A.1.2.01 – Olive Trees and Olive Oil in Babylonia (3rd Mill. BCE)

1. Olive Trees in Gardens in Babylonia (Ur III)

In the Early Bronze Age, the cultivation of olive trees (Olivia europaea) is well attested textually for Syria in the archive from the royal palace of Ebla (Dossier A.1.2.02). In the alluvium of Babylonia, olive trees were planted in gardens in the territory of the Third Dynasty of Ur (21st century BCE) (Heimpel 2011: 134-35). For „olive“, Sumerian texts use the Akkadian word serdum. The administration listed olive trees in three different gardens full of exotic trees, situated from Puzriš-Dagān close to Nippur to Garšana in the Umma province and to Lagaš in the South:

  • 2 olive trees in the „Šulgi garden“ in the city of Puzriš-Dagān[geogr=Puzriš-Dagān], a royally administered city (PDT 2 0918 o. i 21)
  • 4+x olive trees of one to five years (in an unknown year) and 14 trees of one to seven years (in the year Šu-Suen 5), planted in a garden near the city of Garšana[geogr=Garšana], where a royal garrison was housed (CUSAS 03 1265 r.4-10, SS.05.03.00; CUSAS 03 1375 o.27-r.2, SS.xx.03.00)
  • 108 olive trees of various lengths in the Ĝe’eden garden of the Bagara temple in Lagaš[geogr=Lagaš] (modern al-Hiba), a garden full of exotic trees (Heimpel 2011, 87) (CUSAS 06 086 BM 014309 r.i 12-14;; published by Molina apud Heimpel 2011: 85-86); some additional bushes of olive trees were listed in the „old/large garden of Gudea“ (ĝeškiri6 gu-la gu3-de2-a, BM 23685 after Focke 2015: 423-24).

The olive trees in the gardens of Garšana and partly also in those of Lagaš, were still in an early stage of growth, and the Sumerian term describing this stage may be understood as „bush; shrub“, a term neither employed neither for date-palms nor for full-grown trees with articulated stems (Sumerian ḫar[glossary=ḫar]; the same term is used for transplants; see on the previously unclear word the discussions of Heimpel 2011: 139-42; Focke 2015: 427-28).

The wood of olive trees appears only exceptionally in the rich Mesopotamian record of different woods, namely once as material for the „fine legs“ of a bed in a Sargonic list of beds („1 bed of black poplar, its fine legs of olive tree“, ⸢1⸣ ĝeš-nu2 ĝešeldig umbin šal2-la se2-er-dum[glossary=se2-er-dum], BIN 08 260 o.4, mentioned by Heimpel 2011: 134). In this case, the wood may well have been imported.

The Early Bronze Age garden plantations of olive trees in Babylonia are never attested as sources for wood, nor is there any mention of their fruit. Were they therefore only planted for decorative effects in gardens of exotic trees? Given the extremely small number of trees within the extended tree plantations in Sumer, the absence of evidence for the use of wood or olives need not exclude economic motivations. The exact recording of each tree with regard to its name, form, size and age demonstrates an attentive monitoring of the plantations, and indeed the gardeners of southern Babylonia may have tested out new options for the cultivation of plants (as they successfully did with sesame, see Dossier A.1.1.25). The introduction of the olive tree in Southern Mesopotamia failed, but olive oil had been known there.

2. Olive Oil in Girsu (Lagaš II)

Whereas the almost 100,000 documents from the Ur III period (21st century BCE) do not once mention olive oil, two texts from the directly preceding period of Gudea’s „Lagaš II Dynasty“ (around 2150-2100 BCE) do refer to olive oil. Both documents stem from the administration of valuable goods at the Girsu palace, which handled both local and imported products. The main administrator of Girsu[geogr=Girsu] named Šara-isa sent „olive oil“ (i3 se2-er-dum[glossary=i3 se2-er-dum]) to an unidentifiable person named Lugalirida, thus attesting to the storage of olive oil in a complex related to the palace of the city-rulers of Lagaš (RTC 216). The amount is 135 sila3/litres filled into 9 „small jars“ (dug tur) of 15 litres each (Colonna d'Istria 2022). The other document indicates the silver price for 10 „large jars“ (dug gal) of olive oil, thus 600 litres, according to the identification of the size of the „large vessel“ (dug gal) as 60 litres by Colonna d'Istria 2022 (Kaskal 15 11 03). According to this document, 4 shekels of silver was the price of 1 „large jar“ (dug gal) of 60 „litres“ (sila), thus 1 shekel bought 15 litres of olive oil. By comparison, sesame oil was within the same price range when it was introduced in Middle Sargonic Adab (c. 2270-2240 BCE, Dossier A.1.1.25). Sesame oil was more expensive 50 years later, when one obtained only 8 to 9.2 litres of sesame oil for one shekel of silver in the years 40 to 43 of king Šulgi, i.e. 2053 to 2050 BCE; it became less expensive with 10-15 litres for a shekel between Amar-Suena 1 and Šu-Suen 6 (2044-2030 BCE; see Dossier A.1.1.09).

Why Girsu, located in the very south of Babylonia, disposed of olive oil under Gudea and his dynasty, remains unknown. Did the Syrian states of the late Early Bronze Age collapse and/or were the trade routes from Syria to Babylonia blocked between ca. 2130/2100 and 2053 BCE? The first possibility seems to be excluded because contacts between the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Ur III and Isin and Ebla are attested until 1995 BCE (Išbi-Erra 25; Sallaberger 2007: 144).  Therefore, did mighty Mari of the šakkanakku period block the import of olive oil into the Ur III state? ? In any case, overland trade in the Ur III period was more directed towards the east than to the west.

Perhaps due to the large production of sesame in lowland Mesopotamia (Dossiers A.1.1.02 and A.1.1.05), olive oil was no longer considered an attractive alternative to vegetable oil to be imported in the trade network of the Ur III state (2110-2003 BCE).


  • Colonna d'Istria 2022 = Colonna d'Istria, Laurent (2022): ‘dug gal’, ‘dug’ et ‘dug tur’ durant la période de Lagaš II, in: Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 3. 81, 181-185.
  • Focke 2015 = Focke, Karen (2015): Der Garten in neusumerischer Zeit. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 53. Münster: Ugarit.
  • Heimpel 2011 = Heimpel, Wolfgang (2011): Twenty-Eight Trees Growing in Sumer, in: Owen, David I. (ed.), Garshana Studies. Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 6. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 31-66.
  • Sallaberger 2007 = Sallaberger, Walther (2007): From Urban Culture to Nomadism. A History of Upper Mesopotamia in the Late Third Millennium, in: Kuzucuoglu, Catherine; Marro, Catherine (eds.), Sociétés humaines et changement climatique à la fin du troisième millénaire: Une crise a-t-elle eu lieu en Haute Mésopotamie? Actes du Colloque de Lyon, 5–8 décembre 2005. Paris: de Boccard.