Gethsemani (Hebrew gat, press, and semen, oil) is the place in which Jesus Christ suffered the Agony and was taken prisoner by the Jews. Saint Mark (xiv, 32) calls it (Gr.) chorion, “a place” or “estate”; St. John (xviii, 1) speaks of it as kepos, a “garden” or “orchard”. In the East, a field shaded by numerous fruit trees and surrounded by a wall of loose stone or a quick-set hedge forms the el bostan, the garden. The name “oil-press” is sufficient indication that it was planted especially with olive trees. According to the Greek version and others, St. Matthew (xxvi, 36) designates Gethsemani by a term equivalent to that used by St. Mark. The Vulgate renders chorion by the word villa, but there is no reason to suppose that there was a residence there. St. Luke (xxii, 39) refers to it as “the Mount of Olives”, and St. John (xviii, 1) speaks of it as being “over the brook Cedron”. According to St. Mark, the Savior was in the habit of retiring to this place; and St. John writes: “Judas also, who betrayed him, knew the place; because Jesus had often resorted thither together with his disciples”.
A place so memorable, to which all the Evangelists direct attention, was not lost sight of by the early Christians. In his “Onomasticon” (ed. Klostermann, 1904, p. 74), Eusebius of Caesarea says that Gethsemani is situated “at the foot of the Mount of Olives”, and he adds that “the faithful were accustomed to go there to pray”. In 333 the Pilgrim of Bordeaux visited the place, arriving by the road which climbs to the summit of the mountain, i.e. beyond the bridge across the valley of Josaphat. In the time of the Jews, the bridge which spanned the torrent of Cedron occupied nearly the same place as the one which is seen there today, as is testified by the ancient stair-case cut in the rock, which on one side came down from the town and on the other wound to the top of the mountain. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna (c. 420), and Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, speak of this immense staircase and two other pilgrims counted the steps. Traces of it are still to be seen on the side towards the city, and numerous steps, very large and well-preserved, have been discovered above the present Garden of Gethsemani. The Pilgrim of Bordeaux notes “to the left, among the vines, the stone where Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ”. In translating the “Onomasticon” of Eusebius, St. Jerome adds to the article Gethsemani the statement that “a church is now built there” (Onomasticon, ed. Klostermann, p. 75). St. Sylvia of Aquitania (385-388) relates that on Holy Thursday the procession coming down from the Mount of Olives made a station at “the beautiful church” built on the spot where Jesus underwent the Agony. “From there”, she adds, “they descend to Gethsemani where Christ was taken prisoner” (S. Silviae Aquit. Peregr., ed. Gamurrini, 1888, pp. 62-63). This church, remarkable for its beautiful columns (Theophanes, Chronogr. ad an. 682), was destroyed by the Persians in 614; rebuilt by the Crusaders, and finally razed, probably in 1219. Arculf (c. 670), St. Willibald (723), Daniel the Russian (1106), and John of Wurzburg (1165) mention the Church of the Agony. The foundations have recently been discovered at the place indicated by them, i.e. at a very short distance from the southeast corner of the present Garden of Gethsemani.
A fragmentary account of a pilgrimage in the fourth century, preserved by Peter the Deacon (1037), mentions “a grotto at the place where the Jews took the Savior captive”. According to tradition it was in this grotto that Christ was wont to take refuge with His disciples to pass the night. It is also memorable for a supper and a washing of the feet which, according to the same tradition, took place there. Eutychius, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 583), says in one of his sermons that the Church commemorates three suppers. “The first repast”, he says, “together with the purification, took place at Gethsemani on the Sabbath day, the first day, i.e. when Sunday was already begun. That is why we then celebrate the vigil” (P.G., LXXXVI, 2392). The second supper was that of Bethany, and the third was that of Holy Thursday at which was instituted the Holy Eucharist. Theodosius (c. 530) describes this grotto in these terms: “There [in the valley of Josaphat] is situated the basilica of Holy Mary, Mother of God, with her sepulchre. There is also the place where the Lord supped with his disciples. There He washed their feet. There are to be seen four benches where Our Lord reclined in the midst of His Apostles. Each bench can seat three persons. There also Judas betrayed the Savior. Some persons, when they visit this spot, through devotion partake of some refreshment, but no meat. They light torches because the place is in a grotto.” Antoninus of Plaisance (570), Arculf, Epiphanius the Hagiopolite, and others make mention of the well-known pasch of which the Grotto of Gethsemani was witness. In the Church of the Agony the stone was preserved on which, according to tradition, Jesus knelt during His Agony. It is related by Arculf that, after the destruction of the church by the Persians, the stone was removed to the grotto and there venerated. In 1165 John of Wurzburg found it still preserved at this spot, and there is yet to be seen on the ceiling of the grotto an inscription concerning it. In the fourteenth century the pilgrims, led astray by the presence of the stone and the inscription, mistakenly called this sanctuary the Grotto of the Agony.
In ancient times the grotto opened to the south. The surrounding soil being raised considerably by earth carried down the mountain by the rains, a new entrance has been made on the northwest side. The rocky ceiling is supported by six pillars, of which three are in masonry, and, since the sixth century, has been pierced by a sort of skylight which admits a little light. The grotto, which is irregular in form, is, in round numbers, 56 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 12 feet high in its largest dimensions. It is adorned with four altars, but of the pictures which formerly covered the walls, and of the mosaic floor, traces only can be found. At a distance of about 130 feet to the south of the grotto is the Garden of Gethsemani, a quadrangular-shaped enclosure which measures about 195 feet on each side. Here are seven olive trees, the largest of which is about 26 feet in circumference. If they were not found there in the time of Christ they are at least the off-shoots of those which witnessed His Agony. With the aid of historical documents it has been established that these same trees were already in existence in the seventh century. To the east of the garden there is a rocky mass regarded as the traditional spot where the three Apostles waited. A stone’s throw to the south, the stump of a column fitted in a wall pointed out to the native Christians the place where Jesus prayed on the eve of his Passion. The foundations of the ancient church of the Agony were discovered behind this wall.