* The Garden
* The Rock
* IV century
the present site of Gethsemane, Kidron valley has gradually filled up, roads
have been rerouted and widened, and many buildings have been erected.
Nevertheless, the visitor will not find it hard to locate the spots where the
ancient traditions have sited the Agony and arrest of Jesus.
Of the olive groves situated in what the Gospels call a "property" or a
"garden," there remain only some plots of ground. One, commonly called "The
Garden of Olives" is about 1200 square metres in area and is situated to the
right of the path up the mountain, extending between this path, and around the
basilica of the Agony, to the Jericho road. Originally, the property took in
the site of the modern basilica, since this is built on the ruins of the fourth
century church which St. Jerome and Etheria describe as standing on the spot
where Christ prayed.
A venerable olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane
a fence of iron- tracery with Byzantine motifs, eight hoary olive trees attract
the attention of the visitor as he enters the garden. They create the right
spiritual atmosphere for a visit to i Gethsemane. There has been much
discussion about their age, as one can gather from the various versions given
by guides. They are mentioned for the first time in the 15th century and, for
pilgrims of subsequent ages, they impressed as being very old and amongst the
largest trees in Palestine.
There can be no doubt that these olive trees, with their hollow, gnarled trunks
date back considerably. Neither history nor botany, however, can throw sure
light on their origin.
Another venerable olive tree at Gethsemane
Some specialists draw conclusions from Flavius Josephus' work The War of the
Jews, but they appear rash and we do not know whether the trees were
standing in the garden in Christ's time, whether or not they were cut down in
the year 70 by the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem. There is talk of these
trees being exempted wholly or partially from tax (documents are contradictory)
during the Arab occupation and the Turkish era. Thereon, some pilgrims and
writers, even Chateaubriand, have tried to build arguments as to the antiquity
of the olives, but without winning much conviction. The exemption in question
could have been due to the religious character of the work to which the Muslims
assigned the legacy of the Garden of Gethsemane after they occupied Jerusalem
Botanists have had no more success than historians. On the one hand, the trunk
of an olive tree, especially if it is ancient, is not a very suitable subject
for the study of vegetative development. On the other, there is nothing to
substantiate the claims of pilgrims who hold that the olive trees of Gethsemane
are scions of those which stood there in Christ's time. If it is often true
that, as Pliny has stated, the olive tree does not die but takes on new life
from its trunk, nevertheless this is not proven in the case of ,he Gethsemane
trees. In fact, pilgrims of the 17th century refer to them as burnt, uprooted
or dead of old age. In spite of what has been claimed there is no evidence that
they are due to fresh sproutings.
Over-devout souls may be somewhat puzzled by all this. Yet, even though they do
not go back to Gospel times, nor even represent off-shoots from trees of that
time, nevertheless these olives of Gethsemane may well be venerated by pilgrims
because of the memories they immediately evoke: that of the Agony of Jesus
which was witnessed by this very ground.
The history of the Garden of Olives can be summarized briefly. Apparently, it
was part of the patrimony of the churches built in the 4th century on the place
of the Agony. After the Crusaders left, the Garden shared the fate of all
ancient Christian properties and was given over as a waqf (religious
legacy) to support a Muslim religious undertaking' in this case the theological
college set up at St. Anne's church.
The olive trees of Gethsemane
Pilgrims of the 13th and subsequent centuries called the place "Flowery Field"
and "the flowery garden." From the 14th century onwards, it was divided into
many different parcels of property by paths and low walls. Actually, it would
seem that the waqf of Gethsemane ended by becoming a private estate
which, thanks to a series of wills, was subdivided into several plots.
As time went by, witnesses grew in numbers, though not always in precision, and
their accounts show that the Garden of Olives was constantly the object of
veneration on the part of the faithful. Yet, while the Christians of the East
kept to the ancient traditions, at least in so far as the Agony is concerned,
Western visitors tended to reverse the localizations and to site the Agony in
the neighboring grotto which therefore took on the name, "Grotto of the Agony."
They saw the arrest as taking place in the Garden proper.
Map of Jerusalem by Lucas Brandis de Schass - 1475
In the 17th century, thanks to the good graces of intermediaries, the
Franciscans got possession of the Garden of Olives. Though the official deed
was drawn up in 1681, it would seem that, if we can rely on several pilgrims,
the Garden already belonged to the Franciscans in 1666. The archives of the
Custody of the Holy Land contain numerous documents dealing with sales, court
decisions and the like, which have to do with the Gethsemane properties, but it
is now difficult to decide the exact location of these latter areas. For
example, in the deed of 1681, we can rediscover for sure only the east and west
boundaries of the property purchased, namely, the pathway up the Mount of
Olives and the government highway to Jericho. To the north, the plot bordered
on an olive grove held by the Franciscans; to the south, on a vineyard owned by
two Arabs. So far as the grotto is concerned, it is difficult to decide the
exact extent of the property purchased because we are not certain that there is
really question of the present "Grotto of Gethsemane."
Nevertheless, for the majority of pilgrims, the Garden of Olives was restricted
to the place where the ancient olive trees grew, the trees which "common
opinion" and "the tradition of the country" dated back to the time of Christ.
The area was not cultivated. A wall of dry stones about a metre high surrounded
Map of the Hague (c.1170): detail of Gethsemane
The garden was left in this state until 1847. To protect the olive trees, the
Franciscans were obliged to build a higher enclosure. This gave way to the
present wall in 1959. Despite notices to the contrary, the enclosed garden was
turned into flower beds, probably as a reminder of the "flowery garden" of the
13th and 14th centuries. Reading the reports of pilgrims, it would seem that
they thought to find the place marked by greater simplicity.
A bas-relief in marble, unfortunately disfigured by vandals, represents the
Agony of Jesus. It is the work of the Venetian, Torretti, Canova's master. It
formerly stood in the garden but is now to be seen at the entrance to the
© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme