The northernmost peak is Mount Scopus. The southern, and lowest, peak is called the Mount of Offense (or Mount of Corruption or Scandal) because it was here where Solomon erected altars for his many wives to worship their foreign gods (1Kgs 11:7-8).
The middle peak of the ridge is the Mount of Olives proper. It commands a wonderful view of the city and – in Jesus’ day — overlooked the Temple, which faced it. Jesus and his disciples would have traveled the path over this ridge many times, since it was the route from Jerusalem and Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that, in Old Testament times, the Mount of Olives was a holy site and dedicated to God long before Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem. David fled over the Mount of Olives in tears when his son, Absalom, stole his throne (2Sam 15). And when the prophet Ezekiel foretold the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., one of his visions was of the glory of the Lord leaving the city and moving to the Mount of Olives (Ez 10:23).
Besides visiting Bethany, Jesus was on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem when he cursed the fig tree (Mt 21 18-22) and when he predicted Jerusalem’s destruction (Mt. 24:37-39). This later event was during part of a longer teaching by Jesus, which some call the Olivet Discourse, during which he also spoke of “the end of the age.”
The Mount of Olives figures prominently in the events of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery, his Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension, which we remember during Holy Week:
The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday, began in Bethpage, which lies beyond the crest of the Mount of Olives, near Bethany.
Along this route of Jesus’ triumph is the site where Luke tells us the Lord wept over the city (Lk 19:41). Today, a small church, called Dominus Flevit (the Lord Wept), overlooks the city along this route.
Also near the base of the Mount of Olives lies the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Lord spent his last moments of freedom in prayer. Today, ancient olive trees still grow near the site. The Church of All Nations, completed in 1924, shelters a large rock that is said to be the Rock of the Agony.
After his death and resurrection, the Lord returned to the Mount of Olives to ascend to heaven (Lk 24:50-51). A church in honor of the Ascension was built on the traditional site by St. Helen, the mother of Constantine, in the fourth century. It was destroyed by the Muslim leader Saladin in 1187 and has since been a small mosque. However, Christians are allowed inside and a stone on the floor is said to hold the footprint of Christ.
Also on the ridge is the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, built in 1888, and the partially rebuilt church of the Pater Noster, which stands over a partially collapsed cave said to have been used by Christ and his disciples.
The Mount of Olives is not only important to Christians. Each year, devout Jews climb there for the feast of Tisha B’Av — this year held on July 30 — to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Tradition says both temples were destroyed on the same day, 656 years apart. Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for Jews and also commemorates other tragic events in their history, including the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain.
For those of the Jewish faith, the Mount of Olives has also been a preferred burial site since before the time of Christ. The belief is that the Messiah will come to Jerusalem from the east, so the Mount of Olives slopes are lined with thousands of tombs. (In 1983, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was buried there.)
Also on the Mount of Olives, near Gethsemane, is the Orthodox Church of the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, an underground structure. (Western tradition places the Church of the Dormition of Mary inside Jerusalem, on Mount Zion.)
For Christians, the Mount of Olives plays a key role in the Holy Week journey. Its fruit trees and its Garden of Gethsemane (whose name means “oil press”) remind us of the slow steady process of salvation — from early blossoms of the fig trees, to ripening olives, to the oil pressed out from those olives for fuel, food and anointing. In similar fashion, the life of Jesus was a slow, steady process that led to the harvest of eternal life.
As we journey to Easter, we remember that process in Jesus’ life and see it played out in our own: “Where I am, there also will my servant be” (Jn 12:26).
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; www.bible-history.com/jerusalem; www.bibleplaces.com; en.wikipedia.org; www.jewfaq.org; www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org; www.biblewalks.com; and www.bibleplaces.com