Contrary to popular belief, the Holy Land is not just home to two peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – but a diverse mix of cultures. Minority groups in Israel include the A-B-C-D-E of Arabs, Bedouins, Copts, Druze and Ethiopians. Although most visitors may know something of Bedouins, the delights of the Druze tribe are a well-kept secret.
Located in the northern Carmel, Galilee and Golan Heights regions, Druze villages, such as Daliyat al-Karmel, Isfiya and Majdal Shams, are usually set high on a hillside with outstanding views of the valleys below. All over these areas, Druze women can be found by the roadside selling freshly baked pita breads, olives and labaneh, a smooth yoghurt-type cheese, to passersby. But who are the Druze?
A peaceful people
Widely regarded as a friendly community that lives in peace with Israel and its neighbours, the Druze people are an often-overlooked religious Arab minority (82.6% of Arabs in Israel are Sunni Muslim, 9% are Druze and 9% are Christian Arabs). Worldwide, there are around one million Druze living mainly in Syria and Lebanon, with 104,000 in Israel. Although they speak Arabic, the Druze are not Muslim, but call themselves muwahhidun (monotheists).
The Druze religion was born in the 10th Century in Egypt, during the reign of al-Hakim, leader of the Fatimid Caliphate dynasty, who believed he was the earthly incarnation of God. The Druze sect became his followers, splitting from the Shi'ites, and fled to remote mountainous areas of Lebanon, Syria and what is now Israel to escape persecution.
Blending Islamic, Hindu and Greek philosophy, the Druze believe in reincarnation and share prophets with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, including Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. They have their own flag, the Druze Star, with each of the five colours representing a prophet.
There are a number of Druze holy sites in Israel that are open to visitors. The most important is Nebi Shu'eib, the grave of Jethro, said to be the father-in-law of Moses and who the Druze believe to be the founder of monotheism. This large mosque-like dome and courtyard was built on a site known as the “Horns of Hittin” overlooking Lake Galilee, where in 1187 Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, defeated the Crusaders.
The second-most important Druze site is Sabalan's Tomb, located above the village of Hurfeish, inland from the coastal town of Nahariya. The mausoleum, with its mountain views, marks the burial place of the Druze prophet Zebulum, who preached the religion in the 11th Century.
About 20km further south in the Arab village of Kfar Yasif is Nabi al-Khadr, meaning both Elijah's Tomb and “green” in Arabic, which has a pleasant picnic area surrounded by weeping fig trees. As in Judaism, Elijah is one of the major Druze prophets and his tomb is housed in a small building with an arched chamber, where the walls are adorned with pictures of Kings David and Solomon.
But the centre of the Druze universe is Daliyat al-Karmel, Israel’s largest and most southern Druze town, founded some 400 years ago. Set on Mount Carmel, southeast of Haifa, Daliyat is today a sprawling all-day market with its main street lined with shops selling darbuka drums, sheesha pipes, pottery, jewellery, artwork and its fair share of psychedelic clothes.
On the north side of the main street is the Druze Heritage Centre, a small and free museum that exhibits traditional Druze artefacts, weapons and lots of photos of men with moustaches.
Further down the street is Beit Oliphant (also called Beit Druze), the former house of Sir Lawrence Oliphant, a British Christian author who made friends with the Druze and moved here in 1882. Today his house is used as a military memorial dedicated to Druze residents who served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Traditionally, Druze men are proud of their military service, but there are signs that this attitude is changing.
"I served in the IDF," said Aehab Asad, 33, a local Druze from Daliyat. "In my opinion, although Israel is a good place for us, I don’t think Druzim get enough respect or benefit from going to the army." He added that many of his Druze friends are low-paid landscaping or construction workers and find it hard to progress in Israeli society.