An Archaeological Pearl, Mount Gerizim Is Opened to Tourists

Mount Gerizim, near Nablus in the West Bank, has been the traditional place of worship for the Samaritans. It's now open to tourists for the first time ever, offering a fascinating glimpse into the past, writes Dalia Mazori.

al-monitor Members of the Samaritan sect take part in their traditional pilgrimage marking the holiday of Shavuot, atop Mount Gerizim, near the West Bank city of Nablus, June 24, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Darren Whiteside.

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holy temple, west bank, west, samaritan, pilgrimage, nablus, mount gerizim, israel

Jul 30, 2012

In the sixth century B.C., the Nation of Israel returns to Zion after 70 years of exile in Babylonia. Some dozens of years after the return, the Jews begin to rebuild their temple that had been destroyed [by the Babylonians]. While it was not a magnificent structure like the temple built by King Solomon, nevertheless the second temple arose under Nehemiah's supervision. Nehemiah was the head of the Jews [and governor of Judea] appointed by the Persian king.

In the fifth century B.C., another temple was built on Mount Gerizim. It was built according to the same model as Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. [According to the Samaritan tradition] the credit for this is attributed to a woman called Nicaso, the daughter of Pasha Sanballat, the Persian governor in Samaria who was appointed by the Persian King Darius. Today, after 22 years of archeological excavations, the archeological pearl has been opened to visitors, hikers and history fans.

Let’s return to the story of Nicaso. Sanballat wanted to arrange a well-connected match for his daughter and offered her to Menashe, son of High Priest Yehoyada in Jerusalem. But pandemonium erupted in the capital at the news of this match: the son of the high priest to marry a foreign woman?! Nehemiah ousted Menashe from Jerusalem, who then promptly complained to Sanballat, “My career is in danger. They won’t allow me to serve as high priest if I marry your daughter.”

“Do you love her?” asked the father. “Yes,” answered Menashe. “But what about my future?”

“No problem,” said Sanballat. “I’ll build you a temple on Mount Gerizim and appoint you to be its high priest. You will receive your heart’s desire [Nicaso] as well as the [coveted] position.”  

According to the [Jewish version in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah], the Samaritans did everything they could to disrupt the Babylonian returnees from constructing their temple in Jerusalem, and even slandered them to the Persian king and accused them of rebelling against the regime. “The temple has to be built by us,” said the Samaritans and built it on Mount Gerizim.

The Samaritan temple was built with great pomp. In its center was an altar on which rituals were carried out that are similar to ancient Jewish rites. Excavations performed on the site revealed about 400,000 bones of animals that are permitted for sacrifice by the Torah. The digging also unearthed 17,000 gold, silver and bronze coins, as well as thousands of stone, copper and clay utensils. Among the utensils are thousands of inscriptions along the lines of, “I performed a [ritual] sacrifice on behalf of my wife and children,” in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Another Western Wall

One of the reasons for opening the site at this time is due to the lull in the security situation. Yet when the Palestinian Authority heard about Israel’s intentions, they turned urgently to UNESCO with the appeal to add Mount Gerizim to the list of 20 sites recognized as [World] Heritage Sites. [Environmental Protection] Minister Gilad Erdan addressed this issue in a speech he delivered during the site's inaugural ceremony and said, “We will not waive our right to commemorate the Jewish heritage and to facilitate accessibility to heritage sites.” And it is true that all the forefathers of the Hebrew nation passed through Mount Gerizim and the [biblical] Shechem [Nablus] valley (at the foot of the mountain). When Abraham entered Eretz Israel, he reached Shechem-Elon-Moreh where he was given the godly promise, “I give this land to you and your offspring.” When Jacob arrived from Haran, he camped near Shechem with his family. Joseph passed by Shechem in his youth, when searching for his brothers. After his death, Joseph’s bones were buried in the [Shechem] valley. Joshua son of Nun conducted the Blessings and Curses ceremony here. The Jotham parable was delivered on Mount Gerizim. The entire region tells our [Jewish] history, but the holy site on Mount Gerizim is tightly bound up with the special Samaritan community that settled in Eretz Israel after the Assyrians conquered Israel’s Northern Kingdom. (By the way, [a Samaritan] version claims that the Samaritans are the true Israelites, remnants of the Menashe and Ephraim tribes. They are called Samaritans (Shomronim in Hebrew) based on the Hebrew word “lishmor” [to safeguard]: They safeguard the original Mosaic bible, according to their beliefs.

