Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a ritual bath, dating back to the time of Jesus, at Gethsemane — the place where Christ is said to have spent his last night.
Israel Antiquities Authority experts unearthed the remains — complete with the steps that would have led down into the water — at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
The experts believe that the bath may have been used to cleanse workers before they operated an oil press in the garden, and by those climbing the hill to pray.
Careful study of the site began after initial remains were found during the digging of a foot tunnel for the Franciscans, the owners of the modern Gethsemane church.
According to the Biblical gospels, the Garden of Gethsemane was where Jesus went to pray after the last supper, prior to his betrayal at the hands of Judas Iscariot.
'The discovery of this bath, unaccompanied by buildings, probably attests to the existence of an agricultural industry here 2,000 years ago, possibly producing oil or wine,' district archaeologist Amit Re'em, who directed the dig, told the Times.
'The Jewish laws of purification obliged workers involved in oil and wine production to purify themselves,' he added.
In addition, the researchers said, the ritual bath would have been used by those about to pray or to walk up the next hill to worship at the Jewish temple.
In the four gospels of the New Testament, the Garden of Gethsemane is where Jesus prayed prior to his betrayal and arrest by the Romans which led to his crucifixion.
The garden's name comes from the Hebrew word 'Gat Shmaním', or 'oil press' — and, today, several small olive groves are maintained at the site, in church grounds.
It is possible, the researchers suggest, that Jesus may have purified himself in the ritual bath before walking up the Mount of Olives to pray.
As well as the 2,000-year-old bath, the team have also uncovered remains of an ornate, Byzantine-period church — some 1,500 years old — and a large monastery or hospice that would have been used by pilgrims in the time of the Crusades.
Evidence uncovered at the site suggest that the church was destroyed in the 12th century — potentially during the Ayyubid dynasty's conquest in 1187, when captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders and ordered the destruction of the city's churches.
A Greek inscription was found on the floor of the church, reading — 'for the memory and repose of the lovers of Christ God who have received the sacrifice of Abraham, accept the offering of your servants and give them remission of sins. Amen.'
'Gethsemane is one of the most important sanctuaries in the Holy Land,' Father Francesco Patton, who is the Vatican’s custodian of the Holy Land, told the Times.
'In this place the tradition remembers the confident prayer of Jesus and his betrayal and because [of this] every year millions of pilgrims visit and pray in this place.'
'Even the latest excavations conducted on this site have confirmed the antiquity of the Christian memory and tradition linked to the place.'
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.