There are two liquids especially agreeable to the human body, wine inside and oil outside."
There is an inscription in Egyptian characters on the pyramid which records the quantities of radishes onions and garlic consumed by the laborers who constructed it."
Greek historian, Herodotus, describing his visits to the pyramids at Giza.
Few foods hold as an esteemed position in Mediterranean cuisine and lifestyle as garlic and olive oil. Now that modern science and medicine has confirmed what the ancients assumed about the health benefits of garlic and olive oil, they are receiving even more attention in modern cuisine and medicine. Both garlic and olive oil are noted for their curative properties as antioxidants. Modern science has proven what Dioscorides knew thousands of years ago, that garlic "clears the arteries." Moreover, garlic and olive oil are some of the most versatile -- not to mention tasty -- foods produced in the world, indispensable in Mediterranean cooking. Garlic and olive oil were staples in the ancient world, consumed by everyone from peasants to scholars to kings, much as they are today. Anecdotal, archaeological, botanical, and documentary evidence show that both garlic and olive oil served an integral role in the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. Five thousand years later, garlic and olive oil continue to treat taste buds and stimulate the economies of Mediterranean nations.
The roots of garlic cultivation are fairly difficult to trace, but the plant originated in Central Asia. Some sources suggest that at one time, wild garlic grew on the entire Asian continent, from China to India to Egypt to the Ukraine (Simon). However, wild garlic now only grows in a region of central Asia comprising what is today Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Records show that garlic was grown 8,000 years ago in Sumeria and Mesopotamia (Pellechia). The ancient Egyptians referred to garlic, as did the ancient peoples of India. Written records in China suggest that garlic was cultivated there some four thousand years ago, and unequivocal archaeological evidence shows that over four thousand years ago, the Babylonians harvested garlic on a large scale (Simon).
Garlic became revered as a plant and as a god by the ancient peoples of the Levant. However, few cultures did as much for the proliferation and economic trade of garlic as the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians mastered the art of seafaring trade, and were the ancient world import/export leaders. Garlic was but one of the commodities transported from Eastern to Western Asia and the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians' lucrative trade partnership with Egypt introduced that country to the wonders of allium sativuum. Unfortunately, the Egyptians kept few written accounts of their early experiences with garlic, but Pliny and Herodotus both note that the Egyptians revered garlic for its divine properties of protection. Not only was garlic integral in financing the pyramids, for the plant was by that time an essential commodity on the Near Eastern trade routes, but garlic was also used as an anti-fungal agent in the wrappings of mummies (Pellechia). Beyond these practical advantages, garlic also protected the souls of the dead in the afterlife, according to the ancient Egyptians, who placed garlic plants and bulbs in tombs. Thus, some of the earliest botanical remains of garlic were willfully preserved by the ancient Egyptians.
Although the Egyptians left few written records as to their specific culinary uses for garlic, Egyptian medicine made wide use of the plant's curative properties. The Codex Ebers, a papyrus dating to 1500 BCE, lists several dozen therapeutic properties of garlic, including heart problems, gastrointestinal disorders, menstrual problems, and headaches. The Egyptians weren't the only people to discover that garlic contributes to physical health. As far back as 2000 BCE, Chinese medicine employed garlic as a sedative and a treatment for respiratory illnesses (Pellechia 32). Remarkably, modern clinical trials verify much of what the ancient Mediterranean peoples intuited about this marvelous herb.
Garlic wasn't revered by all. Ancient Egyptian and Greek temple priests, just like Hindu Brahmins, despise garlic. The pungent herb was perceived as a peasant food, unfit for consumption by the elite. Perhaps garlic received this bad reputation mainly because of its smell and the smell that lingers on the breath.
Remarkably, given its status in Italian cooking today, garlic was not widely used or valued in ancient Rome as it was elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Apicius, a sort of "chef to the emperors" of ancient Rome around the first century CE, rarely mentions garlic; when he does, he recommends very small quantities (Brothwell & Brothwell 108). However, Virgil mentions it frequently in his Edogues, suggesting that the plant was more widely consumed in the Roman Empire than Apicius would have us believe. Garlic was, and often still is, a controversial food. While Pliny, Galen, and Homer revered garlic, Horace hated the plant due to its smell (Grieve).
