Mount Gerizim, or Jebel et-Tor, is the sacred mountain of the Samaritans and has been so for thousands of years. It consists of three peaks, the main summit, the wide flat western hill and Tell er-Ras to the north. It has been traditionally identified with the sacred mountain upon which the Blessing was delivered by Divine decree, a claim which, in Samaritan belief, overrides that of the rival Temple of Jerusalem. On the summit is a rock which the Samaritans believe was the place where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The Samaritans, now a small Palestinian community of only a few hundred people, believe the temple on the mountain top was the first temple built by Yosha’ Bin Noun in the Holy Land. Archaeologically, the temple discovered on the summit existed before the later 2nd century BC. It apparently lay within a considerable settlement area on the mountain top, which periodic archaeological excavation in the 20th century, and currently, shows was occupied, not necessarily continuously, during the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. The archaeological remains on the main summit consist of a large acropolis with paved temenos and massive fortifications with casemate walls and chamber gates, surrounded by a residential quarter. The ruins probably represent the Samaritan town during the Hellenistic period, destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 BC. In the early Roman period, the main summit seems to have been deserted, though a temple to Zeus was built just to the north on Tell er-Ras in the 2nd century AD, overlooking the city of Flavia Neapolis.
The Samaritans continued to focus on Mount Gerizim in their religious aspirations, occasioning a long-running dispute with Christians who also wanted to worship there. In 484 AD, during the reign of Emperor Zeno, a large octagonal church was built on the main summit, dedicated to Mary Theotokos. The church was turned into a fortress, later strengthened by Justinian, immediately after the Samaritan affront at the presence of a church on their sacred mountain had contributed to the revolt of 529 AD. The church was abandoned in the 8th century, and the fortress was dismantled in the 9th. In the 16th century a shrine of the Muslim saint Sheikh Ghanim was built on the east corner of the ruined church.
Mount Gerizim continues to be the religious centre of the Samaritans. Their village below and west of the summit, and originally temporarily occupied during the 40 days of the feast of the Passover, is developing with modern, permanent buildings, now including a museum displaying collections and all kinds of related cultural, religious and social testimonies. The site of the paschal sacrificial ceremony is now a permanent installation, designed to accommodate thousands of spectators. The Samaritans’ ceremonial progress to and around the mountain summit is a contemporary version of a tradition of worship which they believe to be thousands of years old.
Mount Gerizim rises about 500 m above the ancient city of Flavia Neapolis (Nablus), some 886 m above sea level. North of Mount Gerizim rises Mount Ebal, 938 m above sea level; these two mountains being the highest in the Nablus region. At present, the mountain is surrounded by fertile agricultural land to the east and its northern slopes are densely forested. The Mount overlooks the city of Nablus and the archaeological site of Tell Balata, located in the valley between Mount Ebal to the north and Mount Gerizim to the south.
The Samaritans on Mount Gerizim represent the smallest, most ancient, living ethnic community in the world, bound together by a profound and rigid religious belief. Central to it is the sanctity of a particular mountain as decreed by Moses and on which, nearly four thousand years ago, Abraham may have nearly sacrificed Isaac.
The Samaritans believe that, since more than 3600 years ago, they came to live on Mount Gerizim because Moses, in his tenth commandment, ordered them to protect it as a sacred mountain and worship on it by making pilgrimages to it three times a year. These beliefs and traditions have been kept alive by Samaritans since then. This sanctity and longevity, through to the present day, make this sacred mountain a place of outstanding universal value going far beyond the beliefs of a few hundred people.
criterion (iii): The Samaritan community displays a remarkable continuity of a living cultural tradition in the Palestinian society expressed in a religious life-way which, it believes, has been pursued for some three and half thousand years since its first arrival on Mount Gerizim.
criterion (vi): Mount Gerizim, the sacred Mountain of the Samaritans, is directly and tangibly associated with events and living traditions over some three and half thousand years, with ideas and beliefs which have profoundly influenced religious thinking, and with a literary work, the Bible, all of which together are of outstanding universal significance.
The fact that Mount Gerizim is a sacred mountain still, after thousands of years, respected by the Samaritans, for religious purposes provides an assurance that, in terms of the beliefs underpinning this community, both its authenticity and its integrity are virtually unimpaired. The archaeological site is also protected by law.
There are of course many holy places in the world and many sacred mountains, with much about the latter in World Heritage terms already in print. China, for example, provides several examples already on the World Heritage List. Tongariro, New Zealand, the holy mountain of the Maori, was at the core of the first World Heritage cultural landscape.
Without its ideographic, cultural overlay, physically and topographically, Mount Gerizim would just be another mountain with just another large, basically later historic and classical archaeological site on its summit. Yet, entirely because of its long-term association with the beliefs of, and protection by, the remarkable ethnic group of people known as the Samaritans, Mount Gerizim is unique in its particular qualities and the beliefs, traditions and history that it enshrines. So in a real sense it has no comparators.
On the other hand, in the context of a completely different culture, religious beliefs and tangible expression thereof, the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga in Madagascar could be considered an analogous World Heritage site. Interestingly, because it included the mountain’s sides as well as the Royal site on the summit, it was inscribed on the World Heritage List as a cultural landscape, a possibility that might be considered in nominating Mount Gerizim, provided the purpose of such a potential designation, and its boundaries, are clearly defined.