National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian is a network of 20 museums (as of January, 2020), that are run by the U.S. government.  The newest museum on the list opened in 2016, and is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Like most of the Smithsonian museums, it is located in the Nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Since it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, it seemed like a good week to describe this museum.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was designed by a Ghanaian man named David Adjaye.

Although the Smithsonian museums are free, until recently, visitors to the African American museum needed to obtain free entrance tickets far in advance, due to the Museum’s popularity.  Now, since the Museum is not as new as it used to be, visitors are only required to obtain tickets on the weekends.  I visited the Museum on a weekday in 2019 between Christmas and New Year’s, and although I did not have to obtain an advance ticket, I did have to wait in line for 45 minutes just to get into the building.  Once inside, I had to wait an additional 45 minutes to go see the three exhibits on the lower levels, which provide a chronological display of African American history.  The Museum’s other three floors did not have lines, but because I waited in so many, I did not have a chance to see them.  They focus on the cultural aspects of African American history, such as famous athletes, musicians, and actors.  The second floor also has a library, but visitors can only enter by appointment.

Although the 45-minute line to enter the Museum was boring, I did have the privilege of overhearing a thought-provoking conversation while waiting.  The conversation was between two African American men, one appearing to be middle-aged, and the other possibly in college.  It is based on my memory, so may not be 100% word-for-word.

College-Age Man: Where are we?

Middle-Age Man: Do you mean where are we physically, or where are we going?

College-Age Man: Where are we going now?

Middle-Age Man: This is the African American history museum.

College-Age Man: Oh.  [Pause]  I was going to say a white people joke, but maybe this is not the best time.  [Pause]  It’s not that funny, but I was going to say that for being an African American history museum, there are a lot of white people here. 

Middle-Age Man: That’s not a bad thing.

College-Age Man: I know.

Middle-Age Man: I used to work with the Smithsonian, and we analyzed what kind of visitors came in.  Even for the African art exhibits, more white people visited than black people. [Pause] It’s a good thing that they built this museum.  The Holocaust museum, which is nearby, always has as many visitors as here, or more, and that museum isn’t even about something that happened on our soil.  But the African American museum is about what happened here.  We needed this museum.  I think you’ll like it.

The college-age man’s comments made me analyze my surroundings, and despite his comments about the number of white people in line, the majority were not white.  This then made me come back to what the middle-age man said about how more white visitors tended to visit the Smithsonian museums than black people.  I am not an expert on this topic, but my guess is that this is because museums were not a part of African American culture for a long time, since they were enslaved, historically barred entrance into many cultural institutions, or were underpaid and needed to save their money for more important needs.  Perhaps, many museums are often not as relevant to African Americans (i.e. art museums in the U.S. tended to focus more on European art, and less on other types).  Regardless, I am thankful that, after several decades of trying to make it happen, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was finally created.  I have visited several of the main Smithsonian museums, and the African American one is definitely among the top 3.

This is a timeline of the slave trade in the Americas. Portugal brought the most African slaves to the Americas: 5.8 million people.

I spent several hours at the Museum, and probably only saw a third of it, so make sure you allot plenty of time if you ever visit.  Among the many things you will see are a slave cabin, a segregated train, Nat Turner’s Bible (he led a slave rebellion), a plane used by the Tuskegee Airmen (African American WWII pilots), and Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal.

This is a nineteenth-century slave auction block from Hagerstown, Maryland.

In addition to the 45-minute line to enter the Museum, and the other 45-minute line to enter the main history exhibit, I waited an additional 45-minutes to enter the Emmett Till Memorial.  This line was very confusing, because it wrapped around the segregated train, making me first think that the line was for entering the train.  However, I eventually learned that I was in the line for the Emmett Till Memorial.  The Memorial is important, especially if you do not know about Till, since this is the only place in the Museum that talks about him.  Nevertheless, I am still not sure why the line went so slowly.  It contains Emmet Till’s casket, but why he is no longer in it is a different story for a different blog post.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Building.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/building (accessed January 6 2019).

“Facts about the Smithsonian Institution.” Smithsonian. https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/facts-about-smithsonian-institution (accessed January 6 2019).

