An Insignificant Hill

An Insignificant Hill

Tel Hannaton 022

The view from my front porch

Looking out my front porch, I enjoy oaks and pines, vast olive groves, a beautiful Beit Netofah valley floor checkered with shades of green and brown agricultural fields,  two mountain ranges dotted with Bedouin villages and a small, green hill in the middle of it all.

In Israel, however, one can never make assumptions or think that something seemingly benign can’t have deep, historical meaning. Like this green hill. Right outside my window. The insignificant one.

Tel Hannaton may seem like a nothing hill, but the history of this artificial mound (tel) goes back over 3500 years! It happens to be located at an important crossroad; on the Via Maris, the ancient road leading from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and on the road from Damascus to Akko, an important port on the Mediterranean Sea.

We first learn of Tel Hannaton in the El-Amarna letters, 380 clay tablets (written in Akkadian and found in excavations in Egypt), used as correspondence between the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who eventually called himself Akhenaten) and Burnaburiash, king of Babylon.  Tablet number 8  translates like this:

To Akhenaton,  King of Egypt, my brother, to say:
Thus speaks Burnaburiash King of Babylon, your brother.
I am well. To your country, your house, your women,
your sons, your ministers, your horses, your chariots,
many greetings. I and my brother have signed a treaty,
and I spoke thus: Like our fathers, who were friends, we will be friends.
And now, my merchants who traveled with Ahutabu delayed in Canaan for business.
After Ahutabu set out on his way to my brother and in the town of Hanatun which is in Canaan,
Shumda Son of Baluma and Shutatna Son of Shartum from Akko
sent their men there. They beat my merchants and stole their money.
Ahutabu , whom I sent to you, is before you. Ask him and he will tell you.
Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed.
Bind them and return the money they robbed.
And the men who murdered my slaves, kill them and avenge their blood.
Because if you do not kill these men, they will again murder
my caravans and even my ambassadors, and the ambassadors between us will cease.
If this should happen the people of the land will leave you.

Don’t know about you, but I find it spectacularly fabulous that a Babylonian king wrote to an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh about wanting his money back because his merchants were robbed outside my front porch about 3500 years ago. “And if you don’t give me my money back”, he states, “I won’t be your friend no more!”

Tel Hannaton has several more claims to fame:

  • It is mentioned in the Bible (book of Joshua 19:14) , as being the northern border of the lands of the tribe of Zebulon.
  • Tiglath Pileser III

    Tiglath Pileser III

    Our dear friend Tiglath Pileser III(732 b.c.e), King of Assyria, carved the stories of his victorious military campaigns on the walls of his grand palace in Nineveh and boasted that he conquered and plundered five Canaanite cities, the fifth one being… you guessed it, Hannaton!

  • The Greeks, the Jewish priestly families, the Romans, all left their mark in the area
  • The Crusaders built an agricultural farm at Hannaton in the 13th century, during their 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It is the ruins of this Crusader building that are still visible under the ground.

    Tel Hannaton 010

    Entrance to the underground dining hall at Tel Hannaton, exhibiting typical Crusader arches and masonry

  • The Mamelukes first, then the Ottomans turned the Crusader structures into a caravanserai, a roadside inn where travelers and their animals could rest and recover from the day’s journey.
  • Tel Hannaton is called Tel Badawiyya in Arabic, from the Arabic word for Bedouin, nomad.

Tel Hannaton was partially excavated in the 1980’s but has remained untouched for many years.

Today, school children on educational seminars at the Hannaton Educational Center visit and learn about the site, and it also gets visits from occasional curious families and hikers.

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Israeli school children on a visit to the underground ruins of a Crusader farm building on Tel Hannaton

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Typical Crusader architecture windows provide light in the underground room

But for me, its a constant companion, the ancient hill outside my front window.

Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton

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You Just Never Know What’s Down There –  the fascinating story of the Hospitaller citadel in Acco

You Just Never Know What’s Down There – the fascinating story of the Hospitaller citadel in Acco

There is a law in Israel that states that when you start digging (to build a house, to clear a field, to fix a plumbing problem) and you come upon strange looking artifacts or stones (which happens VERY often), you must contact the Antiquities Authority immediately. They arrive and start a salvage archaeological dig… because you NEVER know what’s down there!

First, a brief history…

The Crusades begin at the close of the 11th century,  and the Christian armies plunder, loot,  pillage and kill Jews in European villages along the way.  They arrive in the Holy Land in 1099 with the intention of expelling the Muslim “infidels” out of Jerusalem and reclaim it for Christendom. They manage to conquer the city, massacre its inhabitants (Muslims and Jews alike) and thus begins the 1st Kingdom of Jerusalem,  lasting almost one hundred years.

As part of the Crusader effort to take control of the rest of the Holy Land, they start conquering other cities, laying siege to Acco on the Mediterranean Coast and taking it in 1104. Acco becomes their main sea port. The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar Orders build their headquarters in Jerusalem and establish small quarters in Acco, as well.

On July 4th, 1187, the Muslim army under the command of Salah al-Din, massacre the Crusader army at Karnei Hittin and the Christians lose their foothold on the Holy Land. Four years later, Richard the Lionheart leads the 3rd Crusade back to the Holy Land and re-establishes them as the 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, they never regain Jerusalem from the Muslims and they must make do with Acco, which becomes their capital city and headquarters for the next one hundred years.

The Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar rebuild their headquarters in Acco, and here is where our story gets interesting.  The Hospitallers build a massive, magnificent citadel in the northwestern corner of the city which travelers and pilgrims  praise and describe in their journals.  The citadel includes a hospital, a sugar storage facility, dormitories, dining halls and churches, all the necessary requirements to make life easier for the Christian pilgrim.

In the end, the Mamluk Muslim army slowly drives the Crusaders out of the Holy Land and in 1291 allow the remnants to escape by sea from Acco.  To insure that the Crusaders never return, the Mamluks begin a systematic destruction of all Crusader citadels and in the process leave the city of Acco in ruins.

The magnificent city lays under rubble for over 400 years, until the arrival of Daher el-Omar (fascinating guy), who decides to rebuild it around 1750.  He and his successor, Ahmed al Jazzar resolve, and rightly so, to rebuild on top of the ruins instead of first clearing the rubble. They choose to build their palaces right on top of the Knights Hopitaller remains.

de Bruin sketch 1679

Look at the sketch above. It was drawn by Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruijn, who traveled in the Holy Land in 1679 and sketched the Hospitaller citadel ruins. Notice the stairway and the arches underneath, and the second and third stories destroyed by the Mamluks. This is the ruin that Daher el-Omar and al Jazzar filled in and built their palace over.

One hundred years later, the Ottomans convert the palace into a government center and a large prison, to which they send their choicest  prisoners.  The British, who replace the Ottomans, also use the prison to house agitators, both Arabs and Jews (and oh, the stories we can tell of this prison…)

After the creation of the State of Israel, the prison area is turned into a museum, commemorating the  imprisonment of many underground Jewish fighters and their daring escapes. In the late 1960’s, a tunnel was dug under one of the prison cells, a chamber where the visitor stood suspended on dirt and debris, almost able to touch the immense vaulted ceiling of what was believed to be the Hospitaller crypt, an underground burial site.  Many Israelis remember entering the dark, underground chamber as children on class field trips in the 1970’s and 80’s.

Archaeologists and historians knew that there was SOMETHING down there, but what?!?

citadel courtyard 2In 1992, the Antiquities Authority began the monumental task of excavating the Ottoman/British prison compound. Very slowly, the prison recreational yard, where  prisoners relaxed, played soccer and plotted escapes for over a century was dug up.

As the excavations progressed the archaeologists were becoming more and more  puzzled by the finds. They uncovered  a plethora of artifacts from the most unexpected historical eras; Early Bronze Age lying next to Crusader, Hellenistic and Persian! It didn’t make any sense.

