Israel’s very own Painted Desert

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As you travel around Israel, you are bound to pick up some sweet souvenirs, the best ones being the ones you either make with your own hands or dig from the Holy ground yourself.

Here in the Negev we have  the Makhtesh HaGadol, the Big Makhtesh, our own version of the American Southwest’s Painted Desert, with its gorgeous, colorful sandstone walls.  You already know what a makhtesh is from my previous post about the Makhtesh HaKatan

This Big Makhtesh is found in the mountain range adjacent and a little to the west of the Small Makhtesh, and is, true to its name, the bigger of the two.

The drive into the Makhtesh (thanks to the College of Wooster’s Geology Department) is quite spectacular, as one enters this gigantic basin with its colorful walls.

These hills,  created hundreds of millions of years ago by ancient rivers that deposited their quartz and feldspar laden silt, have been eroded through time and now bare their colorful sands to us. The oxide concentration in the sand changes their color;  green, orange, purple, white, red, yellow and tan are among the most prevalent.

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My favorite site  is the Colored Sands, where visitors collect sands of different colors and create for themselves a fun, handmade  souvenir to take home.  This is especially fun for the youngsters, but also great for the young at heart!

For 2 shekels (about 60 cents), a local entrepreneur will sell you an empty glass bottle out of his ice cream truck. You can then spend a good hour or more walking the hills in search of just the right colorful sand combination for your painted-sand art project.  If you bring a straw or a small funnel, you can combine colors and designs in a delightful pattern.  When done, that same ice cream seller/ glass bottle vendor will seal your masterpiece with some  clay and you’re done.

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From here you may also depart on a couple of lovely hikes to the rim of the makhtesh, choosing the easier hour long walk or the more challenging three hour trek.

If rest and food is what you desire after your adventure in the painted sand hills, you may lounge in the shade of a tree or partake of a packed lunch at one of the picnic tables.

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All in all, a fun way to spend some time in our very own Painted Desert.

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A makhtesh… a what? A makhtesh!

As we continue in my series of posts on the beautiful Negev, we arrive at the point where we need a short lesson in geology.  I know, not all of us love geology, so I promise a short and easy-to-understand explanation.

The Negev cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the unique and fascinating geological processes by which it was shaped and formed.

One of the  extraordinary landforms of the Negev is the makhtesh, of which there are 3 in close proximity, all very similar in their characteristics and all formed in essentially the same way. The geology lesson begins here, as we try to understand the makhtesh

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A makhtesh is sometimes translated as a ‘crater’ but that is misleading, as craters are usually created by volcanic eruptions or meteorites hitting the Earth’s crust.  A makhtesh is none of that… it is a  geological formation unique to the Negev and the Sinai, created by erosion, the slow process by which soil and rock is removed by wind or water flow, then transported and deposited somewhere else.

It all started hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth’s crust was repeatedly covered with layers of sediments.   For millions of years,  these sediments would be of tiny grains  of sand, made up of quartz and feldspar and other minerals  eroded away from massive granite mountains that had been created by magma emerging to the surface of the Earth.  These sand deposits eventually hardened and became different types of sandstone.

Then, with shifts in the tectonic plates, the area would be covered by an ancient ocean for millions of years, and  skeletons and shells of billions of marine creatures would sink to the sea floor, laying layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3 for those chemistry inclined), eventually creating limestone and chalk.

This geological process repeated itself over and over again. Hard limestone layers and soft sandstone layers, accumulating on top of each other over the millenia.

Stay with me, it gets better.

The Negev (and most of the areas of Europe and the Middle East) was covered by an ancient body of water called the Tethys Sea about 100 million years ago. As it began to  recede,  immense geological pressures started pushing and  shoving the terrain into folds, eventually becoming mountain ranges that  all extend in the same direction,  from the southwest to the northeast.  These ranges are clearly visible today and reach from the Sinai to the southern Dead Sea.

רשים מכתש1As the folds, now mountain ranges,  began to rise, deep cracks were created in the top hard limestone.

Rainfall found its way into these cracks, and over time made them deeper. As the cracks became bigger, the water reached the deeper sandstone layers and began to erode the sand away.תרשים מכתש

The harder top layer of limestone eroded slower, the softer sandstone underneath eroded faster, and over several million years, a large cavity in the ridge formed,  and voila… a makhtesh!