“Museum Maps.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/maps (accessed January 6 2019).

“The Building.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/building (accessed January 6 2019).

University of Chicago: Regenstein & Mansueto Libraries

The University of Chicago (not to be confused with the University of Illinois in Chicago) was ranked the 6th best National University in the United States in 2019.  Founded in 1890, this prestigious university is known for graduating Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as employing famous faculty who have made important contributions to their fields.  Additionally, Barack Obama taught at the University’s law school from 1992-2004, before he became U.S. President.

The University of Chicago has several libraries, such as a law library, math library, and archaeology library.  I believe that the current science library, the John Crerar Library, was the University’s first library. Additionally, although I have not visited it, I was told that the William Rainey Harper Memorial Library has an amazing reading room reminiscent of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books.

Currently, the main library at the University of Chicago is the Joseph Regenstein Library, which has five floors and two basement levels.  The photo on the main page of my blog was taken from this amazing library’s stacks.  I had never seen so many books in my life.  Just walking through the library gave me an exhilarated feeling, and reminded me of how much knowledge there is in the world, but how little of it a human mind can actually obtain and retain.

In 2011, the University completed an addition to the Regenstein Library, called the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library.  Because the University of Chicago is one of the largest research libraries in the United States, they do not weed (get rid of) their books to make room for more, meaning that they have accumulated several million books.  With limited real estate in Chicago, the University needed to find more space for them.  That is why the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library was built.  However, the majority of it is underground.

Below are photos of the outside and inside of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. The area located above the ground houses a bright reading room, as well as conservation and digitization labs. The glass has three layers, which blocks out 99% of the sun’s ultra-violet light.

When I visited the conservation lab, a conservator was working on a 50-pound music book from Spain dating to the 1600s.

Since I visited the Mansueto Library with a librarian group, we were given the opportunity to visit the lower levels of the building, which are not open to the public. The two underground levels house a total of approximately 3.5 million books and journals that have historically not been used or checked out often. They are stored in high-ceiling rooms reminiscent of a hardware store such as Menards, with towering rows of bins filled with books in each “aisle.” If someone wants an item housed in this area, all he or she needs to do is request it from the library’s catalog. Within five minutes, a robot retrieves the correct bin containing the book, and brings it up to the librarian upstairs. This is called an Automated Storage and Retrieval System. Only a handful of libraries in the world have this system. The room housing the books is climate-controlled and, thus, also stores the University’s rare books and special collections. If a fire should ever occur down there, the air is supposed to suck out of the room, theoretically putting out the fire. This prevents the need for a sprinkler system that could ruin the books, but also means that humans would need to leave the premises immediately.

The University of Chicago’s library system is the 9th largest academic library in North America, and the 19th largest library in the United States (The Library of Congress is #1, and two other Chicago libraries rank higher: Chicago Public Library is #5 and University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign is #6.).

Since I visited the library with a librarian group, I am not sure how easy it is for visitors to enter the library.  I believe that university students at other schools do not have much trouble if they show their student I.D., however, the Library’s website is vague about non-student visitors.  You should probably check with them ahead of time if you plan to visit.

Although the Regenstein Library’s architecture looks bleak (building in the foreground), it contains a treasure trove of books. It is located on the University of Chicago’s original football field, which was the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942. This monument commemorates the event.

Sources and Further Reading

“About the University of Chicago Library.” The University of Chicago Library. https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/about/thelibrary/ (accessed January 11 2019).

“History.” The University of Chicago. https://www.uchicago.edu/about/history/ (accessed January 11 2019).

“The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library.” The University of Chicago Library. https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/mansueto/ (accessed January 11 2019).

“The Largest Libraries in the U.S.” Infoplease. https://www.infoplease.com/arts-entertainment/literature-and-books/largest-libraries-us (accessed January 11 2019).

“Libraries and Museums.” The University of Chicago. https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/academics/libraries-and-museums (accessed January 11 2019).

“National University Rankings.” U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities (accessed January 11 2019).

