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Oil in the Ancient World: Ancient Egypt
Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Ancient Egyptians, like all ancient peoples, greatly valued oil; but unlike their neighbours to the East and West, they did not profit from large-scale production of olive oil until around 330 BCE. It has been posited that the climate in Egypt at the time was not ideal for growing olive trees. More likely, though, is the idea that the trading of domestic goods for olive oil benefited the Egyptian elite; limited quantities ensured that the product became a true luxury, thereby elevating the status of those who could secure it. This powerful commodity was integral to the increased class distinction in the emerging state, and Palestine, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean were all too eager to trade with Egypt to cement their ties.

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Egypt was also famous throughout the ancient world for its essential oils and perfumes. Olive oil was considered an ideal carrier, but widespread oils like castor, linseed and safflower were used more commonly. Unlike in Ancient Greece and Rome, olive oil was not used in large quantities, such as for fuel, but rather saved for cosmetic purposes and food, for those who could afford it.

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Under Greek (and later, Roman) rule, olive cultivation dramatically increased in Egypt. As olive oil became available to a larger percentage of people, the Egyptians eventually came to adopt many of the ritual and everyday practices of the rest of the Greco-Roman world; in particular, they began offering olive oil to the gods, placing jugs of olive oil in the tombs of the deceased, and using it as a medicinal ingredient. 

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