Across the busy street running in front of the Church of All Nations, a popular pilgrim site (in normal times, that is), a recent salvage excavation is providing yet another window into Jerusalem’s past. Not surprising, really, in a city where one can hardly turn a spadeful of earth without uncovering something of antiquity!
This time the place is Gethsemane, specifically the floor of the Kidron Valley opposite the Church (also known as the Basilica of the Agony), where the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has been constructing a pedestrian tunnel beneath the busy thoroughfare which traverses the western slopes of the Mount of Olives and fronts the equally busy pilgrim destination. Though not stated directly, a tunnel in this location will facilitate — and make far safer — pilgrim foot traffic coming across and up the Valley from the Old City, as a traditional Maundy Thursday procession has done since antiquity. One article (see below) mentions also a related visitors center, still under development.
The finds uncovered at the site are very interesting, if not totally surprising. One is a mikveh, a Second Temple-period Jewish ritual bath hewn into the bedrock of the Kidron Valley. Such an installation, it is noted, points to the ancient uses of the tract as a place both of tombs and of agricultural activity, with a particular linkage made to the ancient Aramaic place-name itself, gat shemanim — “oil press”.
The other main find is a previously unknown church, whose founding the experts date to “the end of the Byzantine period (6th century AD)”. Within the church, stone pavements, mosaic floors, and at least one memorial inscription came to light. The question arises — but is not addressed — as to how this church might have related to the nearby late 4th century church which exactly underlies the modern basilica, since they were both presumably were standing at the same time. (The destruction of the 4th century church has been ascribed variously to the Persians in 614 AD or (per Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land) a ca. 750 earthquake.) One possibility — just a guess — is that the newly found church served the monastic community tasked with overseeing the larger pilgrim site. In fact, nearby are bits of a later pilgrim hospice or monastery, but dating from the Medieval period.
The excavations were carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in collaboration with the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Apparently some of the remains were previously uncovered, and documented by the Franciscan Fr. V. Corbo, in the 1960s, during construction of a retaining wall when the road was being built by the Jordanians.
No specific mention is made of the fate of these antiquities — how or whether they will be preserved and/or displayed into the future. The finds are reportedly still being analyzed, verified and peer-reviewed. Also (if memory serves), the exact place of the excavation contained a number of mostly modern-day burials in a Franciscan-owned cemetery. No mention is made of what has become of these graves:
The Custody’s official presentation, including a slide-show of 20-plus images, can be found here:
More information and photos, from the Times of Israel, are available here (the article states several times that the tunnel is being dug under the modern basilica — I don’t think so):