mud typ­i­cally remains in place for two to three years.

Afterward, the farm­ers wrap the graft with paper to pre­vent the mud from being washed away by rain or dried out by the sun. The paper is fas­tened with a creeper vine from a local bush, which can hold the paper and mud in place for up to three years.

The last step is to place mud balls at the top of the scion to trap mois­ture while pro­tect­ing them from rain and sun.

Along with olive cul­ti­va­tion, UNESCO fur­ther rec­og­nized sev­eral tra­di­tional meth­ods of pro­duc­ing table olives, includ­ing the sala­mura method, which involves pick­ling the olives.

Aynur Yıldırım, a tra­di­tional pro­ducer from Bursa province, told UNESCO the prepa­ra­tion begins by soak­ing the olives in a bucket.

See Also:Olive Oil Production Returns to Pompeii 2,000 Years After Volcanic Eruption

Next, the olives are taken from the bucket by hand, placed in a bag and a layer of rock salt is added. Then, the process is repeated. Yıldırım said it is essen­tial that the olives are moist for the salt to dis­solve.

Once the bag is filled, she said it is impor­tant to shake it once weekly to ensure the salty brine is evenly dis­trib­uted.

UNESCO also rec­og­nized the yağlık, mean­ing oiler, method of table olive pro­duc­tion.


Nesrin Ünlü, pres­i­dent of the Umurbey Woman Initiative Association, told UNESCO that this method involves sep­a­rat­ing olives by size the day they are picked and placed into a stone basin called an olive pool.

Once the basin is filled with olives, water is added until the olives are cov­ered, fol­lowed by a layer of salt. A spe­cial cloth is placed over the pool before being cov­ered by tim­bers and then rocks.

When you put the black olives into the olive pool, they turn red when the cov­ers of the pool are lifted,” Ünlü said.


Sorting olives during the harvest (Photo: Mehmet Karaca)

Traditional pro­cess­ing meth­ods also apply to olive oil pro­duc­tion. Historically, men have climbed the lad­ders to knock the olives off the branches with shak­ers, while women col­lected them from net­ting below and placed the olives into sacks.

The sacks are put on ani­mals – usu­ally mules – to be trans­ported from the groves to the local mill, gen­er­ally located in an urban cen­ter, where vil­lagers gather to cel­e­brate the har­vest and trans­form the olives.

After they are washed, the olives are placed into a basin and crushed with a stone mill, usu­ally pow­ered by a mule. After crush­ing the olives, the paste is removed from the basin, placed in a caul­dron and heated to increase the oil con­tent (though this is unlikely to yield extra vir­gin olive oil).

The paste is then put in sacks, placed into angled troughs with a spigot fac­ing down­ward and clay pots placed beneath them. Once the troughs are filled with sacks, vil­lagers take turns walk­ing on the olives to press out the oil.

After fill­ing the pots, the oil is dis­trib­uted to each vil­lage mem­ber and used until the next har­vest.

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