In recent months, archaeological finds dating in part to the time of Jesus have been made in Gethsemane. They were presented on December 21, 2020 in Jerusalem, in the presence of the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, and Israeli archaeologists as well as the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, who carried out this important excavation campaign.
“The recent archaeological excavations, carried out on this site by the Ministry of Jewish Antiquities in collaboration with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, confirm the ancient character of the Christian memory and tradition linked to this site. Gethsemane is one of the most important shrines in the Holy Land,” said Fr. Patton.
It is a few steps from the small garden located outside the old city of Jerusalem, in the Kidron Valley, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus retired in prayer after the Last Supper, before being betrayed by Judas and arrested.
During the construction of an underground tunnel to connect the Basilica of the Agony to the valley below, owned by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, discoveries led the Israel Antiquities Authority (AAI) to undertake archaeological excavations to safeguard the site.
And so, during the works, the workers discovered the remains of a church founded at the end of the Byzantine period (6th century AD) and which continued to be used during the Umayyad period (8th century AD).
“The rooms discovered are after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 638 AD. The excavations have revealed a Christian chapel with an apse, very well preserved,” specified Fr. Eugenio Alliata, archaeologist of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.
“In the center, there must have been an altar of which no traces were found. Then there is a Greek inscription, still visible today and dating from the 7th to 8th century AD,” he continued.
Deciphered by Dr. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and by Fr. Rosario Pierri of Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, the inscription reads: “For the memory and the rest of lovers of Christ [a cross] God who have received the sacrifice of Abraham. Accept the offering of your servants and give them the remission of sins [a cross].”
Alongside the remains of the Byzantine church, the structure of a large hospice for pilgrims or a monastery from the medieval period can still be seen, provided with sophisticated plumbing systems and two large cisterns six or seven meters deep, adorned with crosses. The archaeologist Amit Re’em said that the crosses were seriously damaged by some unknown people the night following the discovery of the cisterns: “According to local rumors, an ancient legend spoke of a treasure of gold hidden behind the crosses. The people who destroyed them were probably looking for this.”
Halfway through the tunnel, there was also unearthed a ritual Jewish purifying bath carved into the rock, dating from the first century, from the time of the Second Temple, that is, the time when Jesus lived.
“The discovery of the ritual bath probably confirms the ancient name of the place, Gethsemane,” the archaeologist Amit Re’em explained. “Most of the ritual baths of the period of the Second Temple have been found in private homes and public buildings, but some have been discovered close to farms and tombs, in which case the ritual bath is outside.”
“The discovery of this bath, not accompanied by buildings, probably attests to the existence of a farm here 2000 years ago, which perhaps produced oil or wine. The Jewish laws of purification required the workers involved in the production of oil and wine to take purifying baths. The discovery of the ritual bath may therefore suggest the origin of the ancient name of the place, Getsemani (Gat Shemanim, “oil press”), a place where ritually pure oil, was produced, close to the city.”
While in Jerusalem one frequently finds archaeological evidence dating back to the time of King Herod the Great or Roman procurators like Pontius Pilate, so far nothing in Gethsemane has been found contemporary to Jesus.