Some writing systems are thriving, some are extinct, some are newly created, some seem to be falling into disuse.

One language and its alphabet defy all these categories. Two thousand years ago it was the mother tongue of as many as a million people, but by the end of the nineteenth century it had dwindled to the point where it was used by only four families. Yet it has survived defiantly, like a desert plant. It is Samaritan.

The Samaritan family tree is very old, and has deep roots. Perhaps the first writing system to see widespread usage around the Mediterranean was the Phoenician alphabet, the script of a great trading empire. Phoenician was adopted (and adapted) by the Ancient Greeks, and as such, is ultimately the ancestor of the Latin alphabet used for the words in this atlas. Another variant, perhaps 3,000 years old, has been dubbed the “Paleo-Hebrew” alphabet. But while the Jews migrated to writing with the Aramaic alphabet (the second great international script) around 2,500 years ago, their neighbors the Samaritans did not.

One theory is that the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of educated Hebrew speakers to Babylon led to Hebrew commingling with Babylonian; another suggests that when they returned to Judah they found it a Persian province where Aramaic was the official script. The Samaritans, having suffered no such exile, regard themselves as the true descendants of the sons of Israel, and their alphabet as the ancestral Hebrew script — a contentious position, given the power of writing as an iconic system.

By the time of Christ, the two neighbors loathed each other. The entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it’s not the priest or the Levite, both representatives of the Jewish religious hierarchy, who help the mugged man – it’s the hated and despised Samaritan who gives first aid and puts the victim up at the nearest inn. “Which of these three was his neighbor?” Jesus asks, neatly making a point about both spiritual integrity and local hostility.

Despite Christ’s endorsement, the next 2,000 years were not kind to Samaritans. Disliked by Jews, Christians and Muslims, they suffered massacres under the Christian Byzantine Emperor Zeno, were slaughtered or forced to convert to Islam by the Ottoman Pasha Mardam Bey (in 1625) and by the beginning of the twentieth century consisted of only four families, numbering perhaps 120 individuals.

Samaritans are not a weak-willed people, though, and their devotion to survival is as strong as their devotion to their language. If anything, they may have become more devoted to their script. Nowadays, the Samaritan population, restricted to two settlements in Nablus (a Palestinian city in the West Bank) and Holon (near Tel Aviv), has clawed its way back up to roughly a thousand, and is as proud of its language, both spoken and written, as ever.

As Binyamin Tsedaka, the official Samaritan librarian, translator and scribe, writes in A.B. The Samaritan News, a biweekly magazine established in 1969 and containing a regular ancient Hebrew section alongside new stories by today’s Samaritan writers:

It is not by any means in a process of extinction, but [is] in daily use by the Samaritans [today in the] teaching of their children, boys and girls, between the ages [of] 5-15, and [is an] integral part of the A.B.

But Samaritan has one more unique feature: it’s part of the secret iconography of Freemasonry.

Freemasons revere the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, or Tabula Smaragdina, as the most ancient witness to their Craft, perceiving within it the name of Hiram, the hero of Masonic legend.

This text is one of the foundations of European alchemy and a sacred text of the Hermetic tradition, so named after Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian Thoth. The earliest surviving version of this text is Arabic, but its most iconic version is German esotericist Wilhelm Christoph Kriegsmann’s  1657 “Phoenician” reconstruction, which is actually written in Samaritan letters, albeit modified to accommodate the rectilinear aesthetics of the Latin alphabet.

It was his often-reproduced depiction that brought the Samaritan script to its furthest extent away from its home territories: a mountain in the American state of New Mexico. There, a copy of the Ten Commandments appears, inscribed upon a boulder in Kriegsmann’s characteristic hand. The date and origins of this inscription are unknown, although scholars have variously attributed it to Freemasons, Mormons and Samaritans alike.