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The Makhtesh HaKatan is a beautiful site, an almost perfect bowl,  carved into  the colorful sandstone of the Negev. It is still drained by only one stream and has attained a balance of sorts,  not growing and not shrinking.

It is the smaller of the three makhteshim in the Negev and the first you should visit in order to fully understand this geological phenomenon.

Sitting on the edge of this beauty is quite breathtaking.

This makhtesh is only accessible by foot and walking its many hiking trails is an amazing experience.  The sandstone walls are gorgeous, painted different colors by the amount of oxides in the sandstone; iron makes red, copper makes green, manganese makes orange… there are also browns and purples and whites and yellows, quite a kaleidoscope of colors.

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We will visit the other two makhteshim and go on other Negev adventures in my upcoming posts.

Truly Extraordinary

When in Israel for the first time, or the second, or fifth, one tends to visit the same ol’ places: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed, Caesaria… and there is nothing wrong with that. Great places, wonderful experiences.

However, I  invite you to begin exploring a truly extraordinary region, a desert  unique in its beauty, its geology, wildlife, history and increasing importance in facing today’s global challenges… the Negev.

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Monotheism and the Jewish People were born in the Negev when Abraham chose to settle here so many years ago.  The Israelites wandered through on their way from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  The nomads crisscrossed these rocky sands, so did the Nabateans with their incense-laden, camel caravans journeying from southern Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean.  The Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the founding fathers of the early Christian Church, hermit monks in search of God…

Today the Negev is a desert region that encompasses almost two thirds of Israel’s land area and includes cities, towns, kibbutzim, communities, farms, Jews, Arabs and Bedouins, a world class  university and colleges,  desert studies and agricultural research centers, military facilities, and industrial parks.

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It is an arid and semiarid, rocky desert of  breathtaking beauty, incredible landscapes, fascinating ancient cities and archaeology, unique geological formations… but don’t only take my word for it.

Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013. They write:

” Look closely between the rocks of the wadis (valleys) and you will find water and even wine. The Negev Highlands region is also home to so many vineyards that it now has its own wine route. Today, ecologists from all over the world come to the kibbutzim of Sde Boker and the Arava to study solar energy and water treatment. But this isn’t new. Two thousand years earlier, the Nabataeans cultivated grapes and practically invented desert irrigation, which can still be seen at the ancient ruins of Shivta, Mamshit and Avdat.

This region, comprising 62% of Israel’s land mass, may seem sparse but it offers a world of adventure, including mountain hikes, camel treks, 4WD desert drives and Red Sea diving. “

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In the next few posts I will introduce you to some of my favorite sites in the Negev.   Stay tuned…

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On dogs, caves and a gorgeous hike

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We have a great dog. We do! And we love her to pieces, although she sheds hair like there’s no tomorrow and she jumps on people (just to say hi and play, mind you) and she is as big as a horse and barks very loudly…

But most of all, Na’ala loves to go on hikes and dip and splash in every single puddle or stream she can find. She’s a lab mix, and labs love water!

And so, we aim to please her. And making her happy, makes us happy. Know what I mean?

One of Na’ala’s favorite hikes lately has been to the Aviv Stream canyon, up north near the border of Lebanon. The Aviv Stream spills into the Dishon Stream and eventually drains into the Jordan River in the Hula Valley.

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So today’s topic is a great hike in gorgeous northern Israel, one to be had with family,  friends, lots of photos and of course, your dog.

The start of the walk along Nahal (stream)Aviv is strikingly beautiful, as one walks along the dry river bed through a narrow canyon. As you may notice in my photographs, one of the reasons I mention our dear dog, Na’ala, is that she somehow managed to jump into most of my photographs that day, obviously wanting to be the center of attention. And so be it.

At the start of the hike along the Aviv canyon, one passes impressive karstic formations on either sides of the canyon walls. The karstic geological process, one by which rainwater dissolves and carves out the limestone, leaves interesting formations in the rock.

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In this instance, the rock formations on the right seem to depict ‘maidens’ carved into the canyon walls.

