Samaritan worshipers pray on Mount Gerizim as they celebrate the Shavuot festival at dawn, June 2017

The sights and sounds of Israel's oldest religious communities

Step back in time with a visit to the hidden communities of the Holy Land, the cradle of Judaism and Christianity and home to different Jewish and Christian offshoots that split from their respective mainstreams centuries ago

Uri Sharon |
Published: 04.10.21 , 08:51
Spring is one of the best seasons to travel in Israel and with Israeli returning to normality thanks to the world’s fastest vaccine rollout, domestic tourism is already booming and international tourism is expected to return shortly.
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  • Any visit to Israel should of course include all the usual highlights - Jerusalem’s Old City, Acre, Nazareth, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, to name just a few.
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    Samaritan worshipers pray on Mount Gerizim as they celebrate the Shavuot festival at dawn, June 2017
    Samaritan worshipers pray on Mount Gerizim as they celebrate the Shavuot festival at dawn, June 2017
    Samaritan worshipers pray on Mount Gerizim as they celebrate the Shavuot festival at dawn, June 2017
    (Photo: AFP)
    But off the beaten track, leave some time to explore unknown hidden communities that portray forgotten sounds, languages and rituals that are a well-kept secret among local guides.
    The Holy Land was the cradle for Judaism and Christianity and the home to different Jewish communities and churches that split from the mainstream. In Christianity, the Catholic and Orthodox movements prevailed and attracted most of the believers.
    In Judaism it was the rabbinical movement that became the mainstream. Nevertheless this was not the case more than 1,500 years ago when different communities developed their own theology and liturgy. Some of these communities still exist, albeit as small minorities, some with less than a 1,000 people.

    Samaritans: Among world's smallest religious groups

    One of the smallest religious groups in the world with a population of just 840, the Samaritans were at their peak in the 4th century with as many as a million members led by Baba Rabba, their venerated leader.
    The community, which believes only in the Samaritan Torah (Pentateuch), without later mainstream Jewish additions such as the Talmud, has a long history of suffering and was persecuted by the Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans because of its beliefs, while in antiquity there were also many clashes between Samaritans and Jews.
    The community has a fascinating historical heritage and still uses a Samaritan Hebrew dialect.
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    הר גריזים
    הר גריזים
    Mount Gerizim
    (Photo: Doron Nissim)
    While Jews see the Temple Mount as their holiest site, the Samaritans' holy shrine is at Mount Gerizim near the West Bank city of Nablus.
    It is there that they believe the binding of Isaac took place and where Josaha built the shrine after crossing the Jordan river.
    Their main religious holidays are Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) where they hold their festive rituals on Mount Gerizim.
    (Mount Gerizim)
    On Passover, the Samaritans still sacrifice lambs at Mount Gerizim, while Jews gave up animal sacrifice after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
    Today, the Samaritan community lives mostly in Kiryat Luza, a small village near Nablus, and in Holon, south of Tel Aviv.

    Karaite Jews: Return to Israel in modern times

    A community with Jewish origins that go as far back as the 8th century, which found its way back to Israel after more than 1,000 years of exile brought upon them by the crusaders.
    The Karaites were a dominant community with millions of followers in the 9th and 10th centuries (some estimates say they were 40 percent of all Jews at the time).
    The theological schism with the rabbinate Judaism is based on the Karaites belief solely in the written Torah and the prophets. They see this as the only divine source and not the Oral Law (including the Talmud) or any other rabbinical source or literature.
    The Karaites returned to Israel mainly from Egypt and established their world center in Israel with communities in Ramle, Jerusalem, and other cities.
    There was also a Turkic-speaking Karaite community in central and eastern Europe in the territories of the former Russian Empire.
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    Karaite Jews praying in Israel
    Karaite Jews praying in Israel
    Karaite Jews praying in Israel
    (Photo: Universal Karaite Judaism of Israel)
    The Crimean Karaites were spared from anti-Jewish legislation by the Czars and were considered non-Jews by the Nazis who murder entire Jewish populations in the region during the Holocaust.
    Hundreds of Crimean Karaites immigrated to Israel after the Chief Rabbinate ruled them to be Jewish.
    The total worldwide Karaite population is some 50,000, the majority of whom live in Israel.
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    The Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem
    The Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem
    The Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem
    (Photo: Ori/Wikimedia Commons)
    A visit to their synagogue in Jerusalem, which also has a heritage center, is a unique experience.

    Syriac Orthodox Church: Aramic Liturgy

    This Church split from the main Byzantine Church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and is lead by Ignatius Aphrem II, the 123rd Patriarch who resides in Damascus.
    It is a very small church with some 1.5 million believers, the majority of whom live in India. Their most important church is the Monastery of Saint Mark in the Old City of Jerusalem.
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    Prayers at the Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in the Old City of Jerusalem
    Prayers at the Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in the Old City of Jerusalem
    Prayers at the Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark in the Old City of Jerusalem
    (Photo: Screenshot)
    According to tradition, this was the house of Mary, the mother of St. Mark the Evangelist, and the place where Jesus held the last supper.
    The church also holds what is claimed to be a relic of the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
    (Syriac Orthodox Church in Jerusalem)
    When I visited the church I heard the monks recite prayers in Aramaic - the language of Jesus in the Second Temple period.
    It is a fascinating ritual that takes one back in time to 2,000 years ago.

    Armenian chant at Cathedral of Saint James

    The Cathedral of Saint James is located in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was built 900 years ago and is the main church of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
    It is dedicated to two Christian saints: James, son of Zebedee, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, and James the brother of Jesus.
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    Prayers at Saint James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem
    Prayers at Saint James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem
    Prayers at Saint James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem
    (Photo: Screenshot)
    According to Armenian tradition, the relics of the two saints are buried in the church built during the time of Queen Melisenda, daughter of the Crusader King Baldwin II, and the Armenian princess Morphia of Melitene.
    Armenians have resided in the Holy Land since the 4th century and are one of the oldest Christian communities that has lived here continuously since then.
    Being one of the oldest churches in the world the Armenian liturgy dates back to the Byzantine period.
    The liturgy includes the unique, haunting Armenian chants, which you can hear during the prayers at the church.
    (Saint James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter)

    Uri Sharon is a tourism professional with a Master's degree in Tourism Development and Planning from Haifa University. He is the founder and editor of trvltrend.com and has many years of experience in digital and offline marketing, e-commerce, integrative media planning and public relations. The main focus of his writing is digital trends in travel and hospitality.

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