Who Were The Samaritans?
Archaeology|September/October 2021
Investigating a once-powerful sect that has preserved its sacred traditions for millennia
By Sara Toth Stub

RISING NEARLY 3,000 feet above sea level, Mount Gerizim overlooks the city of Nablus in the West Bank. For more than two millennia, the mountain has served as the holiest place of worship for the Samaritan people. In their telling, the Samaritans are descended from the original Israelites, who escaped from slavery in Egypt and wandered the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land. The Samaritan Pentateuch, which relates the same basic narrative as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, identifies Mount Gerizim as the site where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac and where Joshua took the Israelites to make their first sacrifices after they finally crossed the River Jordan into Israel. According to the Jewish version, these events took place at Mount Moriah, understood to be the future site of Jerusalem, and Mount Ebal, a higher peak across a narrow valley from Mount Gerizim. Rather than building a temple in Jerusalem, as the Jews did, Samaritan texts record that they were instructed by God to worship on Mount Gerizim.

The Samaritans are best known from the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, which tells the story of a Samaritan man who stopped to help an injured traveler. But their history, documented by a wide range of ancient writers, dates back to the first-millennium b.c. and intertwines with that of many peoples of the ancient world. Despite their complicated relationship with the Jews, as well as confrontations with imperial powers such as the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines, the Samaritans managed to endure. In excavations on Mount Gerizim and at a site called Tzur Natan, about 15 miles west, archaeologists are unearthing traces of how the Samaritans drifted apart from the Jews and how they attained enough wealth and power that they were able to mount a series of revolts against the Byzantine Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries a.d. “The Samaritans were, at one time, one of the most significant populations in the region,” says Hagit Torge, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). “But we are just at the beginning of their story. There is so much we still don’t know.”

THE EARLIEST EVIDENCE of Samaritan worship on Mount Gerizim dates to around 2,500 years ago. Excavations led by Israeli archaeologist Yitzhak Magen from 1984 through 2006 unearthed fragments of animal bones and ashes thought to be the remains of sacrifices from this period, as well as parts of the foundation of a square stone structure measuring roughly 320 feet on a side. This structure is believed to have been a temple or at minimum a place for sacrifice or worship. Magen describes the site as “a high, cold, and bare mountain” lacking in vegetation and sources of water. Based on these spartan conditions, archaeologists believe the area was, at least at first, used exclusively as a religious site. “It looks like people visited to make ritual sacrifices, then went back to their homes elsewhere,” says archaeologist Hananya Hizmi, who heads the archaeology department of Israel’s Civil Administration in the administrative district of Judea and Samaria, which encompasses part of the West Bank.

This changed in the late fourth-century b.c., when Alexander the Great came to dominate the region. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of houses dating to this period that suggest Mount Gerizim’s population had swelled to as many as 10,000 people. These were likely Samaritans seeking refuge from Alexander’s forces in a place where they could freely practice their religion, says Hizmi. A collection of Samaritan papyrus documents known as the Wadi Daliyeh Scrolls, which were discovered in a cave near the city of Jericho by Bedouin shepherds in the 1960s, helps illuminate the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews around the time of Alexander’s conquest. They include both Hebrew and Aramaic names, evidence that the Samaritans were likely still part of the Israelite people and not yet in conflict with them. Connections between the Samaritans and the Jews at this time can also be seen in their architecture, says Hizmi. “The style of the small rooms and chambers found on Mount Gerizim is similar to other buildings from the period in Jerusalem.”

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