A view from Gethsemane:

Olives are seen on ancient trees situated in the Franciscan Hermitage of Gethsemane in the Mount of Olives.

The Garden of Gethsemane is a small grove con­sist­ing of eight ancient olive trees located at the foot of the Mount of Olives just out­side the Old City of Jerusalem. Its name derives from the Aramaic word gat semãnê, which means ‘olive press’ and sug­gests the pres­ence of a mill in ancient times.

To know that these olive trees were present at the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to be here now and see that they still bear fruits is an incred­i­ble feel­ing.- Father Diego Dalla Gassa

This piece of land is famous because, accord­ing to the Gospels writ­ten by Matthew and Mark, here is where after the Last Supper Jesus retired with His dis­ci­ples to pray, when He was betrayed by Judas and arrested by sol­diers and Pharisees.

The Gospels and other sacred texts, con­firmed by arche­o­log­i­cal finds, are con­sid­ered reli­able sources on the life of Jesus, who is the founder of Christianity but is praised and respected also by other reli­gions. The Agony He suf­fered dur­ing the last night of His life at Gethsemane gave this place a deep spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance which reaches its peak dur­ing Easter cel­e­bra­tions.

The Holy Week has just ended when we talked with the 44-year-old Italian Franciscan friar Father Diego Dalla Gassa, who is in charge of the Hermitage of Gethsemane, to learn more about these spe­cial olive trees.

“The Custody of the Holy Land fol­lowed the research activ­i­ties car­ried out in the olive grove dur­ing a study real­ized by experts in biol­ogy and plant phys­i­ol­ogy from Italian uni­ver­si­ties and the National Research Council,” he explained. The project coor­di­nated by Giovanni Gianfrate and Antonio Cimato, aimed at eval­u­at­ing the state of preser­va­tion of the olive trees, show­ing that the por­tion of them which is cur­rently vis­i­ble dates back to the mid-12th cen­tury.

Gethsemane Olive Trees Thought to be Among World’s Oldest

A three year study con­ducted on three of the olive trees located in Gethsemane, Jerusalem, has shown that their trunks and branches are around 900 years old, mak­ing them among the old­est known olive trees.

“But cer­tainly, the orig­i­nal part of the plants is much older,” Fra Diego said. “We well know that it is dif­fi­cult to deter­mine the exact age of sec­u­lar olive trees due to the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the most ancient sec­tion of the trunk. The CNR esti­mated that the aer­ial part of the trees is rel­a­tively young, prob­a­bly due to actions taken by the Crusaders, when they arrived in Jerusalem, to pre­serve them bet­ter.”

The actual level of the soil is higher than that at the time, due to strat­i­fied deposits over the ages. “Analysis on root-core sam­ples showed not only that the olive trees belong to a unique orig­i­nal vari­ety, but also that, extra­or­di­nar­ily, all of them have the same DNA which means that cer­tainly they were prop­a­gated by cut­tings from a mother plant,” Fra Diego revealed.

Believers in prayer at Gethsemane on Holy Thursday

We know that after 70 A.D., which is the date of the destruc­tion of the Temple at Jerusalem, and in 130 A.D., the olive trees prob­a­bly suf­fered from rav­ages and fires fomented by the emperor Hadrian and his troops, which would not have destroyed them com­pletely as the older part of them has been pre­served.

“The olive tree is effec­tively con­sid­ered a sym­bol of eter­nal life,” Fra Diego observed. “The fact that these plants were prop­a­gated by cut­tings indi­cates that, most prob­a­bly, the Christian cus­to­di­ans who later kept the Garden opted inten­tion­ally for this solu­tion: They wanted to pre­serve the genetic her­itage of the olive trees which had wit­nessed the Agony of Jesus.”

We do not know which the mother plant is, but it is not excluded that these olive trees have been planted more than two-thou­sand years ago. “To know that these olive trees were present at the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to be here now and see that they still bear fruits is an incred­i­ble feel­ing,” the Custodian affirmed.

Further analy­sis showed that the plants are healthy and free from any dis­eases. The olive fruit fly does not pro­lif­er­ate thanks to the high tem­per­a­tures recorded dur­ing sum­mer and, in gen­eral, the ideal micro­cli­mate of the area makes the work of the cus­to­di­ans eas­ier. Even the researchers called “a small mir­a­cle” the fact that the soil of Gethsemane seems able to pre­vent the growth of harm­ful bac­te­ria and pathogens.

Harvest at Gethsemane

The Franciscan Friars of the Custody, mostly Italians, take care of the olive trees with the sup­port of experts. Pruning is per­formed every year by one or two peo­ple, and the branches are cut del­i­cately based on a train­ing sys­tem not intended to increase the pro­duc­tion, but to main­tain a shape which aes­thet­i­cally fits into the con­text of a sacred gar­den.

The olive grove is man­aged with great care in such a way to ensure noth­ing dis­rupts the healthy growth of the plants, which do not need any par­tic­u­lar phy­tosan­i­tary treat­ment thanks to their excel­lent con­di­tion.

“Last time I took care of the har­vest we col­lected about 700 kilo­grams (1,543 pounds) of olives,” Fra Diego revealed, explain­ing that dur­ing har­vest time they gather a group of no more than 20 vol­un­teers and, if it is good weather, they start har­vest­ing on the sec­ond Saturday in October.

Fra Diego Dalla Gassa harvesting at Gethsemane (Photos by Ylenia Granitto for Olive Oil Times)

“We need a week to con­clude har­vest­ing oper­a­tions because we gen­er­ally we work on max­i­mum two trees a day,” he added. Then, the olives are brought to a local mill where oper­a­tors take spe­cial pre­cau­tions. The Franciscan fri­ars also help super­vise the neigh­bor­ing Kidron val­ley.

While the pro­duc­tion of the sur­round­ing groves is used for the main­te­nance of their con­vents, the extra vir­gin olive oil obtained from the olive trees of the Sacred Garden is used exclu­sively for litur­gi­cal pur­poses; that is why every year on Holy Thursday it is blessed dur­ing the Chrism Mass cel­e­brated at the Holy Sepulcher. After Easter, the oil is sent to the parishes of the ter­ri­tory, where it will be used for sacra­ments through­out the year.

Nothing is wasted, and with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of local fam­i­lies, pits are used to cre­ate rosaries which will be given to fri­ars on the day for con­se­crated life, February 2nd, together with a thumb-sized bot­tle of oil.

On Holy Thursday, again this year, the sacred oil was blessed and the olive trees of Gethsemane were sur­rounded by prayers and emo­tions.




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