On the other side of the canyon, the hard limestone has been smoothed over and eroded by dripping rainwater, creating a striped, playful combination of colors on the walls.

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The karstic process also digs out and carves a variety of caves in the limestone rock. The Aviv canyon has impressive ones, some of which were inhabited in ancient times. Along the hike we can find a Byzantine era burial cave, with 10 ancient tombs and a decorated entrance. It is very possible this cave was used by the cave-dwellers who lived further down the canyon.

Walking along the marked trail, we arrive beneath the Hanya cave, sitting about a kilometer after the start of the hike, high up on the cliff, accessible by quite a steep, challenging climb. One need not climb up, but to do so is exhilarating!

Hanya Cave as seen from below

This natural cave was carved by humans into a three-storied habitat, where the upper floor has a number of rooms and windows that look over the beautiful valley.

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The trail continues down the stream bed, dotted with blooming flowers and trees. The next stop on the path are the Aviv caves, a large complex of caves that have been carved by nature and its human inhabitants, complete with water cisterns, rock-carved stairs, upstairs and downstairs apartments…

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It is very probable that Byzantine monks lived in these caves in their attempt for isolated meditation about 1500 years ago.  These inhabitants are probably the ones buried in the burial caves we passed an hour ago.  Not only did they create a very livable space in these caves, but they also carved out a wine press into the cliff!  Na’ala found the rainwater-filled, squeezed grape juice reservoir very entertaining. I was just hoping she wouldn’t fall over into the abyss below…

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Nahal Aviv eventually flows into Nahal Dishon, which drains into the larger Jordan River.  The walk along the Dishon is leisurely and we ended the trek a couple of kilometers downriver by the parking lot.

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A big thank you to dear friends,  Zvi and Linda, for suggesting this tiyul (trek, hike, trip) and accompanying us. It is a very satisfying hike; a little history, a little geology, a little adventure, some cave exploration, beautiful scenery, beds of blooming flowers, good friends and a happy pooch… what else can one ask for?

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Olives for a Better World

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Rish Lakish organic olive press… your destination

Picture this:

You are in the beautiful Lower Galilee and feel the need to get out to nature and walk among the lovely, green, oak filled  hills… not only that,  you want to end this leisurely hike in style.  Something different, something interesting, something educational and certainly tasty…

Well, do I have a suggestion for you!

Put on your  walking  shoes and head to Ha’Movil Junction, near Kibbutz Hannaton,  where you will pick up the Israel Trail for 4 mile scenic walk towards the village of Tzippori.  At this time of year, the blooming red, white and purple anemones, the wild irises,  wild orchids and lupines are spectacular.

As you walk in the Tzippori forest, you will pass a few ancient wine presses along the way.  As Christianity spread and Christian pilgrims frequented the Holy Land during the Byzantine times (4th – 7th centuries), the local valleys became dotted with vineyards.  The sacramental wine industry flourished and vintners crushed their grapes close to their vineyards, carving wine presses  from the ubiquitous limestone bedrock.

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Rabbi Yehudah Nasiah’s tomb

When you arrive in the village of Tzippori, you will come upon the grave site of Rabbi Yehudah Nasiah, president of the Sanhedrin in Tzippori from 235 – 265 c.e. His tomb is visited several times a year by believers asking for special favors.

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The rebuilt Crusader Church of St Anne

After a short visit to the tomb, one may wish to visit the Church of St. Anne, originally a Byzantine church built on the ruins of an earlier synagogue, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 614 c.e., rebuilt by the Crusaders in the 12th century, destroyed by the Mamluks and finally rebuilt by the Franciscans in 1879.  Oh, and did I mention the two Argentinian monks who care for the chapel? Complex, I know, but so is this land.

But I have saved the best for last, because now you will end this wonderful hike with a visit to Rish Lakish, an eco-friendly, organic gem.

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800 yr old olive tree

Rish Lakish is a family-run olive press, where hand-picked olives are crushed using ancient and modern methods and their delicate oil extracted to make the most delicious olive oils I have ever tasted. The olives are picked from trees, (some dating back 800 – 1000 years!) surrounding the village of Tzippori and they  produce a variety of high-quality, cold pressed, kosher and organic olive oils.