It took a while for the story to become clear, the reason as to why all this mishmash of artifacts was being uncovered under the prison compound.  It turns out that in his effort to build the infrastructure for his city, Daher el-Omar in the 18th century decided to flatten out the area by filling it with dirt and debris so as to create a stable foundation for their buildings. And where did their workers haul tons of dirt from? The nearby Tel Acco, of course, the hill where the urbanization of ancient Acco started almost 5,000 years ago!

Ancient Acco began on a hill just a few kilometers to the east of the Crusader compound, where it remained throughout the Bronze Age, Iron Age, right through to the 4th century BCE. It was only then, during Persian and Greek times,  that the inhabitants came down from the ‘tel’ and settled the small peninsula where the Old City sits today.

citadel courtyard

As the excavations proceeded, archaeologists discovered they were right in the center of the Knights Hospitaller compound, in the courtyard as a matter of fact, with a well and water reservoir, public latrines, (remember the stairway from de Bruijn’s sketch above?) magnificent stairway to the second story and some of the most beautiful Crusader architecture ever found. Restoration and conservation work began in the early 2000’s and is still going on today.

The Knights Hospitaller citadel courtyard sits today as it did 800 years ago

The Knights Hospitaller citadel courtyard sits today as it did 800 years ago

This is only one story from the Knights Hospitaller citadel compound. I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent Knights Halls, or the sugar production, or the crypt that turned out to be a refectory or the prison dungeon… and what about the Baha’is, the Rambam, the Ramban and the Ramchal, and Napoleon for goodness sake’s! And where does the name Acre come from, and the Turkish baths, and Zeev Jabotinsky, and why was Paul Newman (yes, the gorgeous one) here?

There are so many more stories and places to see and enjoy.   

Come to Acco. Its fabulous.

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

As I mentioned before,  Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013, not only for its sheer beauty, but also for the variety of interesting places, fascinating history, diverse people and the many adventures and quiet meditative moments one can experience here.

And now, after we’ve peeked into the awe inspiring Small Makhtesh, toured Mamsheet‘s ancient streets and Nabatean Market, collected colorful sands in the Large Makhtesh, we come to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the beautiful Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon.

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First and foremost, Makhtesh Ramon is the Grand Canyon of Israel.  Created by erosion of sandstone and limestone layers over millions of years, this makhtesh is the largest such geological formation in Israel, stretching about 40 km from end to end and 2-10 km wide.  The makhtesh has been a thriving habitat for many species of animals and plants and a crossroads for nomadic people for millennia.

For tourism, activities and accommodation purposes, the town overlooking the makhtesh is Mitzpe Ramon, a small community with a lot to offer.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this post due to the great number of options and adventures available in the area.  I finally decided to create a list, a mere sample of the many wonderful things to do near Makhtesh Ramon…

What would YOU like to do?

  • Hike in the gorgeous desert with your family?
  • Sleep in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Bedouin hospitality?
  • Hunt for fossils?
  • Ride a camel along the ancient Nabatean Incense Route?
  • Take a jeep tour through millions of years of the geological timeline?
  • Learn how Israel leads the world in anti-desertification techniques?
  • Study the stars in the pitch black night of the desert?
  • Taste the delicious produce grown here and exported to the world?
  • Stay at a 5-Star hotel with the most amazing view from your personal, outdoor pool?
  • Get cozy with alpacas (?!?) who happen to thrive in the desert climate?
  • Go wine tasting at award winning boutique wineries?
  • Learn about David Ben Gurion’s dream, visit his home and his graveside?
  • Rest and relax in one of the many B&Bs in the area?

Now lets make a partial list of great experiences to be had in the Mitzpe Ramon area, not in any particular order:

1.  (hiking, archaeology) Khan Saharonim– In the heart of Makhtesh Ramon lay the ruins of one of the Nabatean caravansaries (khan) on the ancient Incense Route from Yemen to Gaza. The Nabateans were THE expert desert travelers 2000 years ago, building an empire based on the trade of incense, spices and perfumes, and here they rested their camels and their weary bodies on their months long journey.

