The olive trees on the Mount of Olives next to Jerusalem's Garden of Gethsemane stand gnarled and silent, their knobby trunks reaching out of the rocky hills, a testament to thousands of years of careful cultivation in one of the holiest spots on Earth.Not sure what to make of that last sentence. But Hebrew University archaeologist Joseph Patrich has this to say:
This four-acre olive grove belonging to Benedictine sisters looks out on the golden rotunda of the Dome of the Rock, glinting in the sunlight, and the walls of ancient Jerusalem following the contours of the hills and wadis. From the grove, their trees stand witness to the path Jesus took to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal.
But the Benedictine Sisters of Our Lady of Calvary, who have inhabited this old stone convent for the last 120 years, also see another side of the historic olive grove: the Jerusalem municipality water bill.
A few hundred meters away, on the other side of the hill from the Benedictines' monastery, Jerusalem descends sharply into the desert, sparse vegetation giving way to barren rocks until you reach the Dead Sea, Earth's lowest spot on land. This proximity to the desert also means that the olive trees need buckets and buckets of water — about $2,500 of water per month and sometimes even more in the brutal summer heat.
Cisterns are an ancient method of collecting rainwater in underground stone caverns for household use and irrigation. The Benedictine compound has more than 20 cisterns, though they had fallen into disuse and no longer functioned. By renovating them and reverting to the traditional method of capturing rainwater, the sisters will cut down dramatically on their use of municipal water.
"We believe the cisterns are from the sixth century, and that maybe there was a Byzantine monastery here," said Penka. "One of our cisterns is more rectangular. Usually cisterns are like a round bottle. This one and another one are rectangular. We think maybe it was a burial place."
"Without archaeological excavations, it's hard to know exactly what was in this spot," Patrich said of the Benedictine convent. "The cisterns could be from the Byzantine period, from as early as the fourth century."
Patrich said it is likely that the Benedictine convent was built on top of previous religious buildings. "There were a lot of important convents and monasteries in this area," he said.