BEIT SHE'AN, Israel - A team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists unearthed a 1,500-year-old Samaritan synagogue southwest of Beit She'an in the Jordan Valley.
The team, led by Dr. Walid Atrash and Ya'acov Harel, discovered the synagogue and a farmstead during a pre-construction excavation on behalf of the Ministry of Construction and Housing.
Prior to any construction - homes, offices or a new highway - Israeli law requires a pre-construction excavation to ensure that invaluable antiquities are not damaged or destroyed.
The team leaders said the synagogue played an important role in the local farming community, serving "as a center of the spiritual, religious and social life there."
"The discovery of another Samaritan synagogue in the agricultural hinterland south of Beit She'an supplements our existing knowledge about the Samaritan population of the period," the directors said in a joint statement released by the IAA on Monday.
Archaeologists said the structures, built near the end of the fifth century AD, were used "until the even of the Muslim conquest" in 634, when the Samaritans abandoned the complex.
Today about 750 Samaritans live in Israel, divided between communities on Mount Gerizim on the outskirts of Nablus (biblical Shechem) and the city of Holon outside Tel Aviv.
The Samaritans on Mount Gerizim speak Arabic and are issued Palestinian identity cards. But they use Hebrew in their religious ceremonies, which have a lot in common with biblical Jewish rituals.
The community in Holon receives support from the Israeli government and are issued Israeli passports.
During Passover, the Samaritans slaughter and roast sheep, which they eat with unleavened bread - matzah - much the same way as was done during Temple times.