Israel’s forgotten tribe

High in the country’s northern hills you will find the Druze, a friendly people often overlooked in the politics of the Holy Land.

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.

Central Carmel
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.

One notable exception, though, is Naim Araidi, a Druze professor who was appointed Israel's ambassador to Norway last year. "The Druze community is a great community," said Araidi upon his appointment. "I have not seen another sector, including some Jewish citizens of Israel, whose loyalty is so strong."

Indeed, history has shown that the Druze are a faithful and welcoming people. "I'm biased because I'm Druze," said Asad. "But I think that no-one else offers hospitality and respect to guests like the Druzim. We just love people."

For a taste of this famed hospitality, travellers should head to Isfiya, Daliyat's neighbouring village, where the Nations & Flavours group can arrange for you to join a traditional Druze family meal. Much of Druze food comes from locally-grown herbs and plants; specialties include vine leafs stuffed with rice, pita breads cooked in a taboon oven sprinkled with zaatar (made from hyssop herb), mansala (cooked eggplant with chickpeas and tomato sauce) and kababi (kebabs served with tahini and salad). The Druze are also known for their distinctively large-but-flat pita breads.

Stay at the El-Manzul Druze Lodging in Isfiya, a huge house where guests can enjoy a Jacuzzi, massages and a traditional Druze breakfast of labneh, pita bread, olives and a variety of small salads. Just out of town is the Muhraka Monastery – a stunning Catholic church built on the highest peak of Mount Carmel, and an excellent vantage point over the Mediterranean coast to the west and the sweeping grassy plains of the Jezreel valley to the east.

From a great height
Further north in the Upper Galilee region, Druze villages can be found scattered on hilltops spreading all the way up to the Syrian border. One of the biggest is Beit Jann, on the peak of Mount Meron. Here, from the highest point in Israel (940m above sea level), it is possible to see the whole of the Galilee, Lebanon and Syria. The aptly-named Touch the Sky is a deluxe Druze hotel and restaurant pitched on the mountainside, run by the Abu Haya family, that offers guided tours of the Druze holy sites

About 12km west is the tiny Druze village of Yanuah, where the Sa'ad Family has been running their Druze-style guest house for nearly 50 years. Yanuah, mentioned in the Bible as Janoah, has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and the town is built on the remains of Byzantine and Crusader settlements. Travellers to the village can visit an old olive press, sample the local bakeries and explore some ancient biblical-era caves.

At the northern tip of Israel, not far from the troubled Syrian border, is the village of Majdal Shams. Despite the current turmoil in Syria, nearly 9,000 Druze people live in this peaceful retreat set among apple and cherry orchards. It is also a stone's throw away from Mount Hermon, which due to its altitude turns into a surreal Middle Eastern snow-covered ski resort in winter.

Nearby, Nimrod’s Fortress, an old Arab castle dating from 1229, has an end-of-the-world feel. Although it was not built by the Druze, shepherds from the tribe were the keepers of the fortress and the first to call it Qal'at Namrud, after the Biblical hunter Nimrod. Dubbed “the most exquisite ruins in the world” by Mark Twain, the fortress looks out across the Northern Golan Heights towards the road to Damascus. Over there, the Druze in Syria face an altogether more dangerous reality.