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Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal


Mount Gerizim on the left and Mount Ebal on the right

Mount Gerizim on the left and Mount Ebal on the right

«When the Lord your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses. As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, westward, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal?».

(Deuteronomy 11:29-30)

For any pilgrim or a tourist travelling in the Holy Land it is a great luck to visit the territory of the Palestinian autonomy, where Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are located; and down between the mountains, there lies the city of Shechem. It is in this area where the Samaritans live, and this region is called Samaria.

City of Shechem

City of Shechem

There is no free access to these historic places. In order to visit Gerizim and Ebal, I had to come to Israel more than once. Several times a year, during the religious holidays you can try your luck, and, accompanied by the Israeli military patrols, visit these places and immerse into the thousands of years of their history. When you travel to places like this one, you begin to realize that everything recorded in the Bible is not actually a fable, or mere imagination, but all of it happened in reality. This is why, in my opinion, one has to visit places like this, whatever the circumstances may be.

Mount Gerizim (Garizim) is a spiritual and religious centre for the Samaritans, who live in this region. The Samaritans treasure in their history and their traditions. Mount Gerizim is located in the Samarian mountain range and it rises to 881 metres above sea level. In the Biblical times, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal were in the allotted land of the tribe of Ephraim. The name Gerizim means being cut off, separated.

Remains of the Temple on Mount Gerizim

Remains of the Temple on Mount Gerizim

Gerizim along with Mount Ebal were chosen by Moses for the annual reading of the Law when all the people should be gathered together, “Then Moses and the Levitical priests said to all Israel, “Be silent, Israel, and listen! You have now become the people of the Lord your God. Obey the Lord your God and follow His commands and decrees that I give you today.” On the same day Moses commanded the people: When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin. And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.” (Deuteronomy 27:9-13). When the tribes of Israel were saying the blessings and curses, between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, surrounded by the priests and the Levites, there was the Ark of the Covenant1.

Ruins of the Church of Virgin Mary on Mount Gerizim

Ruins of the Church of Virgin Mary on Mount Gerizim

After the Israelites had conquered these lands and crushed the king of Ai, turning his kingdom into ruins for ever and into a desert, Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal for the Lord God of Israel, as Moses, the servant of the Lord, had commanded, “an altar of whole stones, over which no man has lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings. And Joshua wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.” (Joshua 8:30-32).

Tomb-mosque of Sheikh Ghanam ibn Ali on Mount Gerizim

Tomb-mosque of Sheikh Ghanam ibn Ali on Mount Gerizim

The region where Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are situated is populated by the Samaritans, and Mount Gerizim for the Samaritans is a sacred place.

The Samaritans, whose name means the keepers of the truth, are an ethnoreligious group, numbering no more than 900 people in total, who live in one of the districts of Holon and in Shechem.

Remains of the steps of the Temple to Zeus on Mount Gerizim

Remains of the steps of the Temple to Zeus on Mount Gerizim

According to the Bible, in 722 BCE, the kingdom of Israel was captured by the Assyrians. They drove the Israelites away and brought settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria in their place: the Cutheans, Chaldeans, and Arameans (2 Kings 17:24). These settlers, mixing with the remnant of the people of Israel left in this area, were then called the Samaritans. According to the Jewish tradition, the Samaritans are the descendant of Cutheans (Josephus Flavius calls them Kutheans), resettled by the Assyrians to the territory of the former kingdom of Israel, who soon accepted Judaism from their neighbours, the Jews.

Altar on Mount Ebal (view from above)

Altar on Mount Ebal (view from above)

Lions became a real disaster for the local people in the land devastated by the Assyrian invasion. Believing that they had angered the local deity, the Samaritans began to worship the God of Israel. In the course of time, they erected a temple for him in the city of Shechem on Mount Gerizim in opposition to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, thus provoking the Jews’ hostility. According to the testimony of the Bible, the Samaritans continued to worship their own gods apart from the God of Israel (2 Kings 17:29-21). As for the Samaritans themselves, they believe that they are the descendants of the people of the kingdom of Israel, to be more precise – of the tribe of Joseph, which divided into the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who have remained faithful to their true inheritance.

During the first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 CE), the Samaritans sided with the Jews and took a most active part in the resistance to the Roman dominion, but in the year of 67 CE most of them perished from the hands of the Roman legionaries.

Itzhak Fishelevich demonstrates the drawing of the Altar

Itzhak Fishelevich demonstrates the drawing of the Altar

During the Second Jewish-Roman War (132-135 CE), after suppressing Bar Khohba Revolt, emperor Hadrian built a new temple to Zeus on the top of Mount Gerizim, which was later, in the IVth century, destroyed under emperor Julian the Apostate (on the eastern side of the mountain, the remains of the stairs leading to the temple have been preserved).

Between 379 and 395, at the foot of Mount Gerizim, the Samaritans built a synagogue. In 484, emperor Zeno in retaliation for the Samaritans’ attempt to rebel against him destroyed the synagogue, and later in its place a Byzantine church of Virgin Mary was built. In 529, when the Samaritans rose up again, the church was surrounded by a fortified wall. In 754-755, the church was torn down, and between 813 and 833 the wall surrounding the church was demolished also. Near the ruins of the church, the tomb-mosque of Sheikh Ghanam ibn Ali, one of Saladin’s senior ministers, rises, which dates from the XIIth century.