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The olive press

What is there to learn about olive oil production? Plenty!

  • In order to improve the quality of the olive fruit, the Ancient Romans used to graft different types of olive branches to create new and better breeds.  We still do that today!
  • Olive trees grow in almost every kind of soil, making them the ideal fruit tree. The only soil they do not like is the swamp!
  • Suri olives make oil that is good for cooking; Nabali oil is delicious on salads; and the Rish Lakish specialty, rosemary infused olive oil, is absolutely incredible for cooking vegetables.
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The ‘green’ building was constructed of bales of hay, wrapped in layers of adobe mud. This small window shows one of the bales

The Rish Lakish olive press and small cafe are located in an  environmentally friendly, ‘green building’, that the Noy Meir family built of bales of hay and adobe mud. The menu  includes fresh, organic, vegetarian light meals and mouth watering tastings of their delicious olive oils.  One may purchase their olive oils and olive oil products in their small store, as well.

But best of all, the Rish Lakish olive oil press is involved in Olive Oil Without Borders, a three year project implemented by the Near East Foundation and funded by USAID, whose  subpartners include the Peres Center for Peace and the Palestinian Center for Agricultural Research and Development.  This project aims to strengthen grassroots, cross-border economic cooperation and to promote peace and reconciliation between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Dan Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel, explains the project in this video as he visits Rish Lakish in December of 2012. 

Want to learn more?

The Noy Meir family, Rachel, Micha and Ayalah would love to host you at Rish Lakish. Visits can include organized tours of the olive groves, workshops about olive oil production and ‘green building’ and, a favorite of young visitors, olive picking during the harvest season of  October/November.

Bon Appetit!

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Would YOU throw your children down the precipice?

Yes, I know, its quite a bombastic title, and yes, sometimes we do want to throw our children down the precipice… however, kidding aside, would you be able to, under certain unimaginable circumstances,  kill your children?

There have been such times in Jewish history, during times of oppression, violence, pogroms and most recently the Holocaust, when parents have had to take desperate measures, sometimes throwing children from moving trains destined to slaughter, handing over their children to strangers with no assurance of ever seeing them again, suffocating crying babies in order to save Jews in hiding from detection, or killing children to avoid their being raped, enslaved or killed by approaching enemy soldiers…

I cannot imagine being in such circumstances, however, to stand on the hallowed ground where parents took such measures is deeply moving.  Let me take you to one such place…

We are in northern Israel, on the Golan Heights and this amazing site is Gamla.  The year is 67 c.e. and the Jewish revolt against the Romans is in full swing.  Since not all the towns in the Galilee and the Golan are rebelling, Gamla has filled with refugees from other battles and towns, and with zealots who in their blind rage against the Romans  have decided to take on the most powerful army in the world.  Rebel towns are falling one by one, but Gamla refuses to surrender.

Flavius Josephus, who originally led the Jewish rebel forces in the North and fortified the town, describes Gamla in his book The Jewish War:

Sloping down from a towering peak is a spur like a long shaggy neck, behind which rides a symmetrical hump, so that the outline resembles that of a camel; hence the name, the exact form of the word being obscured by the local pronunciation. On the face and both sides it is cut off by impassable ravines. Near the tail it is  rather more accessible, where it is detached from the hill; but here too, by digging a trench across, the inhabitants made access very difficult.  Built against the almost vertical flank the houses were piled on top of one another, and the town seemed to be hung in air and on the point of tumbling on top of itself from its very steepness. It faced south and its southern crest, which rose to an immense height, served as citadel, resting on an unwalled precipice that went straight down into the deepest ravine…

It is clear how Gamla, from the Hebrew ‘gamal’ (camel), received its name

Agrippa II, the local governor,  lays siege on the town for seven months with no luck; the town is still holding out, hunger and desperation prevail.

Vespasian, the Roman general, and his son Titus arrive from Rome to quell the rebellion and make their way to the Golan.  After several attempts at breaching the walls of Gamla, the Roman soldiers break through and the killing begins… rebels, soldiers, women, children, all hell breaks loose in the tight confines of an overcrowded, walled  hilltop town.

