Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Samaritans seek opening of holy site found in IDF dig

By Chaim Levinson original story here

At the peak of Mount Gerizim in the West Bank is a fenced-off archeological site, where a dig conducted under the auspices of the Israel Defense Forces Civil Administration recently uncovered a well-preserved 2,000-year-old city, once home to 10,000 people.

Although the site is off-limits to the public, the dig has revealed streets flanked by houses as well as a city center, all of which make it a potentially important tourist destination. The Civil Administration made a decision in May to keep the site closed to visitors, for the time being.

Mount Gerizim is a holy site to the Samaritan community, an ancient sect closely related to Judaism. According to Samaritan tradition, the mountain is the site of the ancient Tabernacle. The archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken in 1982, and continued for 22 years at an investment of tens of millions of shekels, revealing new finds on a daily basis.

Benny Katzover, who served for many years as head of the Samaria Regional Council, said the excavations began in an effort to find what the Samarians regard as their Holy Temple. Katzover said the ancient historian Joseph Flavius explained that, following disputes with the Jews, the Samaritans moved their spiritual center to Mount Gerizim, near what is now the West Bank city of Nablus, and built their temple on a scope identical to the one in Jerusalem.

"The finds," he said, "reveal a high standard of living, including baths and ceramic tile and heating and mosaics... You can see that it was the capital of a whole kingdom."

Preparations were made to open the site to the public, including a lookout point facing Nablus and the site of the ancient city of Shechem, along with signage explaining the finds. With the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the plans were shelved, but with the improved security situation the Samaria Regional Council and the Samaritan community have been pressing for the public to be given access to the site.

The secretary of the Samaritan community, Ovadia Cohen, told Haaretz that his community had received the site during the period of Jordanian rule over the West Bank. He complained that every time he wants to visit the site, he has to obtain permission from the authorities. He said the Civil Administration and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority had promised that the site would be opened, but it remains closed.

"We are ready to manage the place," he said. "We have the capacity to manage it. We are losing a lot of money every year [in admission fees] because of this."

During the course of the discussions held in May, it was pointed out how impressive the finds are at the site, and that there had been a series of vandalism incidents there. The deputy head of the IDF Civil Administration, told those present that the Civil Administration was not interested in managing the archaeological site, but ordered that steps be taken to have the site operated by another entity. Sources at the Samaria Regional Council said that the council wished to do so.

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