A Leisurely Walk from the Olive Tree Hotel to Jerusalem’s oldest olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane
Time frame: The distance from the Olive Tree Hotel to the Garden of Gethsemane is about a forty-five minute walk. But allow a couple of hours to explore and savor the sites along the way.
Kitty corner, diagonally across the street and to the right, with one’s back to the entrance of The Olive Tree Hotel, is Nablus Road. In the spring, use the tall purple-flowered jacaranda tree next to the tower of the St George Cathedral as a landmark. On Nablus Road, go left and then take an immediate right.
This will bring you to Saladin Street. On your right you’ll see an orange sign saying “Tomb of the Kings”. It will be pointing to a black grilled gate with the sign “Tombeau des Rois”. The gates will be locked. But do not worry. There’s a small turquoise door to the left which is often open during the morning hours. Walk right in, smile or wave, and turn right. Walk parallel to the black gate on your right.
Soon you’ll find yourself descending a two thousand year old rock-cut staircase. Walk past the open cisterns and enter a huge courtyard. When you turn left, you’ll see a magnificent frieze decorating the tomb complex containing the first century AD tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene (today Kurdistan). According to the historian Josephus Flavius, the bones of Queen Helena, a convert to Judaism, were sent to Jerusalem for burial.
Don’t miss the original ROLLING STONE still “in situ” (in place). It once blocked the entrance to the complex of burial chambers, typical of first century AD tombs.
Exit the same way you entered. Return to Nablus Road and turn left. You’ll pass the entrance to St. George's Cathedral on your left and then the Palestinian pottery shop/residence, also on your left. Across the street you will see the US Consulate. DON’T LOSE YOUR PASSPORT!!! But, if you do, the American Consulate is right here. There’s even a little shop across the street where they take passport size photos.
On the side of the American Consulate, to your right, you will see a plaque which commemorates the Israeli soldiers who fell during the Six Day War. Even further to the right, in an enclosed area on the ground level there are large stones. These stones are part of the “Third Wall” which fortified Jerusalem in the first century AD. The building of the Third Wall was initiated by Herod Agrippas, grandson of Herod the Great, and completed on the eve of the Judean revolt against the Romans in 66 AD. Although the Third Wall defended Jerusalem from the north, it did not prevent the Romans from conquering the city.
Continue along Nablus Road with the stone wall on your left. When you see a sign pointing left towards a narrow lane (Conrad Schick Street) turn in: this is the entrance to the Garden Tomb. Discovered in 1867, the Garden Tomb is thought by many to be the location of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was buried. (See John 19:41) You will also see Gordon's Calvary. Gordon's Calvary was discovered in 1884 by Charles “Chinese” Gordon and identified as the Golgotha, the “place of the skull,” where Jesus was crucified.
If you are part of an organized tour, your itinerary will include a visit to the Garden Tomb with a tour and group fellowship. If you come on your own to the Garden Tomb, you’ll find the uplifting atmosphere conducive to individual prayer and reflection. Plan to spend a few quiet moments with your Bible and journal.
Now, as you exit the Garden Tomb, you’ll leave churches, stones, and tombs behind, at least temporarily. Turn left and in a few minutes you will arrive outside of Damascus Gate, an area filled with activity. First you’ll be bombarded with fresh fruit of all colors – strawberries, apples, loquats, oranges, peaches, bananas, plums, papayas, and humungous red-violet grapes (each bunch a foot and a half in length) -- whatever is in season. Fruit and vegetables are sold by weight, measured on old-fashioned scales. It’s said they are more trust-worthy! Treat yourself to a “bagele,” an oblong-shaped roll topped with sesame seeds. Don’t forget to ask for zaatar, a native spice from the oregano family, which comes rolled in a page of newspaper.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the outdoor market days, the entrance to Damascus Gate will be extremely crowded, as locals stop to bargain for everyday commodities like shoes, children’s clothes, ladies’ underwear and even plastic flowers!
As you approach the gate, look down to your left, and you’ll see a 2,000-year-old Roman gate and tower, possibly in place during the time of Jesus. Note the flat-bellied “dressed” stone decorated with indented margins. This decoration is a trademark of Herod the Great’s skilled stone masons. The gate was part of a triple-arched entrance to second century AD Jerusalem and was renamed Aelia Capitolina by the Roman emperor Hadrian. The Roman Cardo (Latin for Main Street) began here. You can stroll along its extension in the Jewish Quarter on another day.
The Old Roman Gate was discovered by a British archeologist named Hamilton in 1937 and excavated in the 1980s by Israeli archeologist Menachem Magen. When Jerusalem is once again “flooded” with tourists, the gate will be reopened. In the meantime, unfortunately, it is used as a garbage bin by the vendors.
The Damascus Gate, called Sha’ar Shechem in Hebrew and Bab el-Amud in Arabic, is the main entrance to the Old City from the north. On Fridays and Saturdays, when it’s elbow to elbow, if you aren’t careful, your wallet may go home in someone else’s pocket. It happens, even to the natives, on market days!
About fifty yards inside the gate, you’ll come to a fork in the road. The street on the right leads (after a few twists and turns) to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Take the left fork. You will pass through a covered market area and once you come out into the sunlight again, take the second left. You’ll see Armenian-decorated wall tiles labeled Via Dolorosa, turn there.
You are now at the Third Station of the Cross where Jesus fell for the first time. Before you turn left, continue forward just a few paces until you are standing on huge 2,000-year-old Flagstones. They were discovered two decades ago when modern pipes were being laid eight feet beneath the street. Archeologists dated the flagstones to the first century AD from the coins and pottery shards lying on them. It was then decided to re-lay the flagstones at street level so today’s pilgrims could literally walk in the footsteps of pilgrims of Jesus’ day.
