Jesus and his disciples regularly spent the evenings on the Mount of Olives, and the warm, dry Cave of Gethsemane would have been a natural place to find shelter, suggests Joan Taylor. The cave’s oil-press would have operated only in the autumn and winter, after the olive harvest. By spring, when Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Passover, the cave would have been used only for storage. Thousands of people made pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem during Passover, and every possible lodging in the city and surrounding village was offered to visitors.

Today, the cave is an underground chapel, with chairs set out for services. The olive-press may have been located in what is now the sanctuary, in the easternmost extension of the cave. An ancient hole in the wall, visible through the square hole cut out of the modern wall jutting out at right, lies at the exact height to support the wooden beam of the press. The press would have extended out, parallel to the modern altar, in this eastern cave extension.

The beam olive-press, used in the second step of olive pressing, extracted the last drops of oil from olives. First mill-stones crushed the olives in large basins to remove the finest, virgin oil used for sanctuary lamps. The remaining pulp was placed in loosely woven baskets (called aqalim in Arabic and Hebrew) that were stacked on a smaller vat and topped with a stone. Pressure applied by the long wooden beam, anchored in the wall and weighted down with stones on one end, squeezed the remaining oil out of the pulp, through the baskets and into the stone vat below.

Few clues to the cave’s original appearance remain. The stellar ceiling decorations and other rock paintings in the sanctuary date to the Crusader period (11th and 12th centuries); a recent mural behind the altar depicts Jesus and his disciples praying in the cave, with a large mill-stone beside them. The stone paving was laid after the excavations of 1956–1957, and the T-shaped concrete column at center is a modern support. Three pillars (two fully visible and one mostly cropped at right, in the photo) consist of ancient rock-cut pillars covered with modern concrete. The remains of a fourth ancient pillar, to the right of the modern T-shaped column, are marked on the plan. The cave’s original entrance was cut into the north wall, behind the small table in the photo. A gutter and Byzantine mosaics lie near the modern entrance, beyond the bottom left corner of this photo.

The spacious cave, measuring 36 by 60 feet, was probably the largest olive-oil processing site on the Mount of Olives. The cave’s central chamber was large enough to house a crushing basin with a mill-stone, used in the first step of olive pressing, although there are no archaeological remains.