Oil for the Messiah |

A Tour of Jerusalem’s Ancient Olive Trees

Some say Jesus took shelter beneath these boughs. True or not, these ancient trees are evocative and beautiful.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

It is said that when the Messiah comes — we should only live to see it — he will be anointed with olive oil. After all, that’s the meaning of the Hebrew word mashiach - messiah — “anointed one.” It is also said that he will arrive from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, as we wait for him, a stiff competition is going on between hundreds of olive presses in Israel. The olive harvest is starting, and this week I tasted olive oil produced in the Deir Rafat monastery, near Kibbutz Tzora, a bitter, delicious oil from the new harvest. It’s a bit difficult to believe that the oil used to anoint the Messiah will come from there, of all places, but who can be sure?

Since the Messiah is supposed to make his first appearance in Jerusalem, that would be a good place to find some of its oldest, best-known, most beautiful and fascinating olive trees.

The elders of Gethsemane

The olive grove just outside the Gethsemane Church — also known as the Church of All Nations — has some of the best-known olive trees in Israel and perhaps in the world. About 20 olive trees stand in a fenced-in yard, separated by paved paths. Their deeply gnarled and curved trunks arouse the kind of respect reserved for tribal elders. Professors Nili Lipschitz and Gideon Biger of Tel Aviv University say these are the oldest olive trees in Israel (in their Hebrew-language guide to trees endemic to Israel, "Ki ha-adam etz ha-sadeh," published by Ariel in 1998).

The debate over the title of Israel’s oldest olive trees seems to be at the summation stage, but the Gethsemane courtyard is filled with pilgrims and visitors who come to see the trees. They seem touched. The reputation of the olive trees in Gethsemane has to do not only with their great age, but also with the (not very likely) possibility that Jesus sheltered beneath them when went with his disciples from the Last Supper on the Mount of Zion to Gethsemane.

According to Christian tradition, it was here that Judas Iscariot betrayed his master, and from here that Jesus was led to prison. There are historical accounts that the olive trees have been here for more than 1,550 years. Are they the same ones? Some botanists say not. Others, whose faith is more generous and whose worldview more flexible, say that anything is possible.

A young man standing near the entrance holds out a twig with a few olive leaves on it, saying that it was plucked a moment ago from the ancient trees (which is not only forbidden, but inconceivable). Right afterward, he offers some souvenirs for sale from his stall. Hundreds of pilgrims walk slowly around the square-shaped garden, some of them murmuring prayers.

Just before they are swallowed up into the church, they contemplate its doors, which contain images of olive trees just like the ones in the garden. Beyond the entrance, once our eyes become accustomed to the dimness, we can see the two olive trees painted on the rear wall of the church.

The garden is located at the intersection of Jericho Road and Siloam Road.

The olive-tree pillars at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel

A park with 200 olive trees was established in the eastern part of Kibbutz Ramat Rahel near the village of Sur Baher that abuts Jerusalem. At its center is a work by Israeli sculptor Ran Morin entitled Olive Columns, which contains three columns 15 meters high. At its top, on a special surface, are two olive trees.

An irrigation system brings water to the top of the pillars and the trees thrive there, making a strange, impressive sight. Facing the columns are two pyramids made of stones, each one with a live olive tree at its top. We climbed the concrete base of the tower and sat in the shade of the olive trees whose branches swayed somewhere above us. Pupils from Sur Baher looked at us with curiosity. The location of the park, on the road known as the Way of the Patriarchs that stretches from Jerusalem to Herodium and was once the city’s main entrance, gives a current significance to these olive trees.

The Olive Columns sculpture is located on Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, facing Sur Baher, where Sur Baher Road intersects with Labor Brigade Road.

Eternal Love in Bloomfield Park

Two olive trees stand on either side of a wooden sculpture in Bloomfield Park near the Montefiore Windmill and the Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood.

“The trees were here first,” says director Naomi Yoeli. “I don’t know who planted them, but they look ancient to me. We looked for the right place to commemorate my parents, who used to walk here and fell in love with the place. It seems as if the trees are stretching out their arms, holding each other with an intimacy that makes others envious. The space between them is just wide enough for a bench. When people sit here in silence and look out at the view, there is no lovelier place. We knew this was the right place for us.”

On one of the paving stones near the bench is inscribed: “In memory of Tzili and Shlomo Yoeli, who loved Jerusalem and particularly this park.”

With a view like this, passersby have no choice but to sit down for a moment. The Old City wall is visible to the east. Mount Zion and the Dormition Abbey stand behind it, and the seam line between the Old City and the new city stretches before our eyes. In the afternoons, bridal couples come to the sculpture and the bench to be photographed. Yoeli jokes that a story could be spread even now that the spot is a charm that will ensure eternal love.

Bloomfield Park is located at the intersection of King David Street with Bloomfield Boulevard.

Olives ripening on a tree.Credit: Moshe Gilad
The olive trees outside the Gethsemane Church.
Bloomfield Park. bridal couples come to the sculpture and the bench to be photographed.
The olive tree outside the Gethsemane Church.
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The olive trees outside the Gethsemane Church. Credit: Moshe Gilad
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Bloomfield Park. bridal couples come to the sculpture and the bench to be photographed.Credit: Moshe Gilad
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The olive tree outside the Gethsemane Church.Credit: Moshe Gilad
A tour of Jerusalems ancient olive trees

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