Samaritan Revolts

Samaritan Revolts

Diocese of the Orient at the Byzantine period, where Samaritans largely inhabited Palaestina Prima (Samaria).
LocationPalaestina Prima (Samaria), Diocese of the East, Byzantine Empire
Result Byzantine victories
Samaria had remained a part of Palaestina Prima, until the Sassanid Persian invasion in 614.

Byzantine Empire Byzantine Empire

  • Dux Palaestinae troops
  • Arcadiani
Ghassanid Arabs
Samaritan rebels
Jewish rebels (556,572 revolts)
Commanders and leaders
Asclepiades and Rheges (484 revolt)
Governor Procopius (495 revolt)
Emperor Justinian I (ben Sabar revolt)
Stephanus and Amantius (556 revolt)
Justa (Justa uprising);
a "Samaritan woman" (495 uprising)
Julianus ben Sabar  (ben Sabar revolt)
Samaritan and Jewish leadership (556,572 revolts)
Casualties and losses
ben Sabar revolt: Severe casualties; ben Sabar revolt: 20–100,000 killed[1]
556 revolt: 100–120,000 casualties[2]

The Samaritan Revolts were a series of insurrections during the 5th and 6th centuries in Palaestina Prima province, launched by the Samaritans against the Byzantine Empire. The revolts were marked by great violence on both sides, and their brutal suppression at the hands of the Byzantines and their Ghassanid allies severely reduced the Samaritan population. The events irreversibly shifted the demographics of the region, making the Christians the only dominant group in the Palaestina Prima province for many decades onward. Some historians draft comparisons between the consequences of the Samaritan Revolts of the 5th and 6th centuries upon Samaritans to the consequences of Jewish–Roman Wars of the 1st and 2nd centuries upon the Jews in the region.

Conflict background

A coin with the inscription of Roman stairs of Neapolis to Mt. Gerizim
Main articles: Baba Rabba and Samaria

Samaritans fared badly under the Roman Empire, when Samaria was a part of the Roman-ruled province of Judaea. Though not directly targeted, Samaritans also suffered the severe consequences of Jewish–Roman wars in the area, during and after 66–135 CE.

Following the period of Jewish–Roman wars, the previously dominating Jewish community went almost extinct across Judaea and the shore of Southern Levant, remaining a majority only in Southern Judea, Galilee and Bashan (Golan). Samaritans and Byzantine Christians filled this vacuum in the central regions of Southern Levant, whereas Nabataeans and Christian Ghassanid Arabs settled the periphery.

This period is considered a golden age for the Samaritan community. The Temple of Gerizim was rebuilt after the Bar Kochba revolt in Judaea, around 135 CE. With the withdrawal of Roman legions, Samaria enjoyed a limited kind of independence on the course of the 3rd and 4th century. Baba Rabba, the leader of the Samaritans, divided Samaritan territories to districts, and established local rulers out of aristocratic Samaritan families. He also executed a series of reforms and installed state institutions. Much of Samaritan liturgy was set by Baba Rabba during this time. This period of semi-independence was however brief, as Byzantine forces overran Samaria, and took Baba Rabba captive to Constantinople, where he died in prison several years later c. 362 CE.[3]

Justa uprising

During the reign of Emperor Zeno, tensions between the Christian community and the Samaritans in Neapolis grew dramatically. According to Samaritan sources, Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno (who ruled 474–491 and whom the sources call "Zait the King of Edom") persecuted the Samaritans with no mercy. The Emperor went to Sichem (Neapolis), gathered the elders and asked them to convert; when they refused, Zeno had many Samaritans killed, and re-built the synagogue to a church. Zeno then took for himself Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshipped God, and built several edifices, among them a tomb for his recently deceased son, on which he put a cross, so that the Samaritans, worshipping God, would prostrate in front of the tomb.

Later, in 484, the Samaritans revolted, provoked by rumors that the Christians intended to transfer the remains of Aaron's sons and grandsons Eleazar, Ithamar and Phinehas. Samaritans reacted by entering the cathedral of Neapolis, killing the Christians inside and severing the fingers of the bishop Terebinthus.

