Gethsemane in the historical sources
The places linked to Jesus’ agony and arrest have been mentioned since ancient times.
In his Onomasticon (“On the Place-Names in Holy Scripture”) Eusebius referred to Gethsemane, noting that it was at the foot of the Mount of Olives and that “even today the faithful flock there to pray”. Thus, by the end of the third century the site was being visited by Christians, who made special prayers there, a phenomenon also mentioned by the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux in 333 and by St. Cyril in 350.
The pilgrim Egeria, at the end of the 4th century, was the first to speak of a new church built on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus prayed before the Passion. This is the “elegant” church described by her in her journal along with the liturgies that were used beside the mountain beginning the afternoon of Holy Thursday: after spending the night in prayer, at sunrise on Friday the crowd of faithful descended to Gethsemane where, by the light of torches, the Gospel passage describing Jesus' arrest was read aloud.
The accounts from the end of the fourth century enable one to date the construction of the sacred building in the reign of Theodosius I (379-395 AD). The Annals of Eutychius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, written in the 10th century, confirm not only that the construction of the church was the work of Theodosius but also that it was destroyed in 614 when Chosroes II entered Jerusalem and tore down many of the churches and monasteries. Based on the same excavations which brought to light the remains of the Byzantine church, it is now clear that there was a major fire in the building which probably was the direct cause of its destruction.
The situation regarding the ruins of the church before the Crusader period remains uncertain. Worship on the site continued, as confirmed by the Georgian Lectionary (7th-8th centuries). The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (c. 758-818) mentions that Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705) wanted to remove the columns from the church of Gethsemane, presumably to make use of them in the mosque being constructed during those years in Mecca. A noble Christian dissuaded him from carrying out this plan.
Brief information is also contained in the Life of St. Sabas by Cyril of Scythopolis, which speaks of “Holy Gethsemane” where the goldsmith Romulus was archdeacon in 532. Two centuries later St. Willibald, in his Itinerarium describing his journey of 724-726, makes reference to the existence of a church. Thus there was still a church on the site, but it is likely that it was in ruins.
News from Gethsemane resumes at the beginning of the twelfth century, during the Crusader period: the Anglo-Saxon pilgrim Sæwulf (1102), the Ukrainian abbot Daniel (1106) and also the anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum (“Deeds of the Franks”, c. 1100) speak of the simple oratory at Gethsemane, dedicated to St. Savior.
The Crusader reconstruction of the church began in the second half of the 12th century.
As a first step the Crusaders built the Abbey of St. Mary in the Valley of Jehoshaphat above the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. The rich abbey was left to the care of the Benedictine monks by Godfrey de Bouillon and endowed with a convent and hospital.
The rocky cave, described by the Russian abbot Daniel in 1106 as the one in which Jesus was handed over to the Jews for thirty pieces of silver, was transformed into a chapel by the Crusaders and painted with frescoes of a starry sky and scenes from the Gospels.
At the site of the oratory of St. Savior, John of Würzburg in 1165 tells of having found a new church dedicated to the Savior, with three different rocks commemorating the triple prayer of Jesus in the garden. And in 1172 the pilgrim Theodoricus recounts that Crusader architects had been involved in the construction of the Church of the Savior.
This church was the spiritual center of the Confraternity of Charity that had been founded to collect alms for the hospital of Our Lady of Josaphat [Jehoshaphat] at the abbey of the Tomb of the Virgin.
Soon thereafter the church was partially torn down by Saladin’s army, which also destroyed the abbey at the Tomb of the Virgin, as recounted by the English Cistercian abbot Rudolph: only the lower church of St. Mary in the Valley of Jehoshaphat was spared, on account of the Islamic devotion to the mother of the prophet Jesus.
As a result of a restoration, whose existence we are aware of due to archaeological excavations, the building consecrated to the Savior continued in existence, although deprived of its wealth. Throughout the period of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and beyond, the church remained a destination for pilgrimages, the last evidence for this coming from a Catalan pilgrim in 1323. Since that time the bare rock, which today can be seen behind the church, has been venerated with the name of “Rock of the Apostles”, in memory of the place where the disciples fell asleep during Jesus' agony.