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The four evangelists begin the Passion Narrative by mentioning a place outside Jerusalem called by Matthew and Mark, ‘Gethsemane.

"Gethsemani." is a slightly Hellenized form of two Hebrew words, gath (press) and shemanim (oils). This "Oils Press" was situated beyond the Kidron gully in the direction of the Mount of Olives.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus came down the western hill of Jerusalem, now called Mount Zion where tradition from the fourth century onwords has sited the Cenacle, the dining hall of the Last Supper. Accompanied by the eleven apostles, he would have left the city, possibly through the Fountain Gate close by the Pool of Siloe and climbed the valley slope to the north. The group then came to a locality furnished with an oil press.

On arrival in Gethsemane, Jesus left eight of the apostles together in one spot and withdrew further with Peter, James and John. Jesus requested these close friends, who had been witnesses of his Transfiguration, to watch with him during this hour of sadness" and "agony." He himself went further off alone and "fell on his face to the ground."

The Primitive Traditions

In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen (d. 253) takes care to stress the importance of the geographical data in Matthew and Mark.

About one hundred years after Origen, Eusebius (c. 333) notes that it was still in use. In his Onomasticon he writes, "The faithful at present still betake themselves there to pray" in the property of Gethsemane "where Christ had prayed before his Passion.

About 390, St. Jerome rendered Eusebius' Onomasticon into Latin. He reads: "Gethsemane is the place where the Saviour prayed before his Passion. It is situated at the foot of the Mount of Olives. At present, a church has been built there."

About 410, the pilgrim Etheria styled this church "elegant," and, as a result of the excavations of its ruins in 1920, there is no doubt as to where it stood. It was to the right of the pathway leading up the Mount of Olives.

Regarding the spot where Judas betrayed Jesus, and where the arrest took place.

About 530, the pilgrim Theodosius writes in his report: "The Valley of Josaphat is situated there. There Judas betrayed the Saviour. There is to be seen the church of the Lady Mary, mother of the Lord. There the Lord washed the feet of his disciples and ate with them. There are to be found four seats on which the Lord sat with his disciples..."

This place is in a cave..." Now, it is precisely in a cave that the Piacenza Pilgrim, in 570, sites the scene of the betrayal.

These traditions are confirmed by the librarian of Monte Cassino monastery, Peter the Deacon (12th century). In his work, which is a compilation of ancient documents, we read: "Beyond the Kidron gully there is a grotto with a church above it."


"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.

1. The Garden of Olives

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 Gethsemane. There has been much discussion about their age. They are mentioned for the first time in the 15th century and, for pilgrims, they impressed as being very old and amongst the largest trees in Palestine.

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.

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.

In the 17th century 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 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.


1. The Fourth Century Church

Like the first church at Bethany, that at Gethsemane dates back to the second half of the fourth century. On the one hand, Eusebius and the Bordeaux Pilgrim have nothing about it. On the other hand, St. Jerome and Etheria have much detail. This allows historians to determine the date of its construction fairly closely, namely, between 333 and 390. Further, taking note of the silence of St. Cyril, future bishop of Jerusalem, in his Catecheses, delivered about 347, and of the fact that the reigns of Constantine's first successors were very disturbed, scholars fix the date of the building within the time of Theodosius I (379-395). Now, it is precisely this emperor whom the Annals of Patriarch Eutychius of Alexandria (10th century) credits with the construction of the Gethsemane church which "contained the tomb of Saint Mary, and which the Persians destroyed." Some authorities would see in this reference to the Tomb of the Virgin a chance remark resulting from a confusing of the church of the Agony with the nearby church of the Assumption. In Chapter V we shall return to this interpretation which would seem a little forced. Meanwhile, there is nothing against the idea that the first church of the Agony was built under Theodosius.

