The Mount of Olives
The “Mount of Olives”, rising to the east of Jerusalem, separates the Holy City from the Judean Desert which from here begins its descent to the Dead Sea.
The Kidron Valley, which surrounds Jerusalem to the east, separates the Mount of Olives from the city and from the nearby Mount Zion, located further to the south, from where Jesus set off on foot after the Last Supper, crossing the Valley to reach Gethsemane.
Looking towards the north, beyond the Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus (820 m.) comes into view, today the site of Hebrew University. From the summit of the Mount of Olives one can enjoy the most evocative panorama of the Holy City, as it can be observed in its entirety from above.
Its name, still used today, comes from the olive trees that for thousands of years have grown on the slopes of the Mount. In the Jewish tradition it is also known as the “Mount of Unction”, since the oil made from its olives was used to anoint the king and the high priests. Starting in the 12th century the Arabs called it "Jebel et-Tur", a term of Aramaic origin signifying “mount of mounts” or “holy mount”; today they simply refer to it as "et-Tur".
The Mount consists of three areas of high ground from which steep roads descend to the valley below: from the north to the south extends "Karm as-Sayyad" (“vineyard of the hunter”), reaching 818 meters of altitude; in the center is "Jebel et-Tur" (“holy mountain”) at 808 meters; and to the southwest, on the far side of the Jerusalem-Jericho road, is "Bet el Hawa" (“belly of the wind”), also known as "Mount Scandal", at 713 meters high.
The high ground played an important role in Jewish history. According to the Bible, King David, barefoot and weeping, left the city and went up the Mount of Olives to escape from his son Absalom who was conspiring against him (2 Sam 15:30); King Joshua defiled the “high places” that had been built on the Mount by King Solomon for worshipping the gods of his foreign wives (1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:13).
After the first destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the Jews began to go there on pilgrimage since, according to tradition, the Glory of the God of Israel had risen from the city and stood upon the mountain which was to its east (cf. Ezekiel 11:23).
During the period of the Second Temple, bonfires at the top of the Mount announced to the Jews of the diaspora the new moon of the religious new year: a relay of lights along the heights carried the announcement to Babylonia (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 2:4). The burning of the red heifer also took place on the Mount of Olives: its ashes, mixed with water from the Gihon Spring, served to purify all those who had become impure through contact with the dead (Mishnah, Parah 3:6-7).
Following David's conquest of the city (c. 10th century BC), a number of Israelites chose to be buried along the walls of the Mount. According to the declarations of the prophets, the Mount would be the place chosen by God for the Day of Judgment and the resurrection of the righteous (Joel 3:4-5), when all the nations would be made to go down into the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Kidron Valley) (Joel 4:2) and the Lord would place his feet on the Mount, cleaving it into two parts (Zechariah 14:4). This explains why the Mount has had a strong funerary vocation. The large Jewish cemetery, which today covers a substantial part of its slopes, in the 15th century began to once again be the site of Jewish burials.
The Mount of Olives was an obligatory transit point for those who, like Jesus, the guest of Lazarus and the sisters Martha and Mary, traveled from the village of Bethany to Jerusalem: the Mount was a “sabbath day's journey” from the city, that is, the maximum distance permitted by Jewish law for traveling on a sabbath (Acts 1:12).
On the back of his donkey, in the vicinity of Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus began his messianic entry into the Holy City, acclaimed by the festive crowds (Mark 11:1-11 and par.)
The evangelist Luke, in particular, stressed Jesus' frequent visits to the Mount of Olives, where he went to pass the night and to instruct his disciples (Luke 22:39).
Jesus' customary presence on the Mount has made it into one of the most cherished places in Christianity. In memory of his passage there, since the first centuries of the Christian era various places of worship have emerged on the summit and along the slopes of the Mount. While they were destroyed on numerous occasions, during the course of the 20th century churches were reconstructed at the site of several of these.
The principal Christian memories on the Mount of Olives refer to the following events in Jesus' life:
- the teaching of the Lord's Prayer: Eleona or the Grotto of the Lord's Prayer
- the weeping over Jerusalem: Dominus Flevit
- the acclamation upon his entry into the Holy City on the back of a donkey: the sanctuary of Bethphage
- the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane followed by his capture: Church of Gethsemane, Garden of Olives, Grotto of Gethsemane
- his Ascension into Heaven, which occurred at the summit of the mount: the Edicule of the Ascension.
Finally, at the base of the Mount are two other important Jerusalem memories, closely linked to the infant Church: the ancient Tomb of Mary, cited in the Syriac version of the "Transitus Beatae Mariae Virginis" from the 2nd century AD, and the Church of St. Stephen, built in recent times in memory of the martyrdom of the first bishop of Jerusalem who was stoned and buried, according to an ancient tradition, next to a rock at this location.