The Israel Antiquities Authority has announced the discovery of a 1500 year old Samaritan synagogue near the Israeli town of Bet She’an. The synagogue is believed to have stood from sometime in the 5th century CE to around 634 CE, the time of the Muslim conquest.
The synagogue faces Mount Gerizim, which is the center of the Samaritan religion rather than Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Post describes the discovery as follows.
“The building includes a 40 square meter rectangular hall which faces Mount Gerizim, the mountaintop outside Nablus that is the holiest site in the Samaritan religion and the site of the present-day Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza. Across the floor of the hall an intricate mosaic was laid which included geometric patterns and an inscription reading “This is the temple.”
The Samaritans were once very numerous in Israel and in other countries in the Middle East. At the time the Bet She’an synagogue was built, Samaritans probably numbered about 1,200,000 people . Today, because of persecution, forced conversions and wars over the centuries, there are only only about 700 Samaritans left.
The Samaritans have 5 books of Moses similar to those read by Jews, with numerous textual differences, most notably those which point to Mount Gerizim as being the site of their Temple, rather than the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. They keep the same Sabbath as Jews and have similar diatary laws based on the same texts. The only other book of prophets that they hold as sacred is their version of the book of Joshua.
The discoveries shed considerable light upon Samaritanism at a time in its history when it was far more powerful in the Holy Land than it is today. Some of the people who today are Muslims are descended from Samaritans, particularly in Nablus. Wikipedia, quoting the historian Fayyad Altif notes as follows.
Much of the local Arabic population of Nablus is believed to be descended from Samaritans who converted to Islam. According to the historian Fayyad Altif, large numbers of Samaritans converted due to persecution and because the monotheistic nature of Islam made it easy for them to accept it. The Samaritans themselves describe the Ottoman period as the worst period in their modern history, as many Samaritan families changed their religion during that time. Even today, certain Nabulsi family names such as Muslimani, Yaish, and Shakshir among others, are associated with Samaritan ancestry.
In the Middle East, the discovery of an ancient synagogue, Samaritan or Jewish sheds light on a past shared by different peoples living in the region. Like old family pictures, discoveries like that of the Samaritan synagogue in Bet She’an shed light not only on the past but on who we are today.