The acquisition of Gethsemane and the Garden of the olive trees

Photos of the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Late nineteenth century.

The present Franciscan property in Gethsemane forms part of the acquisitions made by the Franciscan Custody since the 17th century.

Prior to the archaeological excavations and the construction of the church, part of the grove at Gethsemane was cultivated land where the ancient olive trees were growing, while the remainder was barren and covered with the remains of the Crusader church that had been destroyed. A column, placed above the remains of the Crusader apse, was high venerated by pilgrims: it was known to Latin pilgrims as “The Kiss of Judas” and to Easterners as “Pater Imon” (Our Father), alluding to Jesus' prayer in the garden.

Near the column was a rocky area known as the “Rock of the Apostles” which, according to tradition, was the bare stone on which the Apostles slept while Jesus, not far away, was praying.

The acquisition of the area of Gethsemane, which also included the green area on the other side of the road, along the Kidron Valley, was a long and complex operation which can be summarized in 29 dates between 9 November 1661 and March 1905 when, for 57,000 francs, the Armenians ceded the land to the south of the Garden. The properties of the Custody, both the Grotto in the possession of the Franciscans since 1361 and the garden at Gethsemane, were inscribed in the Imperial Ottoman land registry on 14 December 1903.

Photos of the Garden of Gethsemane in the nineteenth century

The story of the acquisition of the Garden of the Olives, purchased using funds donated by two noble Catholic brothers, Paul and Jacob Grancovich from Olovo (near Sarajevo) is a very unusual one. It was possible to acquire 18 “qirats” (parcels of land) out of a total of 24. The garden had belonged to different owners but had been managed by the “wakf” of the Salahie school, an Islamic religious foundation based in the Church of St. Anne near St. Stephen’s Gate, to which since 1662 the Franciscans had been paying an annual tax to ensure that others would not buy the adjoining lands. As citizens of the Ottoman Empire, the two brothers were able to carry out the transaction, acquiring the garden for a final price of 200 piasters, although in the official purchase document the price was certified to be only 90 piasters.

Once the property had been acquired, and to protect the olive trees that according to tradition dated from the time of Jesus, in 1868 the Franciscans replaced the approximately one-meter high enclosing wall with a higher one, which was rebuilt again in 1959.

The not very simple story of the nineteenth-century wall is described in the account by Father Camillo da Rutigliano, who was at that time the Secretary of the Holy Land.

In 1872 fourteen terracotta panels made in Naples displaying the Stations of the Cross were placed around the wall, and in that same year a room was built for the Franciscan who was responsible for looking after the place and caring for the eight olive trees. In 1879, a bas-relief of Jesus Christ praying in the garden was placed outside the enclosure, the work of the Venetian artist Giovanni Torretti, donated by the Venetian family Paolucci to the then-Custos Father Cipriano.

Through the exhibition of these works, while awaiting the reconstruction of the church, the Franciscans firmly assumed the custody of Gethsemane, thus assuring its veneration by pilgrims for the centuries to come.

The Mount of Olives in the nineteenth century