Members of the Samaritan faith – which is closely linked to Judaism – gathered at sunrise on Sunday atop their religion's holiest mountain in the northern West Bank, marking the Shavuot festival, with a special prayer in ancient Samaritan Hebrew using a Torah scroll.
The Samaritan community numbers around 820 people, many of whom live high above the Palestinian city of Nablus on Mount Gerizim, which they regard as the true Chosen Place, rather than Jerusalem's Mount Zion revered by the Jewish faithful.
Known for their appearance in the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Christian bible, Samaritans are a special case in the complicated ethnic and religious fabric of the West Bank.
The Samaritans (“Shomronim” in Hebrew) consider themselves the descendants of the Israelites, from the ancient Kingdom of Israel in biblical times. They believe their ancestors escaped exile under the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. and that they alone kept alive the traditions of the Jewish people. They claim the Kingdom of Judah, which went on to become what we know today as the Jewish people while exiled in Babylon, moved away from those original traditions.
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According to the British former diplomat and historian Gerard Russell in his book “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms,” the Samaritans “saw themselves as keeping to the letter the ancient traditions that their southern neighbors the Jews had abandoned,” and had a history of persistent conflict with them. To name but one such incident of this long-enduring “family feud,” in the year 9 C.E., the Samaritans are said to have vandalized the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, littering it with human bones.
During Byzantine rule some 1,500 years ago, the community dwindled and suffered from endless persecution, eventually benefiting from the conquest by Arab Muslims in 637. Over time, the community suffered from plague, persistent poverty, and socioeconomic pressure, with many moving across the Middle East to Damascus, Cairo or Northern Iraq.
By the 20th century, most of the Samaritan diaspora had slowly disappeared, many having converted to Islam. (The Samaritan synagogue in Cairo was handed over to the Jewish community in 1706.) In the 1840s, faced with the threat of a pogrom in Nablus that would wipe out what was left of the community in the Holy Land, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Chaim Abraham Gagin, stepped in to save the Samaritans. He declared them “a branch of the House of Israel,” and they were spared at the cost of paying a hefty fine to the city’s Muslim authorities. But by the time of the British Mandate era, the community was close to extinction.