IMG_2367(fossils, hiking) Ammonite Wall – Ammonites were large mollusks that lived in the ancient seas and became extinct 65 million years ago.   They moved around by filling their shells with air and then releasing it. When the Ammonites died, they floated and were carried toward shallower waters  close to shore. Thus, great numbers of Ammonite shells collected in one place. One of these Ammonite graveyards can be seen right outside Makhtesh Ramon.

IMG_23353. (modern Israeli history, museum) Ilan Ramon Center – Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, loved the Makhtesh Ramon area so much, that as a young pilot, he changed his family name to Ramon, in honor of this spectacular geological formation. He was one of Israel’s heroes but his life was tragically cut short when he perished with the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. A museum honoring his legacy was just opened, overlooking the spectacular makhtesh . Definitely worth the visit.

4.  (luxury, location location location)  The Beresheet Hotel –  Situated on the edge of the towering cliffs of the makhtesh and blessed with a breathtaking view, this exceptional hotel is pure luxury. 

room with a pool5. (entrepreneurship, animals, family fun)  The Alpaca Farm – One of the strangest experiences one encounters near Mitzpeh Ramon is at this farm, where one can get up close and personal with a herd of alpacas and llamas … yes, you heard it right.  IMG_2356Straight from the Andes Mountains, these camel relatives are thriving in the Negev Highlands, where the air is cold and crisp at night and the altitude is just right.  Sheep, horses and other critters make for a fun day for the whole family.

6. (astronomy)  Star gazing, anyone? – My friend Ira Machevsky leads guided, customized tours of the starry desert night, the clearest sky in the country.  No astronomy experience is necessary… just bring a warm jacket and enjoy!

DSC_0326-300x2007. (entrepreneurship, wine tasting, food) Rujum Winery – When the Nabateans converted to Christianity in the 3rd century CE, they turned their agricultural efforts to the growing of vineyards in the desert in order to supply wine during the Byzantine Era.  The high desert plain actually produces excellent grapes  due to the loose soil, bright sunshine and extreme temperature differences between night and day and the seasons of the year.

gallery_20-300x2008. (eco-tourism)  Eco Desert Lodge – “We are not a 5-Stars, we are a million stars” is their motto. I love that!  Check out this amazing lodge with different desert accommodation options. Romantic  🙂

camels9. (culture, Bedouins, food)  Bedouin Encounters – If you are interested in the REAL thing, an authentic encounter with Israeli Bedouins, this is the place.  Stay at a Bedouin village, sleep communally in a Bedouin tent, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared in front of you, ride camels, chat with Sheikh Salman, leader of this Bedouin clan.  Spartan conditions, unforgettable experience!

And we haven’t even made a dent in the myriad activities and experiences to be had in the central Negev, let alone in the Arava Valley to the west or the magnificent Eilat Mountains and beaches to the south.

Lonely Planet is right. The Negev is THE destination of choice for the travel aficionado!

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.

Jewish Continuity

Every once in a while you come upon a place that moves you in inexplicable ways.  Its not its beauty, nor its history, or its people or the food… its the combination of it all that makes you pause and think  “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this place!”

Well, Pki’in is one of those places.  This village of about 4,500 inhabitants lies high above the Pki’in Valley, the geological divide between the Western and Central Upper Galilee in Northern Israel.

The mountainous Upper Galilee has always been somewhat remote, more so in the past, where those who wished to get away escaped to in their time of need.  Many found refuge in these gorgeous mountains and their out-of-the-way villages; Jews, Druze, Muslims and Christians.