Musical Instrument Museum

In 2010, Phoenix, Arizona opened up a museum dedicated solely to musical instruments called the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM).  The MIM strives to display instruments from every country and territory in the world, so, with about 7,000 instruments on display, there over 200 countries/territories currently represented. 

The museum is categorized by geographic regions, meaning that the instruments from South Asia are all in one section, whereas the instruments from Europe are in another.  However, the displays are categorized even further by individual countries.  For instance, the room devoted to African instruments does not lump them all together, but provides a separate display for each individual country. 

The MIM is organized by different geographic regions.

When you arrive at the museum, you receive an individual headset, which you wear while walking through the museum.  Once you arrive at a specific country’s display, a sensor picks up your headset and starts playing the music of that country.  Additionally, most of the countries also have a screen next to them, showing people playing the music that is coming through your headset.  This is what makes the MIM so amazing.  You not only have the ability to see a variety of instruments from all over the world, but you are also able to hear and watch them being played.

Since the MIM is located in the United States, the U.S. has the largest representation of any country within the museum.  However, this means that the sections about the United States are divided by genre, so jazz, rock and roll, and country music all have their own sections.  The U.S. section even has the first Steinway piano, which is impressive, since this U.S. company is considered one of the best piano companies in the world.  Although classical music is often performed on Steinway pianos, the classical music genre is actually covered in the European instruments section.

The first Steinway piano dates to 1836.

The Musical Instrument Museum is definitely worth the visit, especially if you have an interest in music.

Sources and Further Reading

“FAQS.” Musical Instrument Museum. https://mim.org/faqs/ (accessed October 25, 2019).

Church of the Nativity

Slightly south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem (which means “house of bread” in Hebrew), a small town that became famous for being the birthplace of Jesus as well as King David.  However, if you visit Bethlehem today, it is difficult to picture it as the small Jewish town it once was.  It is now a somewhat touristy area with a population that has slowly changed from predominantly Christian to Muslim in the last fifty years.  It is located in a Section A area of the West Bank, meaning that it is under Palestinian control, and that Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter there. Section B areas of the West Bank have joint-Palestinian and Israeli control, and Section C is where the disputed Israeli settlements are. In order to enter or exit a Section A area, people need to go through checkpoints. However, this is mostly inconvenient for the people who live within the country. The Bethlehem checkpoint is generally not a problem for tourists.

Most tourists who visit Bethlehem go to see the oldest church in the world that is still in use today, the Church of the Nativity.  This Church encompasses a small cave that, since the second century A.D., tradition claims was Jesus’ birthplace.  The original church was built in 339 A.D. by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena.  However, most of the current church’s structure is from the sixth century A.D., and was built by the Byzantine King, Justinian I.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has experienced both damage and restoration.  The Church’s most recent drama occurred in 2002 during the Second Intifada, when the Israeli government laid siege on 200 Palestinians who fled into the Church.  When UNESCO made the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site in 2012, they also placed its status as “Endangered.”  However, restoration began after that, and in 2019, this status was removed.

When you enter the Church, you must duck your head, because the doorway is shorter than most doorways.  The reason for this is probably to make sure that visitors show respect while entering the sacred space.  Because the Church is extremely old, inside is not a showy place with gaudy architecture and decorations.  Instead, it is a simple, stone structure with high columns and a high ceiling.  To enter the cave, you must descend into a separate part of the Church, away from the main sanctuary.  According to my father, when he visited the church in the 1970s, the cave area had a doll in it that was supposed to represent baby Jesus.  However, when I visited in 2010, I did not see that.  Three groups currently oversee the Church: the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian Church. 

Right outside of Bethlehem is a spot that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider important.  It is the alleged tomb of Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob from the Bible (Genesis 35:19-20).  However, like most Biblical sites in Israel, many theories exist as to whether this or other nearby sites are the actual place where Rachel was buried.  Unfortunately, I never had a chance to visit Rachel’s tomb.

Bethlehem has never been known for having much there, but it is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the oldest church in the world that is still in use today. It may not be the most beautiful church in the world, but the ancient stone structure and scent of frankincense flowing through the air provide an experience rarely encountered in the Western world.

