efe-epaNablus, West Bank

Members of the Samaritan faith – which is closely linked to Judaism – gathered at sunrise on Tuesday atop their religion's holiest mountain in the northern West Bank, marking the Sukkot holiday with a special prayer in ancient Samaritan Hebrew using a Torah scroll, as documented by an epa-efe photojournalist present.

The Samaritan community numbers around 820 people, many of whom live high above the Palestinian city of Nablus on Mount Gerizim, which they regard as the true Chosen Place, rather than Jerusalem's Mount Zion revered by the Jewish faithful.

Epa-efe photos showed a procession mostly made up of men and boys dressed in white climbing their holiest mountain in the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday as part of the Feast of the Tabernacles that marks the end of the harvest season.

After the climb, a bearded member of the community took a large Torah scroll from its protective covering and held it aloft as the first rays of light peeked through the clouds.

Known for their appearance in the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Christian bible, Samaritans are a special case in the complicated ethnic and religious fabric of the West Bank.

The distinct group was formed after a long-ago schism with the dominant Jewish tradition; the Torah attributes this to the geographical split that occurred after King Solomon's death between the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah that centered around Jerusalem, although modern scholars have disputed this account.

Throughout their holy texts, both Samaritans and Jews were exhorted to avoid contact with the other group, a mutual aversion that was later exemplified in the aforementioned New Testament parable.

According to the Jewish-Roman historian Titus Flavius Josephus, there were numerous violent conflicts that erupted between them in the 1st century AD.

Samaritans speak Arabic and have lived in and around the Palestinian city of Nablus since before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

According to Israeli media, many Samaritans carry both Palestinian and Israeli passports.

However, around half the community now lives in Israel near Tel Aviv, and Samaritans continue to be torn between the desire to remain atop their holiest mountain and the search for greater opportunities and work in Israel – a contradiction that represents the ongoing struggle between their Jewish and Palestinian identities.

Palestinian sources in Nablus told EFE that strict rules about marrying within the community caused their ranks to dwindle to only a few hundred by the mid-20th century, but fertility treatments and marriages to women from Eastern Europe have helped increase their number to some extent.