The word “Samaritan” conjures up the parable of the good Samaritan, as narrated by Jesus. Little is known about the Samaritan community that lives on Mount Gerizim, adjoining the ancient city of Nablus in West Bank — least that today they are the world’s smallest minority.
Nablus, which houses the tomb of Joseph, or Yousuf, is nestled between two mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Eibal. Farouk Masri, a local businessman who manages the cinema in the only shopping mall in the city, provided a Palestinian perspective on the Samaritans before I headed up the mountain to meet the community.
Before the Second Intifada, Samaritans lived in the part of the old city referred to as “Hay As-Samara”, and only went up the mountain to pray. However, after the intifada they all moved up. Nevertheless, they are, as Masri said, “part of the social fabric of Nablus. They have always been here — in business, in schooling, as part of the local university, in all aspects of Palestinian life. They even speak Arabic with the local accent.” Masri went on to explain how some of them even landed up in Israeli prisons during the intifada. He employs many of the Samaritan community in his business today, he said.
However, they were still an enigma to me. Accompanied by Sahar Tufaha, a Palestinian involved in community projects, we headed up Mount Gerizim to attend a “henna party” and learn more about the people.
The gate leading to Mount Gerizim is open to Palestinian Arabs on all days except Saturday, when it is closed for Shabbat. The architecture, I noticed, was not very different from the marble and stone buildings in Nablus.
We were welcomed by Husney Cohen, a tall, handsome Samaritan elder dressed in traditional garb. “We have three passports,” he said, as he familiarised us with the Samaritan community, “Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian — as our mount is made up of Areas A, B and C.” These were the areas designated by the Oslo Accords, granting the Israelis varying degrees of security control over them.
Their religion, Cohen said, is based on five principles — belief in one God; Moses; the Torah; Mount Gerizim; and the Last Day. Asked about the difference between their beliefs and Judaism’s, Cohen said, “We are the ancient Israelites and the Jews are the Assyrians. Ancient Hebrew is the mother of all languages and we have the world’s oldest Bible, which is 3,600 years old, kept in a safe in our synagogue.”
“Our folklore and knowledge of astronomy is the oldest in the world — we accurately tell the Muslims when Ramadan will begin,” he added.
Cohen said that the Jews have changed the Torah, and that today there are 7,000 differences between them and the Samaritans. The Samaritans believe it is not Occupied Jerusalem that is their “kiblah”, or the direction they face to pray, but Mount Gerizim. This poses the question: What about the period before the First Temple; where did the Israelites pray then? “We have been here for 3,600 years, we did not leave the Holy Land,” Cohen said. “Mount Gerizim, and not [Occupied] Jerusalem, is mentioned 13 times in the Torah. Look at the mountain and how green it is with 26 springs. It is indeed blessed!”
As Cohen explained other features of their religion, such as ablution, circumcision, prayer rituals, animal sacrifice and the belief that there is only one God, I said, “So you have much in common with Islam.” At this Cohen was quick to retort, with a broad smile, that “it is Islam that has much in common with us; Jesus loved us too. People think we are mysterious — that is because they don’t know us. We are close to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Like haj, we Samaritans have three religious ceremonies in a year: the sacrifice, the fruit festival and the new year.”
As Cohen spoke passionately about their beliefs, in fluent Arabic, dressed in the priestly Samaritan attire, one is touched by his sincerity. “We are the ‘good’ Samaritans,” he emphasised. “All Christians in the West Bank are Samaritans, and most big families in Nablus as well. The mayor of Nablus, Yaish’s family, were once Samaritans. Three families from Nablus even live among us here.”
The Samaritan population had decreased from 250 in 1948 — 192 of them lived in Nablus and the rest in Tel Aviv — to 146 in 1970. Today their numbers have grown to 760. However, a limited gene pool and inter-marriages have given rise to serious problems. “We brought in 25 Jewish-Russian girls, 7 Christians and 3 Muslims from Azerbaijan, who all converted and married our men,” Cohen said. But he admitted that though converted, it is sometimes not possible to fully assimilate oneself into another religion.
From a political standpoint, Cohen said: “We are neutral. The Samaritans once had a population of 3 million. The wars in the Holy Land depleted our numbers. We, of all people, know that wars are not good for anyone. We believe in peace. All prophets, whether it is Moses, Jesus or Mohammad [PBUH], preached the same message, of love and peace. We coexist with Muslims and have no problems with the Jews in general.”
However, when asked, he conceded, “The religious Israeli colonists hate us.”
As we bid farewell to Cohen and reached the henna party on this warm, balmy evening, we could easily have been at a Palestinian gathering, save for the Hebrew music — which the Palestinian women invited seemed to be truly enjoying. The costumes, the rituals, the dances and even the seating arrangement followed an all-familiar script.
As we descended Mount Gerizim, I wondered whether the “good” Samaritans may just be the key to unlocking the impasse in the conflict and ushering in peace in the Holy Land. Their neutrality and strategic position gave them the moral highground, but, most importantly, wars, as Cohen had said, were anathema to them.
Rafique Gangat, author of Ye Shall Bowl on Grass, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.