Josephus describes the scene:

Despairing of escape and hemmed in every way, they (the Jews) flung their wives and children and themselves too into the immensely deep artificial ravine that yawned under the citadel.  In fact the fury of the victors seemed less destructive than the suicidal frenzy of the trapped men; 4,000 fell by Roman swords, but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5,000.

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The precipice into which children were flung to their death

Never fails to take my breath away.

A walk around Ancient Gamla is a fascinating study of the lives of Jews during Second Temple times.  It includes one of the few Second Temple era synagogues ever found and several mikvehs (ritual baths).  Archaeological digs here also uncovered a treasure trove of Roman arrowheads, Judean coins, armor pieces, pottery, Roman sandals, ballistic projectiles, battering ram pieces, etc.  Some of these finds are beautifully exhibited in the Hecht Museum in Haifa and are certainly worth the visit.

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The ancient synagogue at Gamla, one of the oldest in the world.

Today Gamla is a Nature Reserve which combines  history and archaeology, great hikes, gorgeous ravines, waterfalls, gorges and a walk through a cluster of Neolithic dolmens.

It is also home to dozens of pairs of Griffon vultures who nest in Gamla’s cliffs, and can be viewed from the cliff-edge observation point and visitors’ center.

On being part of a UNESCO biosphere…

My friend and colleague Ihab is a funny guy, very smart, but most of all, he is a knowledgeable, proud member of the Druze faith and I find him absolutely fascinating.

The other day our Tour Guide class was exploring Mount Carmel, the mountain famous for hosting the city of Haifa on its ridge.  We toured the wonderful Hecht Museum at Haifa University, the Hai Bar animal preserve, the ancient oak groves and the historic Carmelite Nunnery. But Mount Carmel is much more!  It was actually designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996 in part because it “is rich in its biological, geological and geomorphologic diversity with contrasting landscapes, a mixture of agricultural areas and prehistoric and archaeological sites.” (see UNESCO site)

Mount Carmel was chosen as a UNESCO Biosphere because of the unique people that live there as well!  You see, Mount Carmel also houses two Druze villages, Daliat el Carmel and Usfiyye, my friend Ihab’s hometown.

The gorgeous view from Usfiyye

” I love being a part of the UNESCO Biosphere” he declared proudly as he led us  through his village, ” Makes me unique and special!” and so, ladies and gentlemen, he is correct. The Druze are a one-of-a-kind people.

The history of the Druze reaches back about one thousand years, to the days of the Fatimid Caliphate, and the founding of Cairo as their capital in 969 c.e.  The sixth Caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr al-Lah came to power in 996 as a young boy of 12 and was assigned several guardians to rule with him.  In the year 1000, he declared himself emancipated, relieved his guardians of their duties and began a series of controversial and unprecedented progressive reforms that would mark him as one of history’s most enigmatic figures.

Al Hakim ordered the streets of Cairo cleaned regularly, forbade the selling of goods at night in order to prevent cheating, and opened a new Office of Public Complaints.  He also created an advanced academic center, the Dar-al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) and invited astronomers, philosophers, theologians, historians,  mathematicians and other academicians from all over the Muslim world to join him in study.

However, he also persecuted Jews and Christians in his land, confiscated their property, forbade them to employ Muslim workers, forbade the growing of grapes for wine and forced Jews and Christians to wear identifying labels on their clothing.  So much for progress…

Getting back to our story, two of the wise men that accepted Al Hakim’s invitation to join him in  the House of Wisdom were Hamza bin Ali and Nashtakeen ad Darazi from Persia and the three delved deeply into discussions of philosophy and theology.

In 1017, Al Hakim  announced the creation of a new religion based on Islam and blending Islamic monotheism, and some Greek philosophy and Hinduism.  He appointed Hamza as the leader of the new movement, sent him and ad-Darazi out to spread the word, and the newly formed religion started accepting new believers.

The new ideas spread slowly, by word of mouth and personal relationships,  and was especially welcomed by two large tribes in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon who readily adopted the new religion.

A serious conflict soon arose between ad-Darazi and Hamza. Ad Darazi apparently wanted to take over leadership of the budding religion, was named a heretic and a traitor and was eventually put to death.

Al Hakim mysteriously disappeared in 1021, leaving no trace behind except his donkey and some bloodstained clothes. The Druze believe he will one day return…  Hamza went into retreat when Al Hikma disappeared but continued to lead the new religion from his hiding place.

