GUIDED by an ancient love story, an archaeologist says he has uncovered an exact replica of the temple in Jerusalem that was the center of Jewish life for centuries until its destruction nearly 2,000 years ago.
Yitzhak Magen, Israel's chief archaeologist for the West Bank, located the replica through the writings of the ancient historian Flavius Josephus.
Josephus recorded the story of Menashe, a Jerusalem high priest who flouted Jewish law by marrying a non-Jew, Nikaso. She was a Samaritan, a sect reviled by the Jews.
''They told him, 'Either you leave the temple in Jerusalem or you leave your wife.' He decided to stay with his wife,'' Mr. Magen says.
According to Josephus, Sanballat, Nikaso's father and the leader of the Samaritans, promised to build Menashe an exact replica of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and make him its chief priest.
That copy, Magen says, lies underneath the remains of a 5th-century Byzantine church on Mount Gerizim, a barren mountaintop overlooking the Palestinian town of Nablus in the West Bank.
Magen began excavating the 2,900-foot peak in 1983, but only recently did the profile of the Samaritan temple begin to emerge. His team has uncovered the temple's 6-foot-thick walls, gates, and altars.
The find could provide the first historical indication of what the ancient Jewish temple, destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, looked like.
The site of the Jerusalem temple cannot be excavated because it is beneath the Dome of the Rock, revered by Muslims as the site where the Prophet Muhammad ascended.
This spring, Magen plans to rip up some of the flooring of the Mary Theotokos church to reach the rest of the replica temple.
An earlier excavation in the 1920s partially uncovered that church, but it remained mostly covered until Magen's dig.
The Mount Gerizim excavations have already found that the temple was surrounded by living quarters such as those in Jerusalem.
Magen says there is ''no doubt that Josephus was right'' that the Mount Gerizim temple is a replica of the one in Jerusalem. He cites inscriptions at the site from the 2nd century BC, written in Paleo-Hebrew, showing that the Samaritans adopted everything, from the Jewish prayers to sacrifice ritual.
The northern gate of the replica temple matches the gate to the Jerusalem Temple depicted in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The dig is expected to be open to tourists in 1996, Magen says.