The Garden of Olives
A belief common to many who visit the Holy Land for the first time is that the Garden of Olives is a large plot of land full of plants and flowers, immersed in the quiet of the nature, free from the confusion of the Holy City. But if during Jesus' time much of the Mount of Olives must have been covered by plants and crops, today the general situation is not exactly the same. Nonetheless, this small grove with its few age-old olive trees remains one of the natural areas most faithful to the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago.
Jesus often retreated to these cultivated groves to pass the night and pray. And on that Thursday evening, after the last supper and before his arrest, he retired there with his disciples. As the Synoptic Gospels recount, it was there that Jesus experienced his deepest anguish, deciding to entrust himself, in total abandonment, to the will of the Father.
The Garden of Olives is located to the east of the Kidron Valley, between the path up the mountain and the busy Jericho Road. Situated at the entrance of the property that constitutes the Sanctuary of Gethsemane, the Garden occupies an area of approximately 1,200 m2. A railing allows visitors to walk around the age-old olive trees, while at the same time protecting them from the large number of visitors.
Alongside the eight oldest trees, new olive trees have been planted to replace the cypress trees and various flowering plants that in the nineteenth century supplied the floral decorations for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The old olive trees, with their hollow and twisted trunks, are more than 3 meters in diameter. The most recent studies have confirmed their excellent state of health and have dated their aerial parts from the 12th century. But the most astonishing discovery to have emerged from the investigations is that the eight olive trees are “siblings”: they have identical DNA, indicating that they came from cuttings, i.e., branches that had been pruned and then grafted, belonging to the same “mother” tree. This finding supports the idea that a particular olive tree was specifically chosen for this purpose, perhaps because it was believed to have “witnessed” the night of Jesus' agony. The oldest trees in the grove have thus arrived intact from the Crusader period, having survived the destruction of the church and the years of abandon which ended in 1681 when the Franciscan Fathers officially took possession of the grove.
The evidence of the pilgrim Giorgi Cucci is of interest in this respect: in 1384 he described the olive trees in the grove as “extremely old”, “numerous and beautiful”.
Walking along the enclosure of the grove one can also see the olive tree planted by Paul VI on 4 January 1964 during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Each year the procession on Holy Thursday departs from the Garden of Olives, led by the Franciscan Custos: at nightfall all the faithful and pilgrims come together at Gethsemane to keep vigil in prayer during the Holy Hour before heading for Gallicantu, where Jesus spent the night in prison.
A number of volunteers come from all over the world to help the friars of the Custody care for the olive trees, especially at the time of harvesting and pruning.