Archaeologists Find Samaritan Lord’s Winepress in Central Israel

As the nearby mosaic says, in Greek: ‘Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen’

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1,600-year-old Samaritan winepress
1,600-year-old Samaritan winepressCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority/isaac mermelstein
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

As Samaritan culture reached its acme in central Israel 1,600 years ago, a man named Adios was doing spectacularly well, it seems. Archaeologists conducting a salvage excavation ahead of the construction of a new neighborhood in the central Israeli town of Zur Natan haven’t found his manse yet. But they have found his winepress, from which he may well have supplied the young Byzantine empire’s mania for “wine from the Holy Land.”

The finds have been dated to the early fifth century, when the Samaritan community in the Holy Land was at its peak.

We know the winepress the archaeologists found was Adios’, not somebody else’s, and that he had done very well for himself, because of a mosaic on the winepress floor.

The mosaic is 2.5 meters in length and 1 meter high (about 8 x 3 feet), and although its lettering is a tad crude, it clearly says: “Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen.”

The mosaic in the Samaritan winepress: 'Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen'Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority/Raleb Abu Diab

The inscription, in Greek, was deciphered and translated by Prof. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“‘Master’ was an honorific given to senior members of the community and attests to the high social standing of the owners of the estate,” says Dr. Hagit Torge, the director of the salvage excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Inside a modern Samaritan synagogue in IsraelCredit: Moti Milrod

Good Samaritans and convenient ones

Though often called a “breakaway” tribe from the ancient Israelites, the original Samaritans were possibly not native to Israel at all.

The Bible itself claims the Samaritans were moved from Iraq to Israel (to use today’s nomenclature) by the Assyrians. According to that account, the Samaritans came from Qutha and other cities in today’s Iraq in the eighth or seventh century B.C.E.:

“And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof” – 2 Kings 17:24.

“It was part of a population exchange,” says Torge. “They took the Israelites to Iraq and brought in Samaritans from Iraq to Israel.”

Why would the Assyrians swap the peoples? Because in their experience in conquering others, which was pretty vast, they had evidently realized it takes about half a century to establish your regime in a new country, Torge says.

By uprooting recalcitrant locals (the Israelites), who were transported to right under the Assyrian thumb, and moving their Samaritan people to the new country, they could have gained political control faster.

Samaritan worshippers praying during a Passover ceremony on Mount Gerizim, near the West Bank city of Nablus, May 6, 2018.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

While the origins are murky, let alone the evolution of their relationship, Samaritanism today is definitely closely related to Judaism. The two peoples celebrate many parallel holidays, including Passover, albeit not necessarily at the same times. Otherwise, there are some disagreements.

Samaritans have claimed that their traditions are closer to the original religion of the ancient Israelites, before the Israelites’ exile to Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Their tradition says that over there, the Israelite worship became corrupted and that Judaism as we know it would arise from the amended religion of the people who came back from Babylon.

The ancient Jews, for their part, apparently felt the Samaritans were religious parvenus. Even the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus had an ancient ax to grind, calling them apostates of the Judaean nation.

Map showing the Assyrian Empire at its greatest extension (7th century BC).Credit: Wikipedia

Though the Jews and Samaritans did sometimes ally – for instance, against yet later conquerors – there were tensions. When the Jews set about building the Second Temple in Jerusalem with the blessing of Babylon’s mighty King Cyrus, the local Samaritans apparently wanted to be part of the great endeavor, but were rejected. The Samaritans then tried to foil the works, arguing that building a glorious temple bordered on idolatry and was a corruption of correct worship.

Despite significant delays, ultimately the later King Darius ordered that the construction of the temple proceed.

Rise of the local Samaritan

Anyway, the Samaritans became entrenched in the Holy Land and over the centuries were very successful. Some 2,400 years after their relocation, around the year 400 or so – when Adios lived and prospered and grew vines in central Israel – they were clearly flourishing. Previously, an ancient Samaritan synagogue was found atop Tel Zur Natan.

The salvage excavation does not encompass the hilltop, which is where Adios probably lived – as the wealthy do, Torge says. But his winepress and accompanying mosaic weren’t the archaeologists’ only find. Nearby, they found stone quarries with depressions in which the grapevines would have been grown (they need calcium, and the local rock is limestone). These were apparently part of Adios’ estate, the IAA thinks.

Torge points out that the ancients would locate their winepress in the fields where the grapes grew, not by the house.

Unearthing the mosaic at the Samaritan winepressCredit: Israel Antiquities Authority/Raleb Abu Diab

The winepresses of the Byzantine era were bigger and more developed than earlier facilities to squeeze grapes, Torge says: The early Christians wanted wine from the Holy Land, so, lo, wine production in the Holy Land did grow and was exported to Byzantium, headquartered in what is today Turkey.

One cannot help but wonder how much fake wine produced in the likes of Cyprus was passed off as “real” Holy Land wine.

Gold tremissis of the Byzantine in-and-out-and-in again Emperor Zeno (474-491). Credit: ללא קרדיט

Adios may have produced the real deal, but the heyday of the Samaritans was nearing its end. Upset at efforts to convert them, in the sixth century, the Samaritans revolted against the early Christian rulers.

There is no great agreement over the chicken or the egg. According to the Samaritans, they rebelled when Caesar Zeno, who ruled from 474 to 491 (with a hiatus in the middle) ordered their conversion to Christianity, killed many of their leaders when they refused, converted their synagogue into a church and built on the sacred Mount Gerizim. Other sources say Zeno only cracked down after the Samaritans rebelled.

No question, though, the Samaritan synagogue in Zur Natan had also been converted into a church in the sixth century.

The revolts were not a resounding success, but the Samaritans were not eradicated. The survivors regrouped around Mount Gerizim, where Samaritans live to this day. They also live in Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv.



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