Kiryat Luza, occupied West Bank – As the sun sets over Mount Gerizim, it is easy to see why the Samaritans regard it as the holiest place on earth. Looking out over the Palestinian city of Nablus on one side and rolling hills on the other, the mountain is an oasis in an increasingly troubled region.
The Samaritans, a tiny ethno-religious community of fewer than 1,000 people who live in an area between Mount Gerizim, in the occupied West Bank, and Holon, in Israel, trace their roots back to two ancient biblical tribes that existed more than 3,000 years ago. Now they are fighting a battle to keep their community alive.
“Welcome to Kiryat Luza, the home of the Samaritans,” one man said with a welcoming smile near the entrance of the Samaritan village on Mount Gerizim.
Kiryat Luza, which sits at the end of a long, winding drive up the mountain and behind a set of sliding metal gates, feels like a little world of its own.
But Mount Gerizim has not always been the Samaritans’ home. During the second Intifada, they moved en masse from Nablus to the mountain to avoid being caught up in clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army.
The sect, which prides itself on being politically neutral and whose members hold both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship, has made significant efforts over the decades to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
War is not good for the Palestinians, and war is not good for the Israelis. We have to go together towards peace.
“We don’t go with Palestine, and we don’t go with Israel,” Hosni Cohen, a Samaritan priest, told Al Jazeera. “We must go straight down the middle.”
While the Samaritans of Mount Gerizim are staunchly Palestinian in their nationality, their religious identity is more closely aligned with their Israeli counterparts across the Green Line, as Samaritanism shares roots with Judaism. Samaritans worship in a synagogue, speak ancient Hebrew, and their holy book is called the Samaritan Torah.
This unique mix – along with Samaritan history, which has seen the ethno-religious group’s numbers depleted significantly through bloody conflicts in the past, including the Samaritan revolts against the ruling Byzantine Christians in the 5th and 6th century – gives the Samaritans a chance to play an important role in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Cohen believes.
“We can be a bridge between both people, to show that there are similarities and that it is possible to live together,” Cohen said. “Three thousand years ago, we were three million; now we are just a small sect. Why? Because of war. War is not good for the Palestinians, and war is not good for the Israelis. We have to go together towards peace.”
The depletion in numbers of the Samaritan population, from three million to fewer than 200 in the mid-1910s, has made this community all but disappear.
Gerard Russell, an author who has documented disappearing religions in the Middle East, told Al Jazeera that many members of the Samaritan community were forced to convert to other religions over the years. “Samaritans] had over 1,000 years of being exposed to domination of missionary faiths,” he said. “Who knows why else they didn’t hold out quite as well as, say, the Mandaeans in Iraq, but probably their location in a highly desirable and strategic location didn’t help. They also didn’t believe in emigration, so couldn’t escape as the Jews did by moving to another country.”
Although Samaritans’ numbers have risen slightly in recent decades, community members say they are just barely clinging to their heritage.
The lack of a robust resurgence in the Samaritan population has led the community to amend some of its traditions. Although Samaritans were historically barred from marrying outside the religion, men in the community have been told by Samaritan priests in recent decades that they can look outside for marriage, as long as the woman converts to Samaritanism. Women have not been granted the same freedom.
Several dozen women – including Israelis, Europeans and Azerbaijanis – have married and converted in recent years, according to Cohen.
Despite the new converts, many Samaritans fear they will be fighting an uphill demographic battle in the years ahead – along with a battle to preserve their culture and heritage.
The Samaritan language, ancient Hebrew, is not used on a daily basis within the community, while young members of the community continue to leave Mount Gerizim to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. As they are in a unique situation, carrying both Israeli and Palestinian passports, travelling and leaving the occupied West Bank is much easier for Samaritans than for their Muslim and Christian Palestinian counterparts.
Some efforts are being made to preserve the sect’s culture. Classes on Samaritan history, rituals and language are compulsory for all children in Kiryat Luza, with children as young as seven learning to speak ancient Hebrew. Village teenagers, including 16-year-old Ishaq Shloabi, reel off facts about Samaritan history with pride.
“I can tell you all of our history, but I need to keep learning. Even these small kids here, they have done so much reading,” Shloabi told Al Jazeera, gesturing towards the young children playing in the street. “At 4pm, they come and learn, and the priest will come to teach them how to describe our book and know it, not just to memorise it.”
Shloabi says he is proud to be a Samaritan and has no plans to leave the small community yet – but he worries about its future.
“We are a small community, so we have to keep learning so we don’t lose the knowledge, our history and who we are,” Shloabi said. “I hope there are still Samaritans in the future.”