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Olive Oil in Al-Alandalus

  • Olive oil experienced a period of splendor during the time the Arabs remained in what was previously known as Hispania.

  • The Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula took place between 711 and 1492 AD.

The Beginning of Al-Andalus

Olive oil in times of Al-Andalus was key for many different reasons, from food to artifitial lightning. But, before Al-Andalus, many civilizations had occupied the territory that now we know as Spain. Until 711, the Iberian Peninsula had seen the passage of various peoples. The Romans are perhaps one of the civilizations whose occupation of the Iberian Peninsula has been most documented, but the fact is that, before them, other culturally rich peoples like the Phoenicians, the Turdetanians, the Carthaginians, and even the Greeks had already passed through. However, the Arabs managed to leave a lasting imprint on the region, and their legacy remains very much alive in certain current Spanish customs.

The Islamic presence in the peninsula began in 711 when the Umayyad Caliphate, led by General Tarik, landed in what is today Gibraltar. The conquest by Islamic troops was swift, expanding their empire to almost the entire peninsula, except for a few northern populations. Over time, the Arab troops retreated before the advancing Christians, although they managed to defend Al-Andalus for many years from the south up to slightly beyond the Central System.

Abd-al-Rahman_III coronation in Cordoba.
Abd-al-Rahman_III coronation in Cordoba.

The foundations on which the Islamic culture settled in Al-Andalus were mainly three: agriculture, livestock, and commerce. On these three pillars, the new Arab society flourished, promoting a true revolution in crucial aspects such as urbanism, culture, and the economy, and lasted until their definitive expulsion by the Christians in 1492.

The Olive Tree in Al-Andalus

The arrival of the Umayyad Caliphate to the Iberian Peninsula and the introduction of their techniques brought about a raise in agriculture. Some historians have referred to this renewal as the «green revolution.» The great success of this revolution was the improvement in productivity, which generated surplus with reduced labor forces. This allowed part of the population to engage in new trades more related to arts and culture.

The reasons why Arab agriculture stood out compared to previous methods in the area were several. Traditionally, Christian settlers used fallowing in their fields, meaning that crops were left to rest for parts of the year (mainly summer), reducing agricultural efficiency. The Arabs introduced crop rotation, doubling field production, and developed and renewed efficient irrigation
methods, enhancing the land’s fertility. They also introduced new species like melon, watermelon, eggplant, and fig.

The olive tree quickly emerged as a rising crop due to the quality of its product and its versatility, becoming a clear symbol of Andalusian culture. To get an idea, one only needs to look at the enormous legacy of Al-Andalus in the current Spanish vocabulary related to oil (from the word «al-zeyt»). Besides this, other terms like «almazara,» «acebuche,» «aceituna,» and «alcuza» also come from Arabic words.

Olive oil in Al-Andalus distinguished between three main types of oil; the highest quality was the «zayt al-má» («water oil»), obtained through mashing in a mortar or with feet and rudimentarily decanted. Following the «water» oil wasthe «zayt al-ma’sara» (almazara oil), created through cold pressing, similar to what we now understand as «virgin» and «extra virgin,» and finally, the «zayt matbuh» or «cooked oil,» which was scalded and treated with hot water to extract a liquid similar to pomace oil. Historically, different stages of the olive tree can be observed within Al-Andalus. We already know that the Umayyads placed great importance on this crop. However, the state in which the Iberian field was found was not very encouraging. Oil was used for export, but olive cultivation fell into decline at the beginning of the 8th century, leaving some traditionally olive-growing areas like el Aljarafe or the territory of Sanlúcar la Mayor deserted.

The Arab interest in olive growing led to the planting of olive trees in multiple areas of Andalusia. To this day, documents have been found attesting to the
presence of this type of cultivation in areas of Córdoba like Priego, Baena, and Cabra, as well as in the capital itself and areas near Morón and the municipalities of Sidonia and Guadix. Interestingly, Jaén, which later became a great olive oil power, did not have a significant impact on olive cultivation at that time. The rapid rise of the olive tree in Al-Andalus was halted by the financial crisis of the Taifas kingdoms in 1060, which forced the Umayyad government to impose a tax on olive trees.

Al-Andalus drawing in where olive trees can be seen
Al-Andalus drawing in where olive trees can be seen.

The gradual conquest by Christian troops and the Islamic capitulation ultimately damaged oil production and made it impossible to carry out efficient campaigns that generated surpluses. Little by little, the conquering Christians took over the new lands, but fortunately, they adopted the presence of the olive tree as a key crop for Hispanic agriculture.

Uses of Olive Oil in Ancient Al-Andalus

The primary use of olive oil in the Al-Andalus era, as expected, was culinary. The gastronomic legacy of Al-Andalus is evident in today’s Spanish cuisine, and to a large extent, this is where the preference for using oil comes from. Although there were some alternatives, such as sesame or pistachio oil, olive oil was usually present in all dishes. Thus, when foods were not directly fried, they were commonly sautéed in oil first. This happened with meat, fish, doughs, and even vegetables. This is where the Spanish taste for dishes like fried fish, fried eggplants, churros, and fritters comes from. Olive oil was highly prized in the southern half of the peninsula, while Christians tended to use less beneficial fats like lard. However, culinary use was just one of the many applications of olive oil in the Andalusian era, as many others must also be considered.

One of the best-known uses by the general population is its use for street lighting, carried out with «cooked oil,» a technique that continued to be used for centuries in the Iberian Peninsula. Likewise, the fatty acids of the oil were very useful for making soaps and perfumes in a device known as an alembic, used to distill liquids through evaporation and subsequent condensation.

These were by no means the only ways to utilize olive oil, as it was also used medically due to its beneficial properties. Many important figures in Andalusian culture, such as the philosopher and physician Averroes, highlighted the benefits of olive oil for creating ointments and as a skin moisturizer.
Besides its versatile uses, the olive tree was an extremely profitable tree due to the multiple uses of its wood, highly sought after for its efficiency as a fuel and quality as a cabinetmaking material.

All in all, while we must greatly thank the Romans for introducing the olive tree to the Iberian Peninsula, we must also greatly recognize the Arab contribution, which understood the importance of olive cultivation, modernized harvesting techniques, and generated an interest in olive growing that has been maintained to this day.

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