The excavations have shown that the building was destroyed by fire, probably in 614 when the Persians captured Jerusalem. However, the silence of pilgrims of the 6th century is surprising. In his Life of St. Sabas, Cyril of Scythopolis makes casual mention of "Holy Gethsemane" where the goldsmith Romulus was archdeacon in 532. The history of the church remains obscure down to the time of the Crusades. While pilgrims and various documents still speak of the Garden and the site of the Prayer, St. Willibald alone, in 724-726, makes mention of a church. If the place really continued ¿o serve as a stage in the great liturgical processions, neither history nor archaeology provide data of any worth which affirm or deny the eventual rebuilding of the church. We must wait until the 12th century and the beginnings of the Frankish kingdom for reliable, harmonious testimony as to the existence of an "oratory."

2. The Medieval Church

After many centuries which are quite blank as to information about the church on the place of The Prayer, the first witnesses in the 12th century, notably the Anglo-Saxon Saewulf (1102-1103) and the Russian abbot Daniel (1106-1107) mention an "oratory" or "a little church" there. One anonymous document associates the name of the Saviour with it. We do not know when it was built. One might suggest the period of tolerance which the Christians of Palestine enjoyed after the death of Caliph el-Hakim (1021) and during the reign of his successors.

This oratory, which is mentioned by another anonymous Latin writer (1130-1150), must have given place to a "new church" noted in the records of the pilgrims John of Wurtzburg (1156) and Theodoric (1172). This served as a spiritual centre for the charitable confraternity founded to collect alms for the hospice of Our Lady of Josaphat which adjoined the abbey of the Tomb of the Virgin. Amongst other duties, the foundation rules enjoined on the monks of the abbey the obligation of singing a weekly Mass in the church of Saint Saviour for living members and benefactors and another Mass for those deceased.

After the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin (1187), the evidence becomes inconsistent once more. While the report of a so-called eye-witness, identified as an English abbot, makes mention of the church of Saint Saviour as amongst those destroyed, later witnesses again speak of a church on the spot still standing till 1323. Though viewed with suspicion by the specialists, these testimonies are seemingly confirmed by the excavations which, notably, have brought to light two different types of columns on the site.

In the 14th century, however, the church was definitely in ruins. James of Verona, a pilgrim in 1335, does not mention it any more. In 1347, Nicholas of Poggibonsi found it devastated. In 1461, the bishop of Saints, Louis de Rochechouart, saw only a plain wall. In 1644, a lone heap of stones from this remained.

This Crusader church was probably restored at some time or other by Palestinian Christians. Quite by chance, an apse and some mosaic fragments were brought to light in 1891. Scientific excavation of the remains was undertaken by the Franciscans in 1909. Part of the ruins is still to be seen today in the new basilica of the Agony.

3. The new Basilica of the Agony

The Custody of the Holy Land decided to build a new church on what was believed to be the location of the "elegant" church of the 4th century. The foundation stone was laid on October, 1919. The planning was entrusted to the architect, Antonio Barluzzi.

As we have said, work on the foundations had already begun when, in 1920, a column was found two metres beneath the medieval floor, together with fragments of a magnificent mosaic. The architect immediately removed the new foundations and undertook excavations. After the Byzantine church was brought to light, it was clear that the plans for the new church would have to be altered. Work subsequently continued from April 19, 1922 to June, 1924 when the new basilica was consecrated.

Many countries helped defray the building costs. Their respective coats-of-arms are reproduced in the little domes of the ceiling and the mosaics of the apses. In the left side, beginning with the apse, Argentina, Brasil, Chile and Mexico are represented. In the middle, Italy, France, Spain and England. To the right: Belgium, Canada, Germany, the United States of America. The mosaics in the apses were donated by Ireland, Hungary and Poland. The crown around the Rock itself was the gift of Australia. Because of this vast international collaboration in the work of building the basilica, it is known as the "Church of all Nations."

More information and pictures available at our Gethsemane site

Created / Updated Monday, March 06, 2000 at 10:52:05