Tree expert Jakov Shkolnik in front of a laurel tree © dpa
The olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem © dpa
Even in the Bible, trees play a special role – starting with the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. In Israel, ancient trees are documented and carefully cared for.
The olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, with their silvery green leaves, are among the oldest trees in the world. The plants at the foot of the Mount of Olives, some of which have already disintegrated into many pieces, seem like a living testimony to biblical times. "Has already Jesus seen these trees?", asks the Israeli tree expert Jakov Schkolnik. "It is at least possible."
The exact age of the olive trees can not be determined, only estimated. "With living trees you can not count the annual rings."According to experts, however, they are at least one, but perhaps two millennia old.
A heavy iron fence protects the decrepit trees from the many curious visitors from around the world. "Otherwise, I'm sure many would cut off a piece as a souvenir, perhaps sell it," explains botanist.
Prayer of Jesus the night before his crucifixion
For pilgrims, the Garden of Gethsemane with its impressive plants has always had a very special meaning. According to Christian tradition, Jesus prayed in this olive grove the night before his crucifixion. In memory of his desperate battle of the soul, the neighboring Roman Catholic church is also called the "Basilica of the Fear of Death". Its heavy entrance door is also decorated with the image of an olive tree.
Shkolnik points to the special cultural significance of the olive tree in the Mediterranean region. "The olive branch is considered a symbol of peace."In the Old Testament, a dove sent by Noah returns from its flight to the ark with an olive branch. This symbolizes the end of the Flood and a new covenant of peace with God. In ancient times, olive oil was also the main source of energy, similar to oil today, he says.
Shkolnik, in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund, has documented more than 200 ancient trees in Israel. "Every tree has its own fascinating story," says Shkolnik. The documentation will also help preserve the health of the ancient trees. "You can prop them up, you can fight vermin," says Shkolnik. However, the extent to which man should intervene in the care of the aged plants is a matter of dispute among experts.
The search for traces continues: Two significant trees also stand in the courtyard of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross in Jerusalem. "A Czech pilgrim found it in 19. He was brought here in the sixteenth century from the holy Greek mountain of Athos," Shkolnik recounts. One of the two cypresses is so large that its trunk has grown together with a railing on the upper floor of the monastery.
A Christian legend tells a miraculous story about another tree that is said to have stood here: The biblical forefather Lot, as a sign of penance for forbidden sex with his daughters, planted the tree from which the wood for Jesus' cross was later obtained. As a painting at the entrance also shows, the sacred tree is said to be "fused" from three plants into one – a pine tree, a cypress tree and a cedar tree. Under an altar inside the fortress-like house of prayer, the place where the tree is said to have stood is marked with a silver ring.
Another documented tree stands next to the British military cemetery in Jerusalem. The great laurel tree casts long shadows over the well-tended resting place. Some 2500 men lie buried here, all killed in 1917 during World War I.
British Field Marshal Edmund Allenby had advanced through Gaza and Beersheva at the time in battle against the Turkish rulers. "Allenby promised the British to conquer Jerusalem by Christmas." Which he also succeeded in doing: on 9. December 1917 Allenby marched his troops into the city. "These young men paid the price," Shkolnik says, looking thoughtfully at the cemetery where an olive tree stands like a silent witness.