I realized that the only photo I took while I was in Bethlehem was of this coffee shop, whose name I found amusing.

Sources and Further Reading

“Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Lidman, Melanie. “Bethlehem’s Declining Christian Population Casts Shadow over Christmas.” National Catholic Reporter, December 29, 2016. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/bethlehems-declining-christian-population-casts-shadow-over-christmas (accessed November 30, 2019).

“Siege of Bethlehem.” Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/siege/etc/cron.html (accessed November 30, 2019).

“The Site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) Removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, July 2, 2109. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1995/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Hanukkah in Jerusalem

In the United States, Christmas has become a very commercialized holiday.  Sometimes, as early as September, you can already find Christmas-related items at the store.  Amidst these Christmas items are often a few items related to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (sometimes spelled Chanukah, because it has the guttural “H” sound).  However, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday.  The most important Jewish holidays are the ones found in the Bible, especially Leviticus 23, whereas, the story of Hanukkah occurred after the Old Testament had already been completed. There isn’t a Hanukkah museum, but I had the privilege of experiencing Hanukkah at its birthplace, Jerusalem.

The reason for Hanukkah’s popularity in the United States is that it falls around the time of Christmas.  It became a way for the Jewish community to not feel completely left out around Christmastime.  However, unlike Christmas, it never falls on the exact same day each year, because it follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, not the Gregorian calendar, which is solar.  It still falls around December, though, because the Jewish calendar has a leap month every few years, which helps keep the months on a similar timeline. (The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, is lunar, but doesn’t have leap days or months, so its holidays can occur at any time of year.)

Whereas most of Israel shuts down during the major Jewish holidays found in Leviticus 23, life typically continues as normal during Hanukkah.  On the first night of Hanukkah, I went to the Western (or Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. This was a retaining wall surrounding the Second Temple and was built by King Herod the Great in the first century B.C. It is the only structure remaining that had a connection with the Jewish Temple, which the Romans completely destroyed in A.D. 70. The reason why I went to the Western Wall at night is because Jewish holidays begin at sundown. This is because the creation narrative found in Genesis 1 repeatedly says, “And there was evening and there was morning the first day,” “second day,” etc. for each of the six days of creation, implying that the day began in the evening.

While at the Western Wall (which is considered the holiest site in Judaism, due to its proximity to where the Temple once stood), the chief rabbi of Jerusalem lit the first candle of a giant menorah (the Hebrew word for “lamp”).  Afterwards, people danced in the street, and one group even projected a slideshow of images related to the Hanukkah story, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” soundtrack playing in the background!  I was especially pleased to see that the surrounding bakeries were all selling sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) as well.

A Hanukkah menorah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2010.

The reason for lighting the menorah and eating sufganiyot is connected.  The story of Hanukkah comes from the first and second books of Maccabees, which are two books found in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is Jewish writings that date to after the timespan of the Old Testament, but before the Roman occupation of Israel.  Some of it is history, and some of it is not.  Judaism never recognized the Apocrypha as divine canon, although the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches did and added it to their Bibles (the Protestants later removed it from theirs). 

The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe how the Seleucid Empire, a remnant of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire, tried to Hellenize Israel and make the inhabitants worship their gods.  In order to do this, the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, desecrated the Jewish temple and sacrificed a pig within it.  However, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Judah Maccabee (Maccabee was his nickname and means “hammer” in Hebrew), fought and overcame the Greeks.  After that, Israel remained independent for a brief period of time, until the Romans arrived. 

After Judah’s victory, the Jews tried to rededicate the Temple.  The Hebrew word for “dedication” is “Hanukkah,” so the holiday is also known as the Feast of Dedication. (The New Testament even references it in John 10:22.)  The rest of the Hanukkah story actually comes from later tradition.  According to the story, the people were upset when they realized that the 7-branched menorah (or lamp) that was supposed to always continue burning in the Temple, was no longer lit.  They tried to find some oil to relight it, but only found enough oil that would last for one day.  However, the light ended up lasting for 8 days, just long enough for them to replenish their supply.  That is why a menorah is lit on Hanukkah each year, and why the holiday lasts for 8 days.  Additionally, that is also why a Hanukkah menorah (also called a Hanukkiah) has 9 branches instead of 7 branches, like what would have been found in the Temple.  Each of the 8 branches represents one of the 8 days of Hanukkah, while the extra middle branch is used to light each of the other 8 branches.  For each night of Hanukkah, a new candle is lit, until all are completed on the 8th day.

