Samaritan community during a pilgrimage on  Mount Gerizim near Nablus, AP
Women of the ancient Samaritan community gather at a pilgrimage on the top of Mount Gerizim, early Wednesday, May 5, 2010. Photo by AP
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Behind the rusty iron fence surrounding the archaeological work on Mount Gerizim lies one of Israel's most impressive antiquities sites. But the Civil Administration is keeping the compound closed despite its huge tourism potential. It says planning at the site near Nablus in the West Bank is "too problematic."

Over more than two decades, Yitzhak Magen, the administration's chief archaeology officer, dug up a 2,000-year-old city, once home to 10,000 people.

It was preserved in its entirety. The site consists of streets lined with houses, a marketplace and town center. Thousands of bones of sacrificial animals and tens of thousands of coins tell its story.

Mount Gerizim is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem's Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple.

The mountain remains the center of the Samaritan religion to this day. In 1982, the Civil Administration started digging at the site and continued for 22 years, at an investment of tens of millions of shekels.

"Josephus writes that the Samaritans fell out with the Jews, moved their spiritual center to Mount Gerizim and built their temple in a compound identical to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. That's what all the archaeologists were looking for," says Benny Katzover, former head of the Samaria Regional Council.

"They discovered that the destroyed temple began in the Hasmonean era and ended in the Byzantine era. The Byzantines built on its ruins an octagonal church, which has been dug up. The compound wall has remained almost entirely intact, as have parts of the central Samaritan city. The findings show a high living standard, with bathtubs, ceramics, a heating system and mosaics. You can see it was the capital of a kingdom."

Initially the authorities set up an observation point overlooking Nablus and signs explaining the findings; they intended to open the site to the public. But after the second intifada they scrapped the plan. Now, during the lull in hostilities, the Samaria Regional Council and Samaritan community are demanding that it be opened to visitors.

'This earth belongs to the community'

"Everyone wants to visit me and see what I believe in, what my history is - but I can't let people in without a permit," says Ovadia Cohen, secretary of the Samaritan community. "This earth belongs to the community, which received it from King Hussein. Every time I want to bring people in I need permits. We're always begging the authorities to open it up. They keep making promises and and breaking them.

"We're ready to run the place, we have the ability to run it. We're losing a lot of money over this every year. Two or three tourist buses could be brought here every day. Multiply that by NIS 15 entrance fees, plus other expenses," he says.

In May the Civil Administration held a meeting about the site and decided it was not interested in developing or running the compound. "Planning here is too problematic," deputy Civil Administration head Ahvat Ben-Hur said at the meeting. "Some of the lands are private and some are owned by the Waqf [Muslim religious trust]. The existing master plan doesn't allow for the construction of new access roads, parking spaces, as well as public and service structures."