Meet the Man Protecting One of the Oldest Olive Trees in the World

The long history of the Al Badawi tree

Olives
What might be the world's oldest olive tree is situated in a small town in Palestine.
KoS/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / March 9, 2020 6:08 am

Thinking about the lifespans of trees can put a lot of history into perspective. In various places around the world, you can find trees that have stood for hundreds — if not thousands — of years. Consider the human conflicts that have come and gone even as these trees have stood, effectively impassive to the drama playing out around them.

In the Palestinian town of Al Walaja, a man named Salah Abu Ali is tasked with the care of one such tree — an olive tree that’s estimated to be somewhere between 3,000 and 5,500 years old, which might be the oldest in the world. At Atlas Obscura, Jason Ruffin wrote about Ali’s life, the tree in his care — and the way that larger regional issues have put this historical tree at risk.

The tree is known as the Al Badawi tree, named in honor of Sheik Ahmad al-Badawi, a 13th-century mystic who went on to found the Badawiyyah order of Sufism. Why? Because Sheik al-Badawi enjoyed spending time near the tree — which was already thousands of years old at that point.

As Ruffin writes, Ali’s care of the tree is something that’s been a part of his family for generations:

[Ali] now considers it his life’s work to protect it. His sons help, and often sleep under the tree, he says, as he sometimes does and like his father did before him. The Palestinian Authority now pays Ali a small monthly sum to guard it, no doubt worried about reports of settlers and soldiers burning and cutting down ancient olive trees in other parts of the West Bank.

Ruffin also notes that the Al Badawi tree is still producing an abundance of olives — around 900 pounds last year. For all the conflict around it, it continues to grow, seeking nothing more than nutrients and water from the soil and light from the sun.

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