A common Hanukkah tradition among children is to play with a spin top called a “dreidel.” Historically, the four letters found on a dreidel stood for the phrase “A great miracle happened THERE.” However, Israeli dreidels now say, “A great miracle happened HERE” On the left is an American dreidel, with the Hebrew letter “shin,” which stands for the word “there.” On the right is an Israeli dreidel with the Hebrew letter “peh,” which stands for the word “here.”

Finally, the reason why sufganiyot (doughnuts) are eaten on Hanukkah, is because they are an oily food, so are a way to remember the miracle of the oil.  Israel’s sufganiyot are much more delicious than the ones in the United States.  This may partially be because Israel has a wider variety of flavors than just the traditional jelly-filled ones.  For example, there were some donuts that were topped with pistachio, halva, and even sweet popcorn.  Fried potato pancakes are also a popular Hanukkah dish, because they are oily. 

Sufganiyot at Roladin Bakery in Jerusalem.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Hanukkah.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanukkah (accessed November 30, 2019).

Rude, Emelyn. “Why Jelly Doughnuts Are Eaten During Hanukkah.” Time, December 7, 2015. https://time.com/4138749/sufganiyot-jelly-doughnut-hanukkah-history/ (accessed November 30, 2019).

Auditorium Theatre

On December 9, 2019, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago turned 130 years old.  Built in 1889 by architects Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, the theater was the first home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as the early Chicago opera companies.  Today, the Theatre still hosts ballets, orchestras, musicians, etc.  Additionally, because of its interesting history, and more likely because Louis Sullivan is considered a famous architect, the Theatre frequently offers tours.  Most of the people on my small tour were French tourists who did not know each other, which makes me suspect that architecture receives a larger emphasis there than in the United States.

I went on the 1 ½ hour tour of the Auditorium Theatre with an extremely knowledgeable guide.  He made it more interesting because of his personal connection with the Theatre.  After World II, in 1945, Roosevelt University came into existence.  It purchased the Theatre building, but did not open it to the public.  However, in 1960, the University began raising funds to restore the Theatre.  During the 1960s, my tour guide heard about the fundraising campaign and asked his mother if they could contribute.  They did, and he then received a letter thanking him for being one of the youngest donors.  As a reward, he was given a personal tour of the Theatre.  In 1967, when the Theatre reopened to the public, he and his mother attended the performance.  He has seen every show offered there since.

That was the history of the Theatre during the second half of the 20th century, however, the first half is also interesting.  Although Adler and Sullivan did not build the first skyscraper, they are considered pioneers in the skyscraper’s development.  Additionally, they helped influence future architects, such as the more famous Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked under Sullivan at the beginning of his career.

Louis Sullivan is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

When the Theatre opened in 1889, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison came to its opening.  The Theatre was considered grand at the time, as it seated 4,200 and had a 10-story hotel above it.  Its reputation helped Chicago win the bid to host the 1893 World Fair.  Some of the famous people to perform or speak at the Auditorium Theatre have been President Theodore Roosevelt, Civil Rights activist Booker T. Washington, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix.  The Theatre somehow held a few baseball games during its early years, and during World War II, the government used it for U.S. soldiers, and a large portion of the auditorium became bowling alleys.   

The two most fascinating aspects of the Theatre to me were the lighting and the sinking floor.  Because electricity was new at the time that the Theatre was built, the auditorium contains 3,500 lightbulbs total.  It was a great way to show off this new invention.  Originally, the entire Theatre used carbon lightbulbs, however, they are not as bright as the bulbs used today, so only the main part of the auditorium uses them now, while the hallways use more standard lightbulbs.  Carbon lightbulbs actually last longer than the current ones, but I cannot remember the number of years. 