Garlic appears in a plethora of myths, legends, and folktales. Perhaps the most common association is between garlic and vampires. Interestingly, garlic was noted as a protective agent throughout many ancient and modern cultures. Its pungent aroma probably accounts for this widespread belief, but garlic also achieved a more mythological status in Ancient Greece. Homer wrote that garlic assisted Ulysses on his odyssey. Garlic was also placed on the crossroads in ancient Greece to placate the gods (Grieve).
Although garlic's center of origin was central Asia, the plant quickly spread around the world via trade routes. Garlic is widely mentioned in Old English herbalists. In fact, the English word "garlic" comes from the Celtic "gar," meaning spear, and "leek." The tip of the garlic stalk resembles a spear as well as a wild variety of leek. Garlic is, in fact, related to the leek, the onion, and the shallot.
Until only about twenty years ago, garlic was cultivated asexually, that is, without seeds. Instead, farmers cloned the plants from its bulbs or stalks. Although little evidence exists to explain which particular varieties of garlic were most widely cultivated in ancient or medieval times, the type found in the Egyptian tombs is called "hardneck" garlic (Simon). Over the past millennia, garlic has been widely cultivated around southern Europe, but farmers rarely made a note of the exact type of garlic they produced; such attention to detail only became an issue in horticulture within the past century (Simon).
As with many other commodities, garlic made its way along established trade routes; travelers also brought wild garlic with them, enabling its propagation. Nowadays, garlic is cultivated around the world, mostly by and for local markets. Not only is garlic an important food commodity, the plant has also been studies for its medical applications. Dioscorides knew that garlic could clear the arteries, and recent clinical tests prove his ancient dictum. Moreover, Louis Pasteur backs up what the Egyptian tomb builders believed: garlic is antibacterial and antiseptic. In the early twentieth century, an active component of garlic called allicin was made into a drug called Allisatin, used as an antibacterial/antiseptic. In Russia, allicin is sold as an antibiotic (Pellechia 159). In Japan during the 1970s, garlic was found to combine remarkably well with Vitamin B1 to aid in the absorption of thiamin. Garlic has been shown to lower blood sugar and blood cholesterol, and garlic may be an anti-cancer agent.
Like garlic, olive oil is also known for its curative properties, both in ancient and modern medicine. As a monounsaturated fat, olive oil helps lower blood cholesterol and protects against the hardening of the arteries. Hence, garlic and olive oil together make a sort of Mediterranean panacea. Olive oil is one of the most easily digested fats and is rapidly absorbed by the body. Moreover, unlike other oils, olive oil does not turn rancid when used in cooking. Olive oil, like garlic, is an antioxidant, and contains 9 mg. Of vitamin E and 100 g. Of vitamin A per tablespoon (Pellechia 170).
The word "olive" comes from the Latin word "oliva," and the plant has symbolized peace, victory, and abundance for millennia. The olive tree was considered sacred, a symbol of immortality because of its sturdy, almost indestructible root system. The olive tree is native to Asia Minor and the Near East, where it was cultivated as early as six thousand years ago. The first record of commercial cultivation is from Syria, about five thousand years ago (Sophim). However, pollen studies show that the olive might have been present in Greece since Neolithic times (Olympia, Brothwell et. al. 155). The type of wild olive that grew in Neolithic Greece was not oil producing. Archaelogical evidence points to Syria and Palestine as the earliest producers of olive oil: stone jars of oil were found in that region (Brothwell et. al 156). Wherever the olive tree first appeared -- Syria, Palestine, or Greece, the Greeks were undoubtedly the first to engage in large-scale production and trade. Olives are mentioned widely in Greek historiographies and other documents by Dioscorides, Diocles, Herdotus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Aristotle ("Olive Oil History").