Olive trees in the Jerusalem garden where Jesus Christ prayed before he was crucified have "miraculously" lived through the past nine centuries bacteria-free, according to a molecular research presented last week at the Vatican Radio in Rome.
Carried by a team of researchers from Italy's National Research Council (CNR) and various Italian universities, the three-year study investigated eight gnarled olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the holiest sites of Christendom.
The research found that three of the eight healthy trees (the only ones on which it was technically possible to carry out the dating) come from the middle of the 12th century, although the roots underground are certainly much older.
"These olives are among the oldest broad-leaved trees in the world," lead researcher Antonio Cimato of the CNR's Tree and Timber Institute in Florence, said.
Carbon dating showed that the trees come from the years 1092, 1166 and 1198, a period when the Crusaders, engaged in the reconstruction of the great churches of the Holy Land, re-built the Basilica of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
According to the researchers, it is likely that during the construction of the church, the olive garden was rearranged and renovated.
Indeed, olive trees can grow back after being cut down or even burnt.
DNA analysis of the eight trees revealed they were all related to a single, older tree.
"All eight trees have similar genetic profiles, meaning they are olive 'twins,' all children of a single specimen," Cimato said.
According to the researcher, this means the olives were not spontaneous trees, but were deliberately planted.
Why did the Crusaders choose one single tree, among the thousands growing in Jerusalem? Were they trying to preserve a specific, meaningful lineage? Are the olives linked to the very trees under which, according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus sweat drops of blood as he prayed?
The questions will remain unanswered, according to Cimato.
"Finding the original tree is impossible," he said.
Despite their age, the 900-year-old olive trees were found in excellent health, unaffected by lead pollution and bacteria.
Amazingly, the garden's earth appears to block insects and bacterial proliferation.
"I would call it a small miracle," Cimato said.
Photos: Olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. Credit: Corbis