Chicago used to be a swampy area, so the ground is not solid.  The architects knew this and took precautions when building the Theatre’s foundation.  However, over the years, the perimeter of the building has sunk deeper in comparison to the rest of the building.  This was especially noticeable in the Theatre’s lobby, where the ground sloped downward near the entrance.  Additionally, during the tour, we went to the top balcony, which apparently leans more toward the stage than it used to.  The Theatre does not sell those seats as often, unless an event is extremely popular.  In the past, African Americans were only permitted to sit in the balcony seats, and not in the rest of the Theatre.  In regards to the sinking ground the guide said that the building has stopped sinking, and remains safe.  Hopefully, that is true. 

A standard tour at the Auditorium Theatre currently costs $12.  Additionally, the tours are typically only offered on weekdays at unusual times.  This is probably so as not to interfere with the Theatre’s scheduled performances. 

Sources and Further Reading

“Architecture.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/architecture/#/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

“Historic Theatre Tours.” Auditorium Theatre. https://tickets.auditoriumtheatre.org/production/2677/19-20-public-theatre-tours/#/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

“Origins & Stats.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/origins-stats/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

“Timeline.” Auditorium Theatre. https://www.auditoriumtheatre.org/the-building/timeline/ (accessed December 11, 2019).

Samaritan Museum

Many people know about Samaritans from the New Testament parable of the “Good Samaritan,” which Jesus told in Luke 10:25-37.  According to that parable, Samaritans and Jews in the 1st Century A.D. hated each other.  In case you’re wondering if Samaritans still exist, I can assure you that they do, because I had the privilege of meeting one in 2010 at the Samaritan Museum on Mount Gerizim, which is just north of Jerusalem.  He happened to be the brother of the Samaritan high priest, and is usually the person who speaks to visitors at the Museum.

There are currently only about 800 Samaritans left in the world, with half of them living on Mount Gerizim, and the other half living in Holon, near Tel Aviv.  Over the centuries, a large portion of their population became Christian, and later, Muslim.  In fact, it is believed that the people living right below Mount Gerizim in the town of Nablus (Shechem), who now identify as both Palestinian Arab and Muslim, were once Samaritans.  Today, the Samaritans living in Holon are required to join the Israeli Army, however, since Mount Gerizim’s Samaritans are duo-Israeli/Palestinian citizens, they are not required to join.  Mount Gerizim is located in the West Bank, which is a contested area of Israel, because it used to belong to Jordan until Israel took it during the Six Day War in 1967.  West Bank means that the area is on the “west bank” of the Jordan River. 

While at the Samaritan Museum, the brother of the Samaritan high priest provided a lot of information about the Samaritans and what makes them unique.  First of all, the Samaritans originated as a people starting in about the 8th century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire was at its height.  Several Assyrian kings, especially Sargon II, would swap the captured inhabitants of one area with the captured inhabitants of another area, in order to make it more difficult for their newly-conquered subjects to rebel against them.  For example, when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was also known as Samaria (the name of its capital), they deported a large number of its inhabitants to the northern regions of their Empire, never to be seen again.  This is where the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel” originates.  The Assyrians, then, took other conquered peoples and brought them into Northern Israel/Samaria.  The Israelites living there eventually mixed with these other peoples, and this fusion became the Samaritan people.

While on Mount Gerizim, I learned that Samaritans believe that they are descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi.  The first two listed are among the ten tribes deported by the Assyrians.  Jews believe that they are descended from the tribes of Judah (where the word “Jew” comes from), Benjamin, and Levi.  These tribes lived in the Southern Kingdom of Israel, so were never deported by the Assyrians.  Most of the tribes of Ancient Israel had their own allotment of land, however, the tribe of Levi became the priests, so they were scattered throughout all of Israel and never allotted their own land.  That means that both the Jewish and Samaritan claim of having Levite lineage is possible.  Researchers have actually administered DNA testing on Jews claiming priestly lineage (people with the last name of Cohen qualify, since that is the Hebrew word for “priest”), and concluded that a Jew claiming priestly descent from Europe and another from Northern Africa actually have a unique chromosome (Y-Chromosomal Aaron) not found in any other population group in the world.  When the test extended to Samaritans claiming priestly descent, the chromosome was not exactly the same, but extremely close.