Seal in the form of the Egyptian Scarab, found at the excavations on Mount Ebal

Seal in the form of the Egyptian Scarab, found at the excavations on Mount Ebal

A number of medieval legends is connected to Mount Gerizim too. Thus, a Jewish traveller Benjamín de Tudela, who lived in the second half of the XIIth century, in his travelling journal records a Samaritan tradition connected to the altar on Mount Gerizim; according to it, this altar was built with stones, on which the words of the Law were inscribed after Israel had crossed over the Jordan River. According to another Samaritan tradition, the Pentateuch of Moses (The Torah), sacred vessels, and manna are hidden on Mount Gerizim, and they will be discovered when the Messiah appears.

The Samaritans celebrate their major holy days and offer the Passover sacrifice on Mount Gerizim. The entire Samaritan community spends on Mount Gerizim the days starting from the tenth day of nissan2 till the end of the Passover.

Mount Ebal is one of the two tallest mountains in Samaria; it is 940 metres high above sea level. Mount Ebal is located to the north of the city of Shechem.

The slopes of Mount Ebal are steep and the water is not preserved there, so, the plants are rare on it. One exception is the south-eastern end, where an Arab village is situated.

In 1982, while surveying Samaria, young archaeologist Adam Zertal came across a strange stone structure on a slope of Mount Ebal. Studying the find, the scientist was perplexed. The monument was not the ruins of a dwelling place of the Canaanite period, as he had first supposed, but neither was it like the other pagan worship sites known in the neighbouring area.

One day, when he was summing up the results of his work with his helpers, Zertal drew a plan of the construction he discovered. Suddenly, one of the present members of the archaeological expedition, who kept the traditions of Judaism, a dweller of the neighbouring community Shavei Shomron, literally jumped up in the air and rushed out of the room. Soon he came back with a huge tome in his hands. It was one of the tractates of the Talmud3, written down by some wise men back in the 2nd century CE, the book of Mishnah4. With shaking hands he pointed out stupefied Zertal to the page, where the stunned archaeologist saw almost the exact copy of his own drawing.

The diagram in the book described the altar in the Temple of Jerusalem. And for those, who unhesitantly trusted the knowledge of the ancient rabbis, such a match was a sufficient proof of the fact that the monument found on the slope of Mount Ebal, was nothing else than the altar of legendary Joshua.

The potsherds, that had been found in abundance in the area, were authentic for the period when the land was conquered by the tribes of Israel. The structure itself, built of whole unhewn stones, apart from the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem depicted in the Talmud, had no other analogies. And in the thick layer of ashes, that filled the ground at the base of the monument, many scorched bones were found of only those animals that qualified to be offered as sacrifices according to the Law of Moses.

During the excavations, two Egyptian seals were also discovered in the shape of scarabs dating from the second half of the XIIIth century BCE, that is, from the period of the reign of Ramses the Second, the probable time of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt.

With every new find being more convinced to his own astonishment that the monument he discovered was really the Hebrew altar dating back to the time when the country was conquered by the Israelites, Zertal arrived at the realization of the importance of his find.

In the process of investigation, interesting details of the ancient history opened up that had been left out of the canon text. The archaeologist found out, that the altar had been used by the Israelites for several centuries, probably up until the time when the Temple in Jerusalem was built. But under a large and more thoroughly built altar, which had been presumably used for a long period of time, a smaller altar built of large rough stones was discovered. That is where the Egyptian scarabs were found.

Professor Zertal related, “In the course of the survey we discovered on the eastern slope of Mount Ebal a place, enclosed by a wall – a structure with the area of around 14 dunams5. By the potsherds discovered there it was established that this structure was built at the end of the XIIIth century BCE, and it stood there for approximately fifty years – according to the “classical” chronology of the Israelites’ entry into Canaan. During eight seasons of excavations (1982-1989), it was established that on this site there was a large and complex compound, in the centre of which there was a stone platform with a ramp leading to it. The platform was surrounded by a wall, in front of it there were two paved yards. Around it hundreds of stone structures were discovered with pottery, jewellery, et cetera. Within the platform and around it there were layers of ashes, and in them – bones of sacrificed animals, mainly young lambs, calves, and goats, all of them male – that is, the animals that are consistent with the laws of Torah concerning the sacrifices.

The structure on Mount Ebal – which is a stepped building made of stones with a ramp, exactly matches the burnt offering altars of Israelites of the later epochs: the altar described in Ezekiel, chapter 43; and the altar of the Second Temple, described in Mishnah (Tractate of Middot, chapter 3), by Josephus Flavius, and in a “temple scroll” from the Dead Sea.

The architectural features, time period (beginning of inhabitation), and the location (Mount Ebal) allow with great degree of probability to identify this structure as the altar, mentioned in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua. The material artefacts (shape of the structure, pottery vessels, and other smaller finds) correspond with a number of places discovered between the Jordan and the mountains of Samaria, as well as in the entire central mountain range. Based on all of this, one can make a strong conclusion – almost all the structures of the early Iron age belong to the tribes of Israel.”

