Skip to main Content

Olive groves at Church of all Nations still capture local, religious imagination

  • Author: Noga Tarnopolsky
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published December 26, 2012

GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE, Jerusalem — After the last supper, Jesus walked with his disciples to Gethsemane, at the base of the Mount of Olives, where scholars believe he spent some time in the olive grove and contemplated his impending arrest among the tombs which were vast and old even then.

"Gethsemane" — in Hebrew, "Gad Shmanim" — means "oil press."

In the back garden of the Church of all Nations, the olive trees and the tombs are still there.

"Maybe Jesus really walked among these trees," says Yaacov Shkolnik, a forester and head of the Jewish National Fund's Ancient Tree Task Force, which is tasked with identifying trees and estimating their age and assessing their overall health.

The trees at Gethsemane have grown hollow and wide and pose special difficulties for professionals. At best, estimations of their age rely on tiny splinters remaining from the ancient wood. According to the National Research Council of Italy, which examined the trees, they are at least a thousand years old.

Workmen pruning the ancient, craggy trees behind the church are completely oblivious to eBay or the possible resale value of the spindly branches and silvery ovaloid leaves they toss by the side of the street, near an idling garbage truck.

Whatever that potential value, by arboreal standards the olive trees that may have offered succor to an anxious Jesus are relatively young. The oldest known tree in the world is a pine nicknamed Methuselah, estimated to be 4,7000 years old, living in California's White Mountains.

Olives, their oil, and the trees they grow on hold an oversized place in local imagination.

It is assumed that all ancient anointing was done with oil of the olive fruit, then as now a precious fluid. Today, the churches of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth use local oil, often grown and pressed on church premises.

In Nazareth, the harvest was completed about a month ago, each family marinating and pressing by its own closely-held tradition. Christmas tables include small plates of the year's harvest.

In villages further to the north, pressing olive oil is a venerated Christmas Day tradition, bringing far-flung family members together around the presses for a yearly yuletide event no one wants to miss.

It is impossible to describe the intoxicating scent that emanates as small green and purple olives pour into a huge stone saucer the size of a hot tub and are slowly crushed by a massive granite wheel. It is almost like watching a gemstone being made.

The glistening, perfumed mash is then transported to multilayered electric presses where the oil is pushed out of the pits and the skins.

The residue, back oily organic disks, are used in the place of wood, for burning. The oil, for everything else.

The Khalaf family, of a tiny village called Muran, invested in a state-of-the-art hydraulic olive press from Italy, which regulates the pressure and speed of pressing, and thus the acidity and viscosity of the oil. Same rocks as in ancient times, but now shaped and moved by electricity and calculations, not the paces of a donkey.

More than any Hollywood movie, this activity seems to melt Biblical times with our own reliance on machinery.

Children stand around and stick their fingers in the dribbles of golden elixir as it begins to pour from the rounded disks.

That's in northern Israel.

Down south, nearly half of all agricultural lands in the West Bank are planted with 8 million olive trees. Extremist elements among Israeli settlers have made an annual rite of disrupting the olive harvest there, often causing permanent harm to the Palestinian groves and damaging the local economy.

"It is all part of a wider philosophy," says Israeli human rights activist Amiel Vardi, who has protected Palestinian fields from settler attacks, "in which these settlers want to disrupt and embitter the lives of the West Bank Palestinians in the hope that they will 'self-deport' to the large cities, leaving their lands empty."

Vardi says that Palestinians file less and less complaints with the police, "because they feel it's a meaningless task, just part of saving face by the authorities."

OCHA, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says in its latest report that Israeli soldiers deployed to protect Palestinians heading to their groves on harvest days have reduced some of the physical attacks that were more common in recent years, but do nothing to protect the groves from damage inflicted at other times of the year.

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.