Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.
Christian pilgrim who visits Jerusalem misses the Garden of Gethsemane.
The small section tourists get to see represents only a portion from
the large groves of olive trees that still grace the slopes.
olive trees open to the public crouch behind the rock walls of the
Church of All Nations. Beautifully manicured pathways accent about a
dozen ancient trees. These grow behind black handrails to protect the
branches from souvenir-snatching visitors.
Today, crowds shuffle
through the tiny garden like cattle through the Fort Worth Stockyards.
But on the early morning of April 3, AD 33, no Christian would have
wanted to be there. In fact, the few who were there scattered like
Tradition points to a place at the base of the Mount of
Olives as the site where Jesus and his disciples often met. It lies
directly in line where the ancient path descended the slope from
The name Gethsemane means, “oil press,” and inside a
small cave beside the garden archaeologists have uncovered an ancient
press. The Byzantines believed this grotto represented the place where
Jesus left eight of his disciples while he took three others to pray a
short distance away. After asking the three to pray, Jesus walked about a
“stone’s throw” further to pray alone (Luke 22:41).
geography of these events is represented in what we see today. A short
distance from the grotto sits the trees of Garden of Gethsemane where
Jesus would have left the three. A stone’s throw from these trees stands
the beautiful Church of All Nations, which covers the traditional place
where Jesus prayed alone in the early morning of his arrest.
churches have stood over the site that the Christian community prior to
Constantine authenticated by their veneration. The Byzantines
constructed between AD 379 and 384what Egeria would refer to as an
The Crusaders rebuilt the church and expanded
it around 1170. Today’s Church of All Nations gets its name from the
countries that contributed to its construction between 1919 and 1924.
Its facade has a beautiful mosaic that depicts Jesus in prayer. Inside,
beautiful paintings and a wrought-iron vine of thorns surround a
10-square-foot mass of limestone, called the “Rock of Agony,” the
traditional spot where Jesus prayed.
Beside the church, about a
dozen olives trees stand in a small garden, about 50 feet square, with
colorful blooms planted to accent the trees and the gravel pathways that
in the garden itself, the massive, gnarled trunks produce new shoots,
although the trees themselves are ancient. Olive trees have no rings, so
it’s tough to determine their age. However, several olive trees in the
Garden of Gethsemane date to about 900 years ago according to a recent
three-year study by the National Research Council. The age of these
trees coincide with the time the Crusaders came to Jerusalem. However,
the roots of the modern trees go back much further—and may represent the
offshoots of the trees from the first century.
certain that none of the trees standing today ever beheld Jesus in
prayer that fateful night. When Titus’ legions needed wood for campfires
and for their siege works against Jerusalem in AD 70, Gethsemane’s
olive trees would likely have been the first to go. According to
Josephus, the legions camped on the Mount of Olives (War 5:2.3).
modest Garden of Gethsemane that visitors see is indeed beautiful. But a
more authentic way to experience the garden lies across the street that
descends from the Mount of Olives. After securing permission from the
priests, one may enter a vast grove of olive trees much more accessible
and touchable. Here a visitor can actually sit on the ground and enjoy
an unhurried reading of the story from Matthew 26:30-56.
last time I was in this part of the garden, I saw an American tourist
wearing shorts, a ball cap, and a 35-mm camera. But this man looked
different than a typical pilgrim. All alone, he wandered into a corner
beside a massive olive tree. Unashamed, he stood there for minutes
clinging to a gnarled trunk—and weeping. Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.