Back up a few paces and turn left onto the Via Dolorosa,
Some of the shops on your right specialize in icons, a number of which are imported from the former Soviet Union. If you are an “icon-noisseur,” you may find a rare item to add to your collection. If you are a novice, enjoy the Turkish coffee as you browse the selection. Buyers beware! The true bargain (in hundreds of percent profit) is usually made by the merchant.
Continue on. The next point of interest is the Ecce Homo Arch over the street. It reminds us when Pontius Pilate said, “Here is the Man” to the waiting multitudes. (John 19:5)
Under the arch, on your left, is the Sisters of Sion Church. On Sundays the church is closed to the public. The reception desk at the Olive Tree Hotel would be happy to check the opening hours for you. Inside the church, for a small fee, you will have an opportunity to explore part of underground Jerusalem. Descend into the cistern which was built by Herod the Great. Originally it was a water reservoir connected to the Antonia fortress.
On your left is the entrance to the Church of the Flagellation, Station One on the Way of the Cross. As you walk along the Stations of the Cross, don’t look for anything familiar from the movie “Passion of Christ.” Mel Gibson didn’t film on location!
As you exit turn to the left. Opposite the public WC (water closet), is a very friendly kiosk, the perfect place for fresh orange juice or ice cream. Take a moment to relax and people-watch along the Via Dolorosa. (Please note – the public WC is not the cleanest place in the Middle East. Better to use the restrooms at the Sisters of Sion or the St Anne Church, coming up.)
Continuing straight down the hill, on your left, before leaving the walled city, is the Church of St. Anne and the remnants of the Pool of Bethesda. The Crusader-built Church of St Anne is intact and is graced with an extraordinary 11-second echo. Take a seat towards the front and sing your favorite hymn. Don’t forget to pause at the end of each verse, to appreciate the echo. “Hallelujah” and the Doxology are pilgrim favorites.
Next to the church are the remains of the original Pool of Bethesda where Jesus asked the man who was lame for 38 years, “Do you wish to be well?” (John 5) Over the pool are ruins of churches built by the Byzantines in the fifth century and the Crusaders in the twelfth century.
When you’re ready to continue, we are going to leave the Old City via St. Stephen's Gate. Tradition has it that Stephen was martyred in the Kidron Valley below us. Another popular name for the gate is “Lion’s Gate.” As you exit, turn around and note two pairs of carved lions over the entrance. Whoops – someone got that wrong! If you look carefully, you’ll see that the carved figures are not lions, but leopards. However, the gate continues to be called “Lion’s Gate."
Continue walking straight towards the Kidron Valley. Cross the street and continue down the hill. A Greek Orthodox church dedicated to St. Stephen is on your right and the Church of the Assumption dedicated to Mary is further along on your left. As you follow the main road you will see the Mount of Olives and the gold onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church dedicated to Mary Magdalene.
The road winds to the right and you reach the Church of All Nations which was built by 16 Christian nations at the close of World War I. Over the triple arched portal is a magnificent mosaic façade representing Jesus as the hope of all humanity. After admiring the façade and statues of the four evangelists, retrace your steps to a narrow street leading up the Mount of Olives. On your right is the entrance to the Garden of Gethsemane.
“Gethsemane” is derived from the Aramaic word for “oil press.” It was here in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus was pressed so that he sweat blood. (Luke 22:44) He spent a night of prayer here, instructing his disciples to keep watch. It was here that Jesus was arrested by the guards of the high priest.
As you enter the garden, you’ll see the eight oldest olive trees in Jerusalem, estimated to be as much as two thousand years old. We can’t know the exact age of the trees, for olive trees don’t bear rings. But we say, olive trees are like people, the older they get, instead of getting taller, they just get wider! Note how the younger branches sprout right out of the roots.
All other olive trees in Jerusalem and its surroundings were apparently cut down by the Romans as they were besieging the city. These, however, survived, or at least their roots did.
If you visit during the months of September or October you’ll see the trees heavily laden with fruit. Proper pruning results in a bountiful olive harvest.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, oil from the olive tree was used to anoint the kings of Judah. In Jewish tradition, the redeemer came to be called the “Anointed One,” Meshiach in Hebrew.
Take advantage of two opportunities for private time at the Garden of Gethsemane. First, enter the Church of All Nations. Perhaps you will observe a pilgrim mass in progress, or one of the regular Latin masses. Then as you exit the garden, offer the gatekeeper a little “baksheesh” (a couple of shekels) to find the big black iron key that opens the private garden. It’s part of the authentic Garden of Gethsemane, although its trees are younger. You can usually find a private spot for prayer.
To return to the Olive Tree Hotel: By cab, it’s a 10-minute ride.
By foot, return to the Lion’s Gate. Don’t enter, but turn right up the steps and continue parallel to the eastern wall until you reach its north-east corner. Turn left. You’ll see the Rockefeller Museum of Antiquities on your right and then pass Flowers (also called Herod’s) Gate on your left. In a few minutes you’ll see the familiar Damascus Gate. Turn right down Nablus Road and in less than ten minutes you’ll be back at the Olive Tree Hotel.
Relax at the Oasis Bar with iced lemonade or fragrant mint tea and record your thoughts and fresh impressions of the numerous sites you’ve just experienced first-hand, all connected with one of the pivotal events in the course of human history.
The Olive Tree Hotel would be happy to receive your comments on the walking tour to the Garden of Gethsemane.