Samaritans are one of the world’s smallest religious groups, claiming descent from three of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. They consider themselves the true observants of Israelite religion, and view Judaism as a religious practice corrupted during the Babylonian exile. This separation is clearly delineated in the geography of the Holy Land: While Mount Moriah in Jerusalem is where the Jewish Temple was decreed by God, the Samaritans followed the command of that same God and built their temple on the peak of Mount Gerizim, some 30 miles to the north.
Samaritan elders gather during the Passover eve sacrifice. There are a little more than 800 people in the Samaritan community, almost evenly divided between the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon and the West Bank village of Kiryat Luza.
Today, Mount Gerizim, at an elevation of almost 3,000 feet, is one of the highest points in the Palestinian territories, and commands a sweeping view of the bustling city of Nablus and the West Bank villages that surround it. On its ridge is the village of Kiryat Luza, where, on the eve of each Passover, the roughly 800 members of the Samaritan community gather to pray and observe their liberation from slavery in Egypt.
In remembrance of that event, the Samaritans follow the Torah mandate that a sheep or lamb be sacrificed on Passover eve and consumed before dawn of the next day. In Kiryat Luza, this is a communal event, in which prayers are recited and dozens of animals are dispatched simultaneously by men dressed in all white and then roasted in enormous earthen pits. In the hours after midnight, the meat is heaped on trays alongside bundles of bitter herbs and dished out in a celebratory community gathering under the stars.
Seven days later, the Samaritan community marks the end of Passover with a more solemn event. Once again under the stars just a few hours before dawn, the white-robed men of the community gather in front of their small synagogue, young sons beside them, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
Led by their head priest cradling a silver Torah case, the men ascend Mount Gerizim in the darkness, climbing stone steps past the remains of their temple, destroyed by the Hasmoneans in the early second century B.C., and the rubble of a church built on their sacred peak by the Byzantine emperor Zeno some 600 years later. At points along the ascent, they stop to pray and then continue on as the dawn sky turns periwinkle and the paper-thin blossoms of scarlet poppies begin to unfurl.
The procession ends near a stone slab believed by Samaritans to be the site where Abraham intended to sacrifice his son Isaac. The sun breaks above the horizon and the high priest raises the shining Torah case above his head as he concludes the group prayer. It’s a spring day on Mount Gerizim, and once again this tiny community has gathered together to fulfill its sacred duties before God.