For most people around the world, Samaritans seem to have disappeared a long time ago. They were mentioned in the Bible several times, and this is what people usually remember about them. Who does not know the story of the Good Samaritan from the Gospels (Luke 10)? Many also might remember the beautiful description of Jesus accepting water from the hands of a Samaritan girl (John 4:4). And also the Bible tells a story of Apostle Philip's travel to Samaria to preach there (Acts 8:5-8).
Samaritans' fascinating story started with the split of the Jewish state into two rival Israel and Judean kingdoms back in 9th Century BC. Soon after, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was captured by the invading Assyrians and most of the population (the famous 10 tribes) were taken into an exile and formally disappeared.
Holy Mount Garizim
But not all of them were expelled from the land. Many stayed behind and mixed with the other tribes who were forcibly resettled by the Assyrians at their land.
These people of the Northern Jewish Kingdom (Samaria of our days) continued to follow most of the ancient Jewish rites and tended to believe to be "the right Jewish people". But when the people of the Judean Kingdom returned from their own, Babylonian exile about 2,400 years ago, the Jewish leaders refused to permit "the Samaritans" to join the reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Ezra 4) and considered them not good enough Jews.
Samaritan Elders and Priests
This event has created a major split between the Jews and Samaritans, which continues until the present day. The Samaritans built their own, alternative, the temple at Gerizim Mount above the city of Nablus. This temple was in constant competition with the Jerusalem's one until it was finally destroyed in the 2nd Century BC. Still, Samaritans continued their existence, and by the 5th Century AD, their population numbered over one million.
But Samaritans, opposite to the Jews were not recognized as an official religion by the Byzantines and by the Arabs after them. They were constantly subject to forced conversions (mostly to Islam). At the same time, they also refused anyone to join their community, and their numbers were reduced drastically. But they have never disappeared completely, and the Samaritan community still exists in Israel and Palestine, numbering less than 1,000 people, but growing.
According to the Samaritans, they derive from the biblical tribes of Menashe and Ephraim, the two sons of Joseph. They claim to follow the traditions of Ancient Israel, without the later additions made by Jewish prophets and sages. And also they do not accept any parts of the Bible, but Pentateuch only.
What makes the Samaritans so fascinating is their complex identity, a unique fusion of Jewish religious traditions, and Palestinian and Israeli culture. However, their religion is still closely intertwined with Judaism, both ancient and modern.
Indeed, Samaritans worship in a synagogue, speak Hebrew, still use the oldest form of the Hebrew alphabet, observe the Sabbath, celebrate Jewish holidays such as Passover and Sukkot (although the dates differ, as they have their calendar) and their holy text is called the Samaritan Torah, which consists of their form of Pentateuch, very similar to its Jewish text.
Samaritan priest arguing with a rabbi
Till our days, the Samaritans continue the Passover sacrifices tradition, according to the instructions set out in the Book of Exodus, the only ones in the world. Every Passover, the Samaritans gather on Mount Gerizim, usually with a crowd of a few thousand excited and curious foreign tourists and local Israelis and Palestinians, to carry out their ancient tradition of slaughtering sheep.
Samaritans Passover prayers
Dressed in traditional white robes, and led by the priests ("The Cohens"), they simultaneously slit the throats of dozens of sacrifice' sheep and let their blood run away fast through the special channels, as Jewish tradition strongly forbids using or eating any blood.