Home | Category: Middle East Ethnic Groups / Middle East Minorities


Samaritan High Priest

The Samaritans are a religious sect that descended from tribes that were mentioned in the Bible and are believed to have lived in the northen part of Palestine for 3,000 years. The sect adheres to the laws of Moses, heeds the Torah, observes the Jewish Sabbath and celebrate Passover. Jesus preached tolerance towards the Samaritans.

As of 2009, there were only about 750 Samaritans. One of their 12 hereditary priest called the group “the smallest sect in the world.” Modern Samaritans live around Mt. Gerizm in their ancestral village of Kiryat Luza on a hill above Nablus and in the Tel Aviv suburb of Hollon. . The speak Arabic and Hebrew, have Arabic and Hebrew names, and have both Israeli and Palestinian nationality. Many also speak English, Aramaic and the Samaritan language. They call themselves “Benei Yisreal” Hebrew for “Children of Israel” or “Shameris,” Hebrew for Observant Ones.” The name Samaritans is derived from their link to the Biblical Samaritans.

In the A.D. 3rd century, there were a estimated 1.2 million Samaritans. The 750 or so Samaritans remaining are about double from what their numbers re were in the 1830s. There is some debate as to whether they are Jews or Arabs or Jordanians, Palestinians or Israelis. Those in Hollon tend to regard themselves as Israelis. Those in Nablus are more Arabized.

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam ;

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam;

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency ;, a Shia Website ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia ; ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths ; Afterhours Sufism Stories ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry

History of the Samaritans

The Samaritans regard themselves as the original Israelites. In the Bible they are described as a foreign people brought to Israel in 701 B.C. after the Assyrians conquered Judea. The Samaritans view themselves as the as the descendant of a the remnant population of Judea (the northern Israelite kingdom) following the Assyrian conquest. Scholarship tends to support the Samaritan view.

In the 5th century B.C. there was a split between Judeans and Samaritans that was the result of the unwillingness of the Samaritans to accept Judean doctrines and beliefs. In the 4th century B.C. Jews barred them from participating in the building of the Temple, so they built their own temple on Mount Gerizum. That temple was destroyed in 128 B.C.. A new one was built and that one was destroyed in A.D. 486. The site remains a destination for Samaritan pilgrims.

In the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of John: Jesus (a Jew) surprises a Samaritan woman at a well by asking her for water even though Jews and Samaritans were not supposed not associate.

At the time of Christ there were several hundred thousand Samaritans. They lived in settlements scattered across the Fertile Crescent. After the decline of the Roman Empire their numbers decreased under the Byzantines, Arabs and Turks, reaching a low of 146 in the early 20th century, when some left to work in the Mediterranean port of Jaffa, starting a community there. By the mid 20th century intermarriage within the group was so common that 7 percent of Samaritans suffered from genetic defects.

"For us this a golden age," the 146th High Priest said in the 1960s. "We live in peace; no one persecutes us. But we are desperately poor. So poor that our you people cannot afford to marry. I fear that we can only continue to diminish."

Samaritan Beliefs and Customs

The Samaritans were once regarded as a sect of Judaism but their insistence on performing animals sacrifices and other ancient rituals caused them to breakaway from mainstream Judaism. Some of their rituals, such as kneeling when praying, are regarded as closer to the ancient form Judaism than modern Judaism. There is small Samaritan priestly class and one high priest. Samaritans believe they practice the true form of Judaism and that the form practiced by Jews is an aberration that diverged from their form in the 6th century B.C.

Samaritan priest with a 2000-year-old Torah

The Samaritan religion resembles Kariate Judaism in that both groups exist outside mainstream Judaism. Samaritans believe in only one God, that Moses is the only Prophet and that only books of the Bible (the Torah) are legitimate. Mount Gerizium is sacred and one day in the future it will be the site of a messianic revival not Jerusalem. Samaritan priests trace their hereditary order of high priests back to Aaron, the brother of Moses.

The Samaritans have strict rules about diet, sex and the Sabbath. They have their own version of the Torah and holy days that are pretty similar but not exactly the same as those of Jews. They observe the dietary, Sabbath and circumcision laws in their Torah to the letter. Husney Kohen, one of the Samaritan’s faith’s 12 hereditary priests, said, “The word Samaritan means keeper of the law, that’s why we are so strict. “

Samaritan women are supposed to live separately from their husbands and children during menstruation and isolate themselves after giving birth — 40 days after having a boy, and 80 days after a girl. High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqam told Reuters, “This creates a sense of responsibility in our society, When a woman goes into her period her daughter or sister comes to take care of her house in her place.”