The Rashbi’s cave – not much space for two people for 12 years + 12 months, but its a good story

The Talmud tells the story that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (the Rashbi) hid here with his son Elazar as they escaped the wrath of the Romans after the Bar Kochba rebellion of 135 ce.  They lived in a local cave for 12 years, where the Rashbi composed his famous kabbalist work, the Zohar, and were fed by a secret spring and a carob tree.  Elijah the Prophet came to tell them of the death of the Roman emperor and to encourage them to emerge.  However, as they looked around and saw that the village people were going about their daily business, they complained and became very annoyed and in return for their arrogance, were punished by being commanded to return to the cave for an additional 12 months.

And yes, you too can pay a visit to this legendary cave! Follow the signs down the hillside stairs and with LOTS of imagination you can re-enact the whole story…

Archaeological evidence  shows the first permanent settlements here began during the Iron Age (circa 1000 bce) and the first recorded Jewish inhabitants begin to arrive towards the end of  Second Temple times (1st century ce).

As a matter of fact, what put Pki’in on the map, so to speak, was that very Jewish presence…  In the early 20th century, as Jews started returning to the land of Israel, trying to build their Zionist dream, a call went out to document continuous Jewish presence in the land for the last 1800 years, from the exile of the Jews till the 20th century.

A lovely, colorful, picturesque village

Yitzhak Ben Zvi, a historian who later became the 2nd President of the State of Israel,  leads a research project to find these pockets of Jewish continuity. He believes that the obvious choices would be Jerusalem, Safed, Jaffa, Nablus, towns with hundreds of years of Jewish presence. However, he soon realizes that none of the bigger cities qualify, since at one point or another, Jewish people were forbidden from living there.

Turns out that only two places had a continuous Jewish presence for 1800 years, the southern Judean hills, around Hebron and Arad and the small villages of the Eastern Upper Galilee, such as Pki’in.  Ben Zvi decides to concentrate on Pki’in because in the early 1920’s, it still had a small Jewish community.  (In 1931, the British census counted 52 Jews living in Pki’in among its 799 inhabitants).

In 1922, Ben Zvi publishes a research paper called “The Jewish Community of the Village of Pki’in” and in it he declares that Pki’in was indeed a symbol of Jewish continuity in the Land of Israel, a symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness.  Pki’in receives instant celebrity status, and becomes a pilgrimage destination for youth organizations, school field trips and curious travelers.

The village center square, where the ancient spring still flows

Whether Yitzhak Ben Zvi was correct in his assertion that Pki’in has had a continuous Jewish presence for over 1800 years is still controversial, and adds to the mystique of this place.  However, we do have the writings of Italian Rabbi Moses Basola, who traveled to Jerusalem from 1521-1523  and on his way documented his meetings with the Jewish people of Pki’in.

Pki’in’s first Druze inhabitants arrive around 900 years ago with the birth of their new religion and its dispersal around the the mountains of the Galilee and the Golan.  The village’s first Christians arrive in the 14th century.

Margalit Zeynati, Pki’in’s last Jewish resident

Life  in the Upper Galilee during the 19th century was harsh and many of its inhabitants, including the Jews, leave for better pastures. In 1900, only twenty Jewish families remain in Pki’in and after WWI the number dwindles to around twelve.  During the 1936-1939 Arab rebellion, the Jews are evacuated and only three families return.  As of 1949, the Zeynati family is the only Jewish family left in Pki’in, desperately clinging to  hundreds of years of Jewish continuity in the village.

Today, Pki’in is a mixture of cultures, 70% Druze, 28% Christians, a few Muslim families and one Jew… an elderly woman named Margalit Zeynati.

Margalit is the sole remnant the Zeynati family. She has been taking care of the ancient Jewish sites and the synagogue for years, and now she is tired. Very tired.

She has never married and has no children.

Now what?  Who will keep the doors of the synagogue open? Who will sweep the courtyard and welcome the tourists with large tubs of berries from the overgrown tree?

Will this really be the final chapter of  the ‘symbol of survival, longevity and steadfastness’ of Jewish continuity?

Kinda breaks my heart… I am sure Yitzhak Ben Zvi is quite upset as well.

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