Saracen Olive Trees in Sicily – Old is Beautiful

Here in Sicily ancient olive trees are often called Saracen olive trees – the word Saracen refers to the Arab rule in Sicily from the 9th century AD or subsequent invasions – simply to indicate that the olive trees can be hundreds of years old. 

With huge gnarled trunks twisted into bizarre shapes, they are a beautiful part of the landscape where I live in olive tree w twisted trunksoutheastern Sicily, and are reminiscent of an enchanted forest from a fairy tale. It’s easy to imagine trees dancing and whirling at night, only to be stopped in motion at the first light of dawn. 

When I go for a walk near my house in Sicily, I like resting under a Saracen olive tree during, or sometimes actually ON an olive tree.  I think of the tumultuous events of the past centuries that this tree has witnessed, and wish the tree could tell me stories, or at the very least, answer a few questions.  Who planted you?  Who have you sheltered and how have you survived the wars that have been fought around you? How many tons of olives have been laboriously handpicked from your branches, how many people have you fed? How may liters of olive oil from your olives have been pressed over the centuries?  And in this quiet beautiful landscape, the rhythm of an olive trees life  – of  resting, pruning, picking, and pressing  – still continues. Little has changed except the mule-powered oil press is now mechanized. 

Saracen olive tree trunkSaracen olive trees figure into contemporary Italian crime novels, too. Inspector Montalbano, the main character in Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri’s detective novels, likes to sit under a Saracen olive tree when mulling over how to solve a particularly difficult case (of course, he successfully solves the case!) And in one terrible episode, in a book entitled L’Odore della Notte (The Scent of Night), Montalbano discovers that someone has uprooted his magnificent tree in order to build a tacky vacation home, complete with the seven dwarves in the garden.  He is so furious that he smashes the dwarves, breaks a window of the house and spray paints across the wall: stronzo (asshole)!

When driving through the countryside near my home in Modica, I have favorite olive trees that I have named, and I wave to them along the way – Ciao, Twister!   Buongiorno, Hulk!  Unlike Inspector Montalbano’s unfortunate tree, I hope they will be around for generations to come. 

Gnarled Olive Tree

8 thoughts on “Saracen Olive Trees in Sicily – Old is Beautiful

  1. Who could forget the olive trees and the olive oil tasting after a splendid al fresco lunch at the farm of Oliva Verde, in western Sicily?

  2. 1000 thanks for the photos – our local library has 12 of Camilleri’s books and I am about to exhaust them all (sadly!) Curiosity led me to my computer and do some research on the ‘unbelieviably gorgeous tree. Wish I were there. Ciao

  3. 1,000 thanks for the photos – my local library has 12 books of Andrea Camilleri – just finished all of them (sadly). Yes, this author often refers to the saracen olive tree when he is in need of meditating. What a gorgeous tree. foc

  4. Lovely.

    I hav the great luck to live in Sicily for four years and those anceint old olive trees always amazed and comforted me. They impart a wisdom of time that says no matter what happens you can endure, you may be twisted with time and narled by fate, but this is all part of an interesting life and with hope and love it will bare fruit.

    Or olives.

  5. Thanks for this. I enjoyed reading it. It was a help. I’m reading ‘Excursion to Tindari’ and googled to get more background.

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading this post David. Excursion to Tindari is one of my favorites in the Inspector Montalbano series of Sicilian detective novels. Have you also been able to get your hands on a video from the television series? They are quite well done and were filmed around where I live in southeastern Sicily.

  6. Thank you for your piece on Saracen olive trees, which answered my questions abut them and their name. I am an enormous fan of Camilleri and his Inspector Salvo Montalbano, and I’ve read and reread his novels and downloaded the TV series and the films. Love them all, always. -/Shel

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