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4. The Garden of Olives
On 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

A venerable olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane
Behind 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

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 in 1187.

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

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 1475

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 it.
detail hague map 1170

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 sacristy.

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

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Created / Updated Sunday, 10 October, 2004 at 11:54:42 pm by J. Abela, E. Alliata, E. Bermejo
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