The Good (but endangered) Samaritans

Famous for helping others, the Israelite sect has so few members that they are embracing internet dating and marrying out to survive

Whatever happened to the original Samaritans? At the time of the late Roman Empire, there were more than a million of them, but, by the last century, they were down to just 146 members. And so now, these guardians of an ancient faith with a famous cameo role in the Bible are using surprisingly modern methods to keep their tiny community alive.

Internet acquaintances, mail-order brides and pre-nuptial genetic tests have all become familiar to Samaritans trying to plan future generations despite a shortage of young women within their tight-knit community. Such openness to the outside world seems baffling in a group that considers itself the original Israelites and upholds rigid traditions about diet, sex and the Sabbath.

Half the community lives in the tidy modern village of Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim, the faith's holy mountain in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The other half is in the Israeli town of Holon near Tel Aviv.

Husney Kohen, 65, one of the faith's 12 hereditary priests, saw no contradiction in the lifestyle of a community that is, as he puts it, "the smallest sect in the world", with 750 followers.

The Samaritans trace their ancestry to the northern Israelite kingdom that was destroyed by the Assyrians in around 720BC. Their faith shares many similarities with Judaism. "Samaritans are very religious, but we are also modern," Mr Kohen, 65, explained in the community's small museum here, lined with scriptures written in the ancient Samaritan language and lists of high priests going back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. The alternative to adapting was grim. A century ago, the community was down to fewer than 150 members. Some left to work in the Mediterranean port of Jaffa, launching a new community there.

Inter-marriage was so common that by the mid-20th century about 7 per cent of Samaritans suffered from some genetic defect. Genetic testing before marriage has helped cut that rate in half. With rising living standards, the community has slowly restocked its ranks in recent decades. But a surplus of males meant some men had to seek wives outside the Samaritan world. "We don't have enough girls, but we can't tell the boys they can't get married," Mr Kohen said. "We've taken in about 25 Jews, five Christians and three Muslims. The boys get to know them through the internet."

What may sound easy is quite difficult. The Samaritans insist the women convert before marriage and commit to a religious discipline hardly imaginable elsewhere. The Samaritans believe Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus was the holy place chosen by God, not Jerusalem. They have their own version of the Torah and holy days similar to Jewish ones. They say that Judaism in the south, especially after the 6th-century BC Babylonian exile, diverted from the original faith. Their differences figure in John's Gospel, where Jesus surprises a Samaritan woman at a well by asking her for water even though Jews and Samaritans did not associate.

Samaritans observe the dietary, Sabbath and circumcision laws in their Torah to the letter. "The word Samaritan means keeper of the law, that's why we are so strict," Mr Kohen said.

In addition, women must live separately from their husbands and children during menstruation and isolate themselves after giving birth – 40 days after having a boy, 80 after a girl. "Everybody observes this," said High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa, 83. "This creates a sense of responsibility in our society. When a woman goes into this period, a daughter or sister comes to take care of her house in her place."

When a woman considers marrying into the community, she comes to live with the Samaritans for up to six months. "We examine them and they examine us," Mr Sadaqa said. To show this can work, he introduced his Ukrainian daughter-in-law, Shura. "She is more observant than many Samaritans," he boasted. "There is an office in Tel Aviv that encourages youths to have wives from other nationalities. I sent my son to that office."

Shura, 25, a casually dressed convert from Christianity, moved here five years ago from Kherson, Ukraine. Most Samaritan women sport Western-style clothes and uncovered hair, donning traditional dress on the Sabbath. "I was surprised to meet a Samaritan. I didn't know anything about them," she said nervously in Arabic.

Khader Adel Kohen, another Samaritan priest, is already thinking about wives for his three young sons when they mature. "With all respect to the high priest, I'm against marrying women outside our community," said Mr Kohen, an inspector in nearby Nablus for the Palestinian Authority's interior ministry. "If they don't find a wife, my sister has three daughters and my cousin has three daughters," he said. "Of course, we'd have them tested genetically first.

"They can marry anyone in the Samaritan community. Outside, no," he declared. "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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?