Samaritans celebrate most Jewish holidays and festivals. Some of their customs on these holidays are different. During Passover, their most important religious holiday, the climb to the top of Mount Gerizim, their most sacred mountain, and observe a seven day fast that climaxes with the sacrifice of "unblemished" sheep. Their leader in the 1960s claimed direct descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses, and was the 147th High Priest in a lineage that reportedly goes back 3000 years.☺

The traditional Samaritan male costume is a loose-fitting robe worn with a red-and-white fez. Their Torahs are written in an elaborate ancient script and are not allowed to be touched by women. Most women wear Western-style clothes and uncovered hair, donning traditional clothes only on the Sabbath.

Modern Samaritans

The Samaritans live in two communities— one near Nablus and the other in Tel Aviv—each with about 300 members. Those that lived Jordan became part of Israel when Israel took over the West Bank.

Samaritans on Mount Gerizim in the West Bank

Samaritans are not designated as an ethnic minority and have no formal political or religious representation. Many Samaritans are employed as civil servants in the Israeli government. Those in the Hollon area of Tel Aviv serve in the Israeli military. Many of those in Kiryat Luza work for the Palestinians. One priest works an inspector in Nablus for the Palestinian Authority’s interior ministry.

Samaritans generally shy away from politics although they have a seat reserved for them in the Palestinian legislature. One Samaritan told the Los Angeles Times, “We didn’t fight with the Arabs, with the Muslim or with the Jews. Any government that comes along is OK. We are a small tribe, and for us religious life takes importance before political life.”

Samaritans are one of the few groups of people that can move freely in Israel and the Palestinian territories In some parts of the West Bank, Samaritans deliver mail and act as couriers because they are only people trusted by both the Palestinians and Israelis. The main DHL man in the Nablus area is a Samaritan. He skirts military checkpoints and defies shoot-to-kill curfews to deliver packages.

Samaritans and Marriage

There are more male Samaritans than female Samaritans and many young Samaritans have difficulty finding mates. For a time only Jews were allowed to enter the Samaritan faith. Now women from other religions are allowed in but they must convert to the Samaritan faith before marriage and are expected to follow Samaritan strict religious beliefs and practices. When a woman considers marrying into the community, she comes to live with the Samaritans for up to six months to see if she fits in, “We examine them and they examine use,” Hugh Priests Sadaq told Reuters.

To keep their community alive and deal with a shortage of women the Samaritans have turned to Internet acquaintances, mail-order brides and prenuptial genetic test. Genetic testing before marriage is there to deal with the genetic defect issue. The Internet has helped Samaritan males find mates outside their faith.

Husney Kohen, the Samaritan priest, told Reuters, “We don’t have enough girls, but we can’t tell the boys they can’t get married, We’ve taken in about 25 Jews, five Christian s and three Muslims. The boys get to know them through the Internet.

Kohen said, “With all respect to the high priest, I’m against marrying women outside our community...The boys may find someone themselves, but my duty is to offer them alternatives. If they don’t find a wife, my sister has three daughter and my cousin has three daughters. Of course we’d have them tested genetically first...They can marry anyone in the Samaritan community. Outside no, that’s impossible. If they wanted to marry a non-Samaritan, I would try to dissuade them. After that, all I can do is deny them their inheritance.”

Samaritans in Nablus

A few hundred Samaritans live in Nablus, a city 200,000 located at the base of Mount Gerizim. The West Bank's largest and most cosmopolitan town, it has traditionally been a pleasant Arab town with an interesting old quarter, 30 minarets from various mosques and houses that climb up the mountains. It has a history resistance dating back to Roman times. There was much fight here in the first intifadeh. In ancient times Nablus was known as Shechem. It is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. It was founded early in the second millennium B.C. Abraham built an altar to the Lord in Shechem Archeologists working in Nablus have unearthed some very old altars in the Nablus area but is no evidence that any of them are linked to Abraham in any way.

Passover at Mount Gerizim

Every year the Samaritans climb to the top of nearby Mount Gerizim, a table top plateau with a view of the Jordan Valley on one side and the Mediterranean on the other side. According to Samaritans, Mount Gerizim is where Adam and Eve conceived the human race and some say Moses viewed the Promised Land for the first time. The Samaritans still sacrifice sheep on Mount Gerizim on the eve of Passover. The ritual is rooted in the literal reading of the laws of Moses.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.