Scarcely had we put the clocks forward by one hour at the end of last month and moved into Summer Time, when the weather turned cold and wintery. It’s warm and sunny again this week, but this time of year, the weather is notoriously changeable. So this would seem to be a good time to bring back memories of my field trip at the beginning of last month with Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi, to Shomron (Samaria/Sebaste/Sebastiya) and Mount Gerizim, which was blessed with peculiarly good weather for early March.
Shomron was the capital of ancient Israel, after the division of the Kingdom following the death of King Solomon, into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Founded by the Israelite King Omri, in the 9th century BCE, it survived as capital of the northern kingdom until the last quarter of the following century. Omri founded a royal dynasty the most famous (or perhaps I should say infamous) of whom was Ahab, who married the still more infamous Jezebel. There was a restored city there in the Hellenistic/Hasmonean period. In Roman times, King Herod “the Great” built over the site and renamed it Sebaste and later, an Arab village, Sebastiya, was built nearby.
The archaeological site lies in Area C, under the Oslo Accords, which means it is under Israeli security and civilian control. Our visit therefore had to be co-ordinated with the Israeli Military Administration, and we were accompanied by an armed IDF escort (the necessity of which became clear that evening, as I shall explain later).
Come join me now, as we approach the ancient city of Shomron.
It is the ruins of the Herodian forum which first greet the visitor, but this was not what we had come to see. Of far more importance, considering the subject of the field trip (the northern Israelite kingdom) were the remains of the ancient Israelite city, dating to the First Temple period:
Higher up, and reached by a picturesque climb through carpets of wild flowers and olive trees,
are the remains of a Herodian temple (Herod liked to curry favours with his Roman masters),
watchtowers from the Hellenistic/Hasmonean period,
and the remains of a Herodian/Roman theatre.
On all sides are magnificent views:
From Shomron/Samaria, it was a logical step to Mt. Gerizim, holy site of the present day Samaritan community. On our way, we visited Mitzpeh Yosef, so called because, from its high vantage-point, it is possible to see the Tomb of Joseph. The Tomb itself lies within the city of Shechem (Nablus) which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and visits there are only possible in coordination with the IDF.
In early spring, the hills are blanketed with wild flowers, of which Israel has some 2500 native species! The hills above Shechem were carpeted with yellow asphodel, the ubiquitous red anemones were still in bloom, and there were even wild orchids and irises.
Claiming descent from the ancient Israelites (a claim rejected, until lately, by the official Jewish religious, rabbinical establishment), the modern-day Samaritans have to tread a narrow and frequently awkward path between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Bible, as you may recall, tells us (II Kings 17: 24 – 28) that after the fall of the Northern Israelite kingdom, the Assyrian conqueror, carried off the Israelites into exile and repopulated Samaria with citizens from other parts of the Assyrian empire, who were forcibly resettled there. (This, by the way, is precisely the kind of resettlement of “occupied territories” which the Geneva Conventions address, and not the voluntary “settlement” by Israelis of those same ancestral lands, as is claimed by Israel’s enemies today!)
We visited the Samaritan Museum and met with one of their priests, Cohen Yefet. We learned that there are now only between 700-800 Samaritans, half of whom live in Holon, in Israel and half of whom live in the Samaritan neighbourhood on Mount Gerizim and hold both Israeli and “Palestinian” Identity Cards. Cohen Yefet told us, probably only half in jest, that he also has two mobile phones – one on the Israeli cellphone network and one for the “Palestinian” network. Actually, it turned out that he had three phones, but I am not sure what the third was for
In the Museum, we saw some fascination exhibits, such as a prayer-book written in the ancient Samaritan script, a ketubah or marriage-contract, in the same script, a Samaritan Torah scroll, and a display of traditional Sabbath and festival clothing.
Also of interest is the Samaritan mezuzah, which, as you can see, is vastly different from the one used by Rabbinical Jews. After all, who is to say what “and you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20) actually means?
Nearby is the Israeli-Jewish community (aka “settlement”) of Har Bracha, where we visited a techina (tahini) factory and learned about the production process. I am not, in general, madly keen on this dish, but I have to say, theirs was particularly delicious, so I bought a large jar of it, for 25 NIS.
I cannot mention Har Bracha without also mentioning that, upon returning home that evening and switching on the radio, having not heard the news all day, I discovered that, only a couple of hours after our visit, there had been a terrorist attack there, with two IDF soldiers being stabbed by “Palestinians”. Fortunately, they were only lightly to moderately wounded. Now it should be clear why visits by civilians to the area require a military escort. Thus, the day – which had begun with the news of an infiltration by “Palestinian” terrorists into the Jewish community of Eli (also in Samaria) and the attack with knives and clubs on a Jewish Israeli civilian – could be said to have ended in much the same way as it had begun.
The field trip to Shomron was one of two field trips I made with Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi last month, but a description of the second one will have to wait for my next post. I also wanted to tell you about a truly beautiful book I am currently reading, but that, my friends, merits a post all of its own
See you soon.