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Mt. Gerizim and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (2005)

Perhaps the greatest desire of any archaeologist in Israel is to dig the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Excavations there could reveal remains of temples of ancient Israel, as well as other many potential finds.

However in our days this is not possible because the mountain is capped by holy Muslim structures, the Dome of the Rock and the el-Aksa mosque, and the Muslim religious authority (the Waqf) does not permit any archaeological work on the Temple Mount.

Despite any excavations, various scholarly attempts were made to reconstruct the shape of the Biblical temple, mostly based on descriptions such as in the book of II Kings chapters 6 and 7, yet without archaeological finds, they all remain as educated guesses.

But an interesting archaeological illumination to this subject may come from a different site—Mount Gerizim. This mountain, which overlooks ancient Shechem, was blessed during the period of the Israelite settlement (Deut. 11:29). It is also the place where Moses ordered the tribes to gather to pronounce the blessings for obedience (Deut 27:11-26).

In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans inhabited Samaria, and they sanctified Mt. Gerizim, identifying it as the place of the Biblical Temple, rather than theTemple Mount in Jerusalem. They built a temple on the summit and lived in the vicinity. This is recorded in the writing of Josephus Flavius.


The Records of Jospehus

Josephus provides two accounts for the construction of the Samaritan Temple on Mt. Gerizim. At one place Josephus states that Sanballat the Samaritan met Alexander the Great after the latter conquered the whole region in the late 4th century BCE. He declared his loyalty to the new regime, and in return was granted building a temple on Mt. Gerizim. (Antiquities of the Jews, XI,8,4).

At another account Josephus states the Samaritan temple was constructed still in the Persian period (mid 4th century BCE) when Menashe, son of the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, fell in love with Nikaso, daughter of Sanballat the Samaritan. Driven by his passion yet eager to inherit his position in Jerusalem, Mensashe obtained from marrying Nikaso. In response Sanballat offered to build him on mount Gerizim a temple “similar to that in Jerusalem” (Antiquities XI,7,2 to 8,2). This version is probably also echoed in the Book of Nehemiah, as Nehemiah states: “And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son-in-law to Sanballatthe Horonite; and I chased him from me” (Nehemiah 13:28).

Being so, excavating on Mt. Gerizim could provide a replica of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (!). Frankly I am surprised MT. Gerizim was not excavated long ago..

Byzantine Church and Monastery

But there are a few obstacles. Firstly, the site is very large and requires large-scale work and funding. Further more, during the Byzantine period the summit was modified into a church and a monastery complex, commemorating virgin Mary as “Theotokos” (“God-bearer”). This complex was built in connection to the Samaritan revolt against the Byzantines in 484 CE. By constructing the “Mary Theotokos” complex the Byzantines authorities demolished much of any previous Samaritan remains.

Another difficulty is that various places at the summit are holy to the Samaritans to this day. The Samaritans live around the top of the mountain, and observe religious ceremonies at various sites around the Byzantine complex.

The Byzantine complex was surveyed in the 19th century and excavated partially in the

1930’s. But since 1982 a large scale excavation project began by the Israeli archaeologist Y. Magen, thanks to his special relationship with the local Samaritan community.This year Dr. Magen began publishing the results of his excavations, most recently in the Israeli periodical Qadmoniot. Most interesting for me were his findings related to the Samaritan Temple.


Samarian Temple Buried

As speculated, the Byzantine church complex was built right over the Samaritan temple, burying it under a mass of walls, which were not cleared. But the excavations revealed in great detail the size and shape of the enclosure of the Samaritan temple.


These findings provide valuable information about the Samaritan Temple, as well as the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Firstly, the number of gates of the enclosure, their location, and their shape, correlate well with the descriptions of the enclosure of the Temple in Jerusalem as described by Ezekiel (40:6-16, 20-24, 27).

The excavation also exposed many well dressed stones, some with masons’ marks on them. They were all part of a public building—most likely the temple. Furthermore, two complete capitals and a fragment of a third were discovered in the excavation. They resemble the “proto-Aeolic” capitals that are known from various Israelite Biblical sites, and are attributed to public buildings.  The capitals on Mt Gerizim were most likely part of the temple as well.

In the excavations thousands of artifacts were found. They indicate the temple was built already in the 5th century BCE, in correlation with one of the accounts of Josephus.

The excavation also exposed layers of ashes mixed with pottery shards, and animal bones in large quantities (over 300,000 bones were documented). Most of the bones were of goats and sheep under the age of three years, while some were of oxen and pigeons. The bones must have come from the daily sacrificial activity in the Samaritan temple. All the pottery is local and seems to follow strict laws of purity. Such laws are known also in contemporary Judaism, but it seems that the Jews did not follow these orders as strictly as the Samaritans.

The last word has not yet been said about Mount Gerizim. Hopefully the site will not only reveal more exciting finds, but will also be a popular site to visit, also providing an income to the current small yet proud local Samaritan community.