There are not many artifacts at the Samaritan Museum, but the most noteworthy is the Samaritan Torah scroll, known as the Samaritan Pentateuch, and written in a language related to ancient Hebrew. It has three handles, representing the three tribes that the Samaritans claim to descend from.

What makes the Samaritan religion different from Judaism is that, wherever a Jewish Bible reads “Jerusalem,” a Samaritan Bible says “Mount Gerizim.”  Mount Gerizim is referenced in the Jewish Bible, but does not have the importance that the Samaritans give to it.  At the end of Deuteronomy, it says that after the people of Israel left Egypt, they eventually went with Moses to the top of Mount Ebal, where they read the curses that God would place upon them if they disobeyed him.  Then, they went to nearby Mount Gerizim, and read the blessings that God would place on them if they obeyed.  Perhaps this, and the fact that Mount Gerizim was located in Samaria while Jerusalem was not, attributed to why it is now revered by the Samaritans.  The New Testament potentially references the importance of Mount Gerizim to the Samaritans as well.  In John 4, a Samaritan woman told Jesus that her ancestors had been worshipping on “this mountain” (the mountain was not specified, but was probably Mt. Gerizim).  Not far from the Museum is the remains of a Samaritan Temple, but a Jewish king destroyed it in the 1st Century B.C.  A Byzantine church was later built over it, so most of the visible remains come from that latter period.

There are a few other interesting comparisons between the Samaritans and the Jews.  For example, on Mount Gerizim, I saw an outdoor, circular area, where the Samaritans still sacrifice a lamb on Passover each year.  Visitors are actually welcome to watch.  Jews no longer literally sacrifice a lamb on Passover, but they do put a lamb bone on their Passover table to remember the ancient practice.  Similarly, like the Jews, the Samaritans follow Deuteronomy 6:9’s injunction of placing God’s commandments on their doorposts.  However, whereas Jews follow it by placing a tiny scroll (mezuzah) containing Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 inside a little box adhered to their doorposts, Samaritans carve out a Bible verse of their choosing above their doorways.

A Jewish mezuzah on the doorpost of a home.
A Samaritan mezuzah above a doorway on Mount Gerizim.
[I failed to take a photo of a Samaritan mezuzah, so this photo is not attributed to me. It is from Wiki Commons, meaning that it is in public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mezuzah_IMG_2125.JPG]

Thankfully, Samaritans and Jews do not hate each other as they once did. They are now accepted as Israeli citizens, even if they live in the West Bank. Additionally, another interesting development in the Samaritan community has to do with marriage. Samaritans are only permitted to marry within their community, however, since their numbers are dwindling, there is now a new rule. If a Jewish woman is willing to convert to the Samaritan version of Judaism, then a Samaritan man can marry her. It does not apply to Jewish men though.

Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Nablus.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Nablus (accessed December 2, 2019).

Feldman, Rachel. “Diving Deep into Mezuzah Customs and Lore.” Judaica WebStore. September 22, 2019. https://blog.judaicawebstore.com/judaicapedia-what-is-a-mezuzah/ (accessed December 2, 2019).

Ireton, Sean. “The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-Religious Minority in the Twenty First Century.” Anthrobase. 2003. http://www.anthrobase.com/Txt/I/Ireton_S_01.htm (accessed December 3, 2019).

“Mount Gerizim.” Bible Walks. February 23, 2018. https://biblewalks.com/sites/MountGerizim.html (accessed December 2, 2019).

“Samaritan Museum.” Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/samaritanmuseumhargrizim/ (accessed December 4, 2019).

Shen, Peidong, Tal Lavi, Toomas Kivisild, Vivian Chou, Deniz Sengun, Dov Gefel, Issac Shpirer, et al. “Reconstruction of Patrilineages and Matrilineages of Samaritans and Other Israeli Populations from Y-Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Variation.” Human Mutation 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 248–60. https://doi.org/10.1002/humu.20077.