Clinging to their religion and culture like the sun-bleached rocks cling to the craggy Shomron hillsides, the Samaritans have perfected the art of survival in a land where religious persecution is nearly as old as time itself.

They were once nearly a million strong and stretched from Gaza to Damascus, the descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, and of priests of the tribes of Levi. Now they are a pitfully small community, georgraphically divided because of modern conflicts not of their making and facing an uncertain future in a world that seems to have passed them by long ago.

"And ye shall be left few in number," warned Deuteronomy 28:62, "whereas ye were as the stars of heavens for multitude."

Their numbers are down to just more than 500, and the ravages of inbreeding have left a mark on the retarded and deformed among them. They are torn between their religious kinship to the Jewish State of Israel and their strong cultural ties to the Arab society in which they live.

But they persevere, fiercely proud of their origins and unabashedly boastful that they have outlived the dispersals of the Jews, surviving the conquests of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, Moslems, Turks, and the occupations of the British and the Jordanians before Israel took over the West Bank in the 1967 war.

Here on the mountain where the 12 tribes of Israel are said to have been assembled by Joshua for thanksgiving, Elazer Sadaga, high priest of the Samaritans, sits cross-legged on a sheepshin and considers the future of his people.

"We are only 510 souls. We haven't any aim, only to preserve our nation," he said.

"Can the Samaritans survive? You can ask God that. I don't know. We have 20 young men, and they are in need of marriage, but there are no homes for them and they could leave. God created us, and if he wants to take us away, that is his wish. But we are still alive," Sadaga says, smiling through his resplendent beard.

Outside, the Samaritans are gathered for the seven-day feast of Pass-over, nearly a month after the Jews' traditional Pesach because the priests keep their own calendar based on the sun and the moon. They have finished the paschal sacrifice of the lambs, a noisy and colorful ceremony in which the chants of prayers and the mournful bleting of sheep intermingle and blood runs in cascades over a stone altar.

o Samaritans, Gerizim is the holiest of places and they treat it like a shrine. According to their beliefs, and as written in the Torah. It was here where Abraham built his first altar, where Abraham offered his son, Isaac, to god, and where Jacob bought his first piece of land.

Jerusalem is just another Jewish city, Sadaga says firmly and with the same sharpness to his voice as when he speaks of how Eli disrupted the nation of Israel by moving from nearby Nablus to Shiloh, creating a new cult and causing the schism that led to the nation of Samaritans.

For more than half the surviving Samaritians, the Arab city of Nablus is home, and mount Gerizim is the place of their thrice yearly pilgrimages to celebrate Passover, Rosh Hashanah and the Pentecost.

After the 1948 War of Independence, the other half of the Samaritan community gathered in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, where they maintain a parallel society as Israeli citizens. In 1953, as a result of an armistice commission agreement, the Israeli Sammaritans were allowed for the first time to cross the border and visit their Nablus-based brethren at Mount Gerizim. They have been doing it every year since.

In dress, manner, speech and customs, Samaritans display a curious blend of the Arab and Jewish worlds, sometimes seeming almost schizophrenic in their habits.

They pray in ancient Hebrew, but converse among themselves in Arabic; they have synagogues, but the insides of the synagogues look like mosques -- empty chambers whose floors are covered with oriental carpets on which the Samaritans pray like Moslems.

They believe in the Penetateuch, the first five books of the Bible -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy -- but they reject the oral law of the Talmud. They observe the sabbath on Saturday and adhere to the laws of ritual purity and impurity, but they reject the jewish holidays of Purim and Hanukah because they were declared after split between the Samaritans and the Jews.

They have a strong identity with the Arabs of Nablus -- the center of extreme Palestinian nationalism in the West Bank -- but they celebrate the Independence Day of the State of israel.

Like the bedouin of the desert, the Samaritans seem to survive by flowing with the prevailing wind, switching their allegiance carefully and obtrusively, but just enough to survive.

"We esteem the Arabs very much and they esteem us. We share their joyful days and we share their painful days.They visit us and we visit them," said Sadaga.

But almost in the same breath, when asked about a huge Israeli Army radio antenna towering above the simple houses in this pilgrimage village, Sadaga replied, [Israeli] military government. I don't know what the future [of the West bank] will be, but we Samaritans will still be here. We Samaritans have lived calmly in the Jordan period, the English period and the Turkish period. We ask only to build ourselves and preserve our religion."

More than once in their history, the Samaritans have come close to extinction, dwindling to 146 in number during a plague that broke out in Nablus at the time of the withdrawl of the Turkish Army in 1918. Their fortunes improved under the British mandate rule and when Sadaga's family moved to Jaffa and became acquainted with Itzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel, who devoted much attention to improving the situation of the Samaritans.

The community's population doubled in 30 years, and in 1949 they were recognized as citizens under the Law of Return, although those living in Nablus hold either Jordanian citizenship left over from Hashemite rule of the West Bank, or Israeli military occupation identity papers.

"We are increasing, but only slowly," said Sadaga, noting that 10 years ago the Samaritan population was 440.

Looking out his window at the ancient Gerizim mountaintop, where so many crucial chapters of religious history have been written, the high priest added, "we are poor in money and we are poor in numbers. But we are not poor in faith and not poor in friends. If God wants it, we will survive."