The Samaritans elected Justa (or Justasa) as their king and moved to Caesarea, where a noteworthy Samaritan community lived. There many Christians were killed and the church of St. Procopius was destroyed.[1] Justa celebrated the victory with games in the circus.[1]

According to John Malalas, the Dux Palaestinae Asclepiades, whose troops were reinforced by the Caesarea-based Arcadiani of general Rheges, defeated Justa, killed him and sent his head to Zeno.[1] Terebinthus meanwhile fled to Constantinople, requesting an army garrison to prevent further attacks. According to Procopius, Terebinthus went to Zeno to ask for revenge;[1] the Emperor personally went to Samaria to quell the rebellion.[4]

As a result of the revolt, the Byzantine emperor Zeno erected a church dedicated to Mary on Mount Gerizim. He also forbade the Samaritans to travel to the mountain to celebrate their religious ceremonies, and confiscated their synagogue there. These actions by the emperor fueled Samaritan anger towards the Christians further.[5]

Some modern historians believe that the order of the facts preserved by Samaritan sources should be inverted, as the persecution of Zeno was a consequence of the rebellion rather than its cause, and should have happened after 484, around 489. Zeno rebuilt the church of St. Procopius in Neapolis (Sichem) and the Samaritans were banned from Mount Gerizim, on whose top a signaling tower was built to alert in case of civil unrest.[6]

495 Samaritan unrest

Samaritans rebelled again in 495 under the rule of emperor Anastasius I, reoccupying Mount Gerizim. The Samaritan mob commanded by a Samaritan woman is said to have seized the Church of St. Mary and massacred the garrison.[1] The revolt was subsequently suppressed by the Byzantine governor of Edessa, Procopius,[6] and the Samaritan leaders were slain.[1]

Ben Sabar Revolt (529-531)

Main article: Julianus ben Sabar

Under a charismatic, messianic figure named Julianus ben Sabar (or ben Sahir), the Samaritans launched a war, sometimes referred as the final Samaritan revolt,[1] to create their own independent state in 529. The Samaritan revolt of ben Sabar was perhaps the most violent among Samaritan uprisings. According to Procopius, the violence erupted due to restrictions imposed on Samaritans by the Byzantine authorities via Justinian's edicts, while Cyril of Scithopolis indicates sectarian tensions between Christians and Samaritans as primary cause for the revolt.[7]

Following massive riots in Scythopolis and Samarian country-side, the rebels could quickly conquer Neapolis and ben Sabar emerged as their leader, being proclaimed a king.[7] Ben Sabar followed a strict anti-Christian policy, as Neapolis' bishop and many priests were murdered and he persecuted the Christians, destroyed churches and organized guerilla warfare in the countryside, driving the Christians away.[7] According to Byzantine sources, the name of the Bishop was bishop Ammonas (also Sammon or Ammon). As a response, Dux Palaestinae's forces combined with armies of local governors and Saracene phylarch were dispatched to deal with the uprising.[7] Ben Sabar withdrew his forces from Neapolis, but was nevertheless surrounded and defeated.[7] After capturing him, the leader was executed by beheading and his head crowned with a diadema was sent to Emperor Justianian.[7]

By 531 the rebellion had been put down.[8] The forces of Emperor Justinian I could quell the revolt with the help of the Ghassanid Arabs; tens of thousands of Samaritans died or were enslaved, with their death toll possibly being between 20,000 and 100,000.[1] The Samaritan faith was virtually outlawed thereafter by the Christian Byzantine Empire. According to Procopius of Caesarea, the majority of Samaritan peasants chose to be defiant in this revolt, and "were cut to pieces".[1] Further, Samaria, the "world's most fertile land, was left with no one to till it."[1]

556 Samaritan revolt

The emperor Justinian faced another major revolt in 556. In this occasion the Jews and the Samaritans seem to have made common cause, beginning their rebellion in Caesarea, early in the month of July.[9]: 31 They fell upon the Christians in the city, killing many of them, after which they attacked and plundered the churches. The governor, Stephanus, and his military escort were pressed hard, and eventually the governor was killed, while taking refuge in his own house.[9]: 31 Amantius, the governor of the East was ordered to quell the revolt, after the widow of Stephanus reached Constantinopolis.[9]: 31

Despite the Jewish participation, the rebellion however seems to had gathered less support than the revolt of Ben Sabar.[9]: 31 The Church of the Nativity was burned down suggesting that the rebellion had spread south to Bethlehem. Either 100,000 or 120,000 are said to have been butchered following the revolt. Others were tortured or driven into exile. However this is probably an exaggeration as punishment seems to have been limited to the district of Caesarea.[10]

