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The Olive Trees of Gethsemane, results of a scientific research published

by Carlo Giorgi | October 19, 2012

Some pilgrims examine the intricate and majestic trunk of one of the trees of the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. (photogallery by G. Gianfrate)

(Rome) - The olive garden of Gethsemane, one of the holiest sites of Christendom – remembered for the agony of the Lord Jesus before his arrest - can now be more fully known by each believer.

This is due to the results of scientific research, supported by the Custody of the Holy Land, on the garden’s eight ancient trees. The research, which began in 2009, lasted three years and was conducted by a team of researchers from the National Research Council (CNR), and various Italian universities. The study was presented today at 11.30 am, in the Marconi Hall of Vatican Radio in Rome.

Custos Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa explained to reporters the meaning of the research findings together with Massimo Pazzini, dean of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem, Professor Giovanni Gianfrate, project coordinator, agronomist and expert on the history of olive growing in the Mediterranean, and Professor Antonio Cimato, coordinator of the scientific research, the first researcher of Tree and Timber Institute (Ivalsa) / CNR in Florence.

The research results show that three of the eight olive trees (the only ones on which it was technically possible to carry out the study), as dating from the middle of the twelfth century. Hence, the trees are about nine hundred years old. But one point needs to be made clear: the date indicated refers only to the aboveground part of trees – the trunk and foliage. In fact, the same research has shown that the part below ground, i.e. the roots, is certainly more ancient.

The outcome of the investigation must also be put in relation with ancient travel chronicles of pilgrims, according to which the second of Gethsemane basilica was built between 1150 and 1170 (the period during which the Crusaders were engaged in the reconstruction of the great churches of the Holy Land and Jerusalem in particular). It therefore seems likely that, during the construction of the Basilica of Gethsemane, the garden was rearranged, creating a renovation of the olive trees present at that time.

Another result of great interest emerged when the researchers defined the genetic fingerprint of the eight trees. The analysis of specific regions of DNA are described as having "identical genetic profiles" among all eight specimens. This conclusion brings out the peculiarity that the eight are olive “twins”, to use a metaphorical term, and therefore belong to the same "genotype". This can only mean one thing: that the eight olive trees are all "children" of a single specimen. Or it can be argued that, at a given moment in history - in the twelfth century, and probably long before - portions of quite large branches (branch cuttings) taken from a single plant and planted at that time in the Garden of Gethsemane, in a manner similar to those still adopted by Palestinian gardeners. It is, then, necessary to ask at what point in the course of centuries were these cuttings planted? In the Gospels, the time of Jesus Christ, the olive trees were already there and they were adults. And their next existence is attested by a careful comparative study of the descriptions of the holy place, made by historians and pilgrims over the centuries.

Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, presenting the results of the research, noted that "for every Christian, the olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane serve as a “living” reference to the Passion of Christ, they witness to the absolute obedience to the Father, even sacrificing his person for the salvation of man, of all men, and are also an indication and memory of man’s disposition to “doing the will of God", the only way to identify a believer. In this place, Christ prayed to the Father, and put his trust in Him to overcome the agony of death,” the Agony”, the Passion and the terrible execution on the cross, trusting in the ultimate victory, the resurrection and the redemption of men.

These centuries-old olive trees depict the "roots" and "generational continuity" of the Christian community of the Mother Church of Jerusalem. As these trees -- planted, burned, killed and sprouted again, throughout history, on a "never-ending" stump - so the first Christian community vigorously survives, animated by the Spirit of God, in spite of obstacles and persecution."