When the outer layer of stone was removed, a structure, or bamah (platform), measuring nine meters by seven meters and four meters high, was uncovered. Its original height is known because the other side was completely preserved. The upper part of the structure was solid, and on its three lower sides there was a terrace that jutted out approximately two meters. The structure was not filled by stones, but hollow, and at its centre were two separate walls. When the upper layer was removed, a big surprise awaited the archaeologists: a layer of pure ash approximately a meter and a half thick that contained approximately a thousand animal bones, all scorched by fire.

When people eat a cooked meal, the bones are not scorched. Only when they are completely burned as offerings does the fire reach the bones. The discovered bones were sent to Jerusalem that very evening, to the Zoo-Archaeologist Liora Horwitz. Her answer was quick in coming. She said that she had never seen such a special collection of bones. All of them belonged to male yearling animals of four groups: goats, sheep, cattle and fallow deer. The first three are sacrificial animals mentioned at the beginning of Leviticus.

At other sites, the bones of horses, donkeys, dogs and so on are usually found. Here were only sacrificial animals.

No animals but those four kinds were found. As stated, in 1200 BCE, animals were used as sacrifices in accordance with the laws of the Torah. If the researchers say that the laws of sacrifice were created only approximately six hundred years later, how can these findings be explained? Carbon-14 dating also indicated, with rare precision, the year 1200 BCE. At this stage, there were many findings, but they had not been connected to any comprehensive explanation. The forward portion of the structure provided part of the final answer. A double ramp ascends the bamah. The main ramp reaches the top of the bamah, while the secondary ramp reaches the terraces. When we read the description of the altar of the Second Temple in Tractate Middot of the Mishnah (third chapter), we get an amazingly similar description of the altar on Mount Ebal, which preceded the one mentioned in the Mishnah by approximately 1200 years.

The priest used the main ramp to bring the offering to the fire at the centre of the altar. Afterward, he ascended the secondary ramp to the surrounding area (the “terraces”) in order to continue the sacrificial service (sprinkling the blood and so on. The ramp itself was built because of the biblical prohibition against using stairs (steps) in the construction of the burnt offering altar (Exodus 20:22).

The shape of the altar in the Second Temple proves that the altar on Mount Ebal is the authentic Israelite burnt offering altar. This is a fairly rare occurrence in archaeology: the altars of the First and Second Temples have not survived, but the original one has been found, and with it a whole world has been revealed – a greeting from our ancient forebears.

Among the arguments against Zertal’s version two can be pointed out. First of all, among the sacrificial animal bones there were the bones of fallow deer – from the viewpoint of the Jewish tradition, these animals are allowed for food, but they are not used for sacrifices. Secondly, the stones, on which Joshua inscribed the words of the Law have never been found.

However, there can be an explanation to these questions. In one of the places in the Talmud, there is a passing discussion of the rabbis, who discard the possibility of offering a fallow deer as a sacrifice. But could it be the testimony of the common practice among the ancient Jews, which had been forgotten in the course of time? Moreover, we do not know the exact translation of the names of all the animals offered as sacrifices. As for the inscriptions on the stones, we know from archaeological surveys that according to the old technology, stones were covered with the plaster, upon which the words were then scratched. In the area surrounding the altar, close to forty pits for making this kind of plaster were found. But the stones with the words written by Joshua in his own hand, Zertal never discovered. Probably, the time has destroyed them. But it is quite possible that the sacred writings, hidden on the slopes of Mount Ebal, are still waiting for someone to discover them.

In the conclusion I would like to thank the Israeli military patrols, who accompanied us to these amazing places and provided for our security, especially I would like to thank our fearless guide devoted to his profession -Itzhak Fishelevich.

1Ark of the Covenant, or Ark of the Testimony is the greatest sacred relic of the Jewish people. The Ark was overlaid with gold on every side, and it contained the stone Tablets of the Law with the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:2), a golden pot with manna, and the budded rod of highpriest Aaron (Hebrews 9:4). This is what the Ark of the Covenant looked like, “Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you. Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.” (Exodus 25:10-22).

2Nisan – in Hebrew calendar is the first year of the Biblical year and the seventh month of the civil year. In the Pentateuch of Moses it is called Aviv. Approximately it corresponds with March, or April of the Gregorian calendar. In the modern Arab-speaking countries of Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestinian territories), in the Turkish and Kurdish languages, this month corresponds with the month of April on the Gregorian calendar. In Judaism, this month is called the King’s month – the head of all other months.

3Talmud — is a many-volume collection of judicial and religious-ethical regulations of Judaism; it is also known as the Gemara, a detailed elucidation of the Mishnah.

4The book of Mishnah - is the oldest part of the Hebrew Talmud, or the Oral Law, which is a set of additional ordinances with abundant commentaries for the guidance of the Jews. The content is divided into six sections (six Orders), regulating Seeds, Festivals, Women, Damages, Holy things, and Purities.

5Dunam — is an Israeli unit of area equivalent to 1,000 square metres.

The materials and photographs were used from the following web-resource:

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