Both temples — the one in Jerusalem and the one on Mount Gerizim — were built in accordance with pagan [structural] traditions that were accepted at that time period.There is an area open to all, inside of which is a section permitted only to the priests, and a third inner “holy of holies” section. Only the high priest is allowed to enter the inner sanctum, and only once a year. Although no remnants remain from the structure, the entrance gates and the western wall of the holy site survived. Thus, it seems that the Samaritans have their own “western wall.” Twelve large stones survived from the wall, and they believe that these are the 12 stones on which the Israelites stood when they crossed the Jordan River to the Holy Land after 40 years of wandering in the desert. This large wall of stones is the Samaritans’ holiest site.

Visitors to the site will also see a large stone on which is written, “the Binding of Isaac.” According to the Samaritan belief, Mount Gerizim is Mount Moriah, thus Isaac’s Binding took place there and not Jerusalem. The Binding stone is also holy to the Samaritans, and tour groups are not taken to see it out of respect. Another sanctified site is called “Holy Rock,” which is a stone field [atop the summit of Mount Gerizim and considered by them to be their “holy of holies”].The Samaritans believe that this is the site from where the world was created. (Holy Rock is analogous to the Jewish “foundation stone” found on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah-Temple Mount.)

The Samaritans live in a neighborhood called Kiryat Luza, or Beit El (in Hebrew) — House of God. As far as they are concerned, their neighborhood is truly God’s home. “They have consolidated the entire ancient Eretz Israel geography into the Mount Gerizim site. Giving such a name to a neighborhood is extremely symbolic,” explains Adi Fenster, a guide from the  Mountain and Valley Education Center (of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority).

The Community that was destroyed                                                  

The Samaritan Temple was destroyed by Hasmonean King Johanan Horcanus I, in 111 B.C. Horcanus not only destroyed the temple, he also killed about 1.5 million members of the community. In a later period, the Romans killed another million. In the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans that erupted in 67 A.D., the Jews also fought the Samaritans. The Samaritan community at its height numbered about 3 million. Today, they number only about 800, half of whom live in Holon and half in Mount Gerizim. [According to their religious beliefs, the Samaritans are not allowed to leave the land of Israel.]

Despite destruction and killings, and even though the rulers never allowed the Samaritans to pray on the mountain, they continued to live close to the mountain and to sanctify it.The Samaritans were only allowed to renew the Mount Gerizim site by Byzantine rulers, about 400 years after destruction of their temple.

Afterward, during the Hellenistic period, a large city developed on Mount Gerizim. The walls of the buildings, a meter and a half [almost 5 feet] high, miraculously survived the passage of time and are still standing. [However, the city dwindled over time and now only a town remains.] The town’s crown jewel is a mansion — a large, magnificent structure that allows us a glimpse into the everyday life of the Samaritans [in previous eras].The house is divided into numerous rooms, and its rear section contains a very large hall. The house is paved with mosaic floors that used to be available only to the wealthy. One can easily visualize guests stretched out on luxurious couches drinking wine and eating grapes, as was acceptable at the time.

[After the Byzantine government of Palestine adopted Christianity in the fourth century,] they subsequently gave the Samaritans permission to rebuild their temple. However, the Samaritans also wanted independence and blocked Christians from entering the area of the mount. This angered the Christians, [thus Emperor Zeno] destroyed the second Samaritan temple and built a magnificent church on the temple ruins. Some sections of the church — called Holy Maria [Theotokos] — remain. The Gerizim mountaintop also has the tomb of a sheikh, one of Saladin’s governors, as well as a lookout spot over an amazing view. From the site one can see the eastern section of the city of Nablus, including the Tomb of Joseph and the Balata refugee camp.

The [Mount Gerizim] site is holy to the Samaritans to this very day, and they perform their religious rites and rituals there [such as Passover sacrifices]. They permit the site to be open to the wide public most of the time but they close it on sabbaths, the three pilgrimage festivals, Yom Kippur, and other times when they celebrate festivals. The Parks Authority explains that it is important to respect the site. Tourists are asked not to sit on the holy stones, not to enter places without express permission and not to belittle the Samaritan beliefs.

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