Garden of Gethsemane
According to the Gospel of John, after the Last Supper Jesus and the disciples went into “a garden” which was “across the Kidron Valley”. (John 18:1). Matthew (26:36) and Mark (14:32) name the place – “Gethsemane”. Gethsemane means “[olive] oil press”. The presence of an olive press across the Kidron Valley is not surprising. It is at the bottom of a mountain called the Mount of Olives. Olive trees were grown mostly for the purpose of producing olive oil. Olive oil was used throughout the ancient world, especially as a source of energy, mostly fueling oil lamps. Archaeological research across Israel revealed hundreds of olive presses from ancient times. Olive presses can be outdoors, in a building, or a cave. The event documented in the Gospels took place in the spring. Harvesting and producing olive oil was done in the autumn. That means that Jesus and the disciples could stay at Gethsemane, as it was simply not in use, and probably empty.
The Significance of Gethsemane
But What happened at Gethsemane that makes it so significant to the Christian world? the book of Luke describes the events best:
“On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.”
Upon his return he found the disciples asleep. But “while he was speaking a crowd came up”, and among them was Judas Iscariot. Judas executed the plan of kissing Jesus as a sign to “chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders” that this is the person they are looking for. Jesus was then taken to the house of the high priest for questioning.
Gethsemane ends its role and is never heard of again in the New Testament.
The Garden of Gethsemane Sanctified
In the Byzantine period the “Rock of Agony”, upon which Jesus may have called to the Lord, was identified at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. The Byzantine period church built around the rock was destroyed by the Sassanids in 614, built again by the Crusaders, and again in 1924. The rock itself is still exposed in the church, though surrounded by a wrought iron shaped like the Crown of Thornes.
In the garden next to the church there are a few olive trees. By local tradition they are 2,000 dating to the time of Jesus. Tree experts suggest they are “only” 500 to 800 years old. That still makes these trees the oldest in Jerusalem area, and perhaps in the whole of Israel.
The Grotto of Gethsemane
As indicated by the Gospels, and a “stone’s throw” is a cave called the Grotto of Gethsemane. No traces of an olive press were recorded in this cave in modern times, but some Byzantine period sources mention round stone beds on which the disciples may have slept. It is quite possible that these round stone beds were really the millstones of the olive press, or its round base. These stones disappeared already in antiquity, perhaps taken by pilgrims as a “holy souvenir”.
Today the Garden of Gethsemane is maintained by the Franciscans, on behalf of the Roman-Catholic church. The church above the Rock of Agony, completed in 1924, is called “The Church of all Nations”. Planned by master architect Antonio Berluzzi, its interior is austere reflecting the agony of Jesus at the site, yet its façade is an impressive Neo-Renaissance design. The Garden and the church are open every day of the week. Impressive and well-groomed, visiting them is a special spiritual and religious experience.
The humble-sized Grotto of Gethsemane is just around the corner. On its ceiling Crusader’s period decorations can still be seen. A mural of Jesus and the disciples finding shelter in this cave is set in the cave’s apse. The Grotto is also maintained by the Franciscans and open every day, though closed for a noon break (12:00-14:30).