Archaeological excavations by the Antiquities Authority ahead of construction unearthed a 2000-year-old ritual bath near the modern church at Gethsemane, together with the remains of a church from the Byzantine period (ca. 1500 years ago). The finds were uncovered with the assistance of scholars from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and were presented Monday, with the participation of the Custos of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton.
The Church of Gethsemane (also known as the Church of the Agony or Church of All Nations), located at the foot of the famous Mount of Olives, is one of Christianity’s most important churches and is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year. The modern church was built on the spot where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was betrayed. According to Christian belief, Jesus used to pray on the Mount of Olives (Lk. 22:39) and prayed here on the night before the crucifixion (Matt. 26:36).
A 2000-year-old ritual bath discovered at the site dates from the time of Jesus’s presence in Jerusalem, following Christian belief. Remains of a Byzantine church were also uncovered in the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Jerusalem church.
Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, said, “Gethsemane is one of the most important sanctuaries in the Holy Land, because in this place the tradition remembers the confident prayer of Jesus and his betrayal and because every year millions of pilgrims visit and pray in this place. Even the latest excavations conducted on this site have confirmed the antiquity of the Christian memory and tradition linked to the place, and this is very important for us and for the spiritual meaning connected with the archaeological findings. I greet with great pleasure this fruitful cooperation between the Custody of the Holy Land, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the Israel Antiquities Authority and I hope that we will be able to join our scientific competences for further future collaborations.”
In recent years, the Custody of the Holy Land has been investing in the development of tourism at the Gethsemane Church and in the Kidron Valley at its foot, for the benefit of tourists and pilgrims. The planned development work includes a visitors’ center and an underground tunnel that will link the church to the Kidron Valley. When the workmen encountered ancient remains, the Antiquities Authority began a salvage excavation at the site, directed by archaeologists Amit Re’em and David Yeger and with the assistance of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.
The church was built between 1919-1924 on the site where the Second Temple-period events are believed to have occurred. When the building’s foundations were laid, remains of churches from the Byzantine and Crusader periods were unearthed. However, not a single archaeological trace was found from the Second Temple period, the era when Christians believe that Jesus visited the place.
While digging the new visitors’ tunnel, a few meters away from the modern church, workers were surprised to discover an underground cavity, which was identified as a Second Temple-period ritual bath.
AMIT RE’EM, Jerusalem District archaeologist for the Antiquities Authority, explained, “The discovery of the ritual bath probably confirms the place’s ancient name, Gethsemane. Most ritual baths from the Second Temple period have been found in private homes and public buildings, but some have been discovered near agricultural installations and tombs, in which case the ritual bath is located in the open.
“The discovery of this bath, unaccompanied by buildings, probably attests to the existence of an agricultural industry here 2000 years ago – possibly producing oil or wine. The Jewish laws of purification obliged workers involved in oil and wine production to purify themselves. The discovery of the ritual bath may therefore hint at the origin of the place’s ancient name, Gethsemane (Gat Shemanim, ‘oil press’), a place where ritually pure oil was produced near the city.”
The excavation also unearthed remains of a previously unknown church that was founded at the end of the Byzantine period (sixth century CE) and continued to be used during the Umayyad period (eighth century CE). The church was ornamented with finely carved stone elements that attest to its importance.
According to Yeger and Re’em, the church commemorates one of the many events attributed to the location in the New Testament. Greek inscriptions found incorporated in the church floor, deciphered by Dr. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Rosario Pierri of the Franciscan Institute, read: “for the memory and repose of the lovers of Christ (cross) God who have received the sacrifice of Abraham, accept the offering of your servants and give them remission of sins. (cross) Amen.” Yeger added, “It is interesting to see that the church was being used, and may even have been founded, at the time when Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, showing that Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem continued during this period as well.”
During the Middle Ages, a large hospice or monastery was built on the site with multiple rooms, sophisticated water systems, and two large cisterns adorned with molded crosses on their sides. The archaeologists found evidence of the site’s destruction in the 12th century CE, probably as a result of the Ayyubid conquest (1187 CE). Based on historical sources, the Ayyubid Sultan Salah-a-Din ordered the demolition of the churches and buildings on the Mount of Olives and used their stones to renovate the city walls.
According Re’em, “The excavation at Gethsemane is a prime example of Jerusalem’s archaeology at its best, in which various traditions and beliefs are combined with archaeology and historical evidence. The recently discovered archaeological remains will be incorporated in the visitors’ center being built at the site and will be exhibited to tourists and pilgrims, who we hope will soon be returning to visit Jerusalem.”