In 1043 c.e., twenty four years after the new religion was announced, its gates were closed and no new converts have been accepted since.

Later historians mistakenly named this new religion Druze after ad-Darazi, even though for some adherents that is insulting since he  is considered a heretic and the first traitor to the faith. The people call themselves al-Muwahhidūn, the Monotheists.

Druze men in traditional dress

The Muwahhidun are unlike the other three monotheistic peoples of this region in some unique ways. I am certainly not an expert, but I find the following beliefs to be the most interesting:

  • All Muwahhidun souls reincarnate, men into baby boys and women in baby girls. No souls are lost, they come back into a Druze baby somewhere around the world. Everyone alive today is the reincarnation of someone who lived before therefore the population of Muwahiddun has remained constant since 1043.
  • Because the Druze believe in reincarnation,  they are buried in simple, name-less  graves and there are no grieving or remembrance rituals for the dead.
  • The Druze faith accepts no converts, no matter how much you want to join. The gates were open for one generation and are now sealed.
  • The Druze argue that individuals who believe that God will forgive them if they fast and pray, will commit transgressions in the expectation of being forgiven – and then repeat their sins. The Druze therefore eliminated all elements of ritual and ceremony from their daily life. There is no fixed daily prayer, no holy days, and no pilgrimage obligations. The Druze believe they live in the presence of God at all times, and need no special days of fasting or atonement.

Druze women in traditional dress

  • The Druze faith is secretive, not only to the outside world, but also to its own uninitiated. The children are not required to follow any rituals, ceremonies or do any learning until the age of 15. From the age of 15, a Druze MAY choose to join the uqqal (“knowers”) at any age, and to learn and follow the ancient tradition. Only around 15% of the Druze eventually make the commitment and join the uqqal.
  • Druze parents do not require their children to learn the religion. Period. (As a Jewish mother, all I have to say to that is… W0w!)
  • A Druze may choose to live a ‘secular’ life and be a part of the juhal (“ignorant ones”) as long as they want. No pressure.  (double Wow!!!)
  • The Druze faith discourages nationalism  but instructs the Muwahhidun to live under whichever government rules their land and as a result the Druze do not seek independence.  The Syrian Druze feel Syrian, the Lebanese Druze love Lebanon and the Israeli Druze identify themselves as Israelis.
  • Israeli Druze feel a very strong bond with Israeli Jews, a ‘Blood Bond’ as they call it,  as the Druze serve in the Israeli military and many have died alongside their Jewish army buddies.

The Druze flag with a Star of David, symbolizing the Blood Bond with the State of Israel

Today, the Muwahhidun live mostly in the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel, although there are Druze communities all over the world.
The lovely village of Usfiyye  is one of two (the other is Daliat al Carmel) that remain from about 22 Druze villages founded in the area starting in the 16th century, the two southern-most Muwahhidun villages in the Middle East.  They are both famous for their strong ties with the people of Israel and their legendary Druze hospitality.  As a matter of fact, Ihab’s grandparents graciously hosted all 45 of us in their home where we were fed a delicious breakfast.

The only remnant of the 5th century synagogue mosaic floor visible today, located in a local home’s front yard!

Usfiyye was built on the ruins of the Jewish village of Husseifa which dates back to the 5th century c.e.  Remnants of an ancient synagogue mosaic floor with the inscription “Peace upon Israel” were found in 1930 in the front yard of one of the local homes!

Not only that,  but a local farmer found a treasure stash of about 4500 ancient Jewish coins from Roman times buried underground, and knowing they were worth much money, sold them slowly, one by one to help his family. The coins  eventually ended up in a museum.
There is more I want to write about the Druze and some of their other villages. For now, this will suffice…
Ihab knows I am writing about him and it embarrasses him slightly. However, he wants me to be sure and invite all visitors to Israel to his beloved Usfiyye. He’ll arrange for a host family to take you in for a delicious meal and who knows, maybe you’ll end up at his grandparents’ home!
Trust me.
Its a treat.

House numbers in Usfiyye, displaying “Peace Upon Israel” image from the ancient synagogue floor