572 revolt

The tensions however, were not over. Emperor Justin II who reigned from 565 to 578, complained about "outrages committed by settlement of Samaritans at the foot of Mount Carmel upon the Christian Churches and the holy images".[9]: 31 Probably in response to this event Justin II issued an order in May 572 rescinding the restoration of rights granted by Justinian.[9]: 30–31[11] In response a second joint Samaritan-Jewish revolt took place in summer 572 and again in early 573 or alternatively in 578.[11][12] John of Ephesus and John of Nikiû may have described this revolt.[11]


The Samaritan faith was outlawed and from a population of nearly a million, the Samaritan community dwindled to near extinction. The situation of Samaritans further worsened with the failure of Jewish revolt against Heraclius and slaughter of Jewish population in 629.

Samaritan numbers remained very low in the Islamic era, similar to the late Byzantine period - a result of previous revolts and forced conversions.[13] Contemporary sources claim between 30 and 80 thousand Samaritans to have lived in Caesarea prior to Muslim invasion, compared with roughly 100 thousand Jews, and those minorities out of the total provincial population of 700 thousand,[14] who were majorly Christian at the time. By the early Islamic period the Samaritan diaspora disappears from records except small communities of Egypt and Damascus.[13] The Egyptian Samaritan community was likely swelled due to refugees from coastal cities of Palestine as a result of Muslim invasion.

Following the Muslim conquest of Syria in 636, Samaritans suffered more disabilities than Christians and Jews, as Arab rulers often doubted whether Samaritans are included within the Muslim definition of "People of the Book", though according to Nathan Schur, the Arab Islamic invasion had initially benefited with the community.[15] Samaritans still converted to Islam due to economic reasons, social advancement and theological reasons and thus community numbers plunged further.[15] Harsh persecution of Samaritans was however led by the more fanatical Caliphs, such as al-Mansur (754-775), Harun al-Rashid (786-809) and al-Mutawwakil (847-861).[16] Islamic religious leaders had periodically sought to consolidate their power by stirring anti-Samaritan sentiments and occasionally calling for their annihilation.[17] As a result, the Samaritan wealth was practically wiped out.[17]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Elli Kohen, pp. 26–31
  2. Alan David Crown, The Samaritans, Mohr Siebeck, 1989, ISBN 3-16-145237-2, pp. 75–76.
  3. Loewenstamm, Ayala. "Baba Rabbah." Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 22 Dec. 2011.
  4. Procopius, Buildings, 5.7.
  5. "Neapolis – (Nablus)". Studium Biblicum Franciscanum – Jerusalem. 19 December 2000. Retrieved 2008-04-19.
  6. 1 2 Alan David Crown, The Samaritans, Mohr Siebeck, 1989, ISBN 3-16-145237-2, pp. 72–73.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, Abraham Tal. A Companion to Samaritan Studies. Mohr Siebeck. p140.
  8. Irfan Shahîd Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2 Harvard University Press (2010) p8
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Elli Kohen (2007). History of the Byzantine Jews: A Microcosmos in the Thousand Year Empire. University Press of America. Retrieved 15 March 2014.
  10. Alan David Crown, ed. (1989). The Samaritans. Mohr Siebeck. p. 76. Retrieved 15 March 2014.
  11. 1 2 3 Reinhard Pummer (2002). Early Christian Authors on Samaritans and Samaritanism: Texts, Translations and Commentary. Mohr Siebeck. p. 318. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  12. Jacob Neusner (1975). a history of the jews in babylonia v. later sasanian times. Brill Archive. p. 122. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  13. 1 2 Mohr Siebeck. Editorial by Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, Abraham Tal. A Companion to Samaritan Studies. p70-71.
  14. Mohr Siebeck. Editorial by Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, Abraham Tal. A Companion to Samaritan Studies. p70-45.
  15. 1 2 Russel, G. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. 2014.
  16. Mohr Siebeck. Editorial by Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, Abraham Tal. A Companion to Samaritan Studies. p2.
  17. 1 2 Mohr Siebeck. Editorial by Alan David Crown, Reinhard Pummer, Abraham Tal. A Companion to Samaritan Studies. p83-84.
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