A trip to the Druse and Circassian villages of Galilee reveals ancient battles, sumptuous delicacies and tales of reincarnated souls.
They reside in a variety of villages in the Galilee hills, are fiercely loyal to their homeland, and their menfolk serve bravely in the armed forces. Yet although they have lived in this country for centuries, many of us know little or nothing about Israel's Druse and Circassian minorities.
And no wonder - with only a few notable exceptions (Peki'in and Daliat al-Carmel, for example) their villages have never been tourist spots or offered much in the way of hospitality to strangers.
Times have changed dramatically, however, with both Druse and Circassians beginning to open their homes and the attractions of their villages to outsiders. And what a delightful treat this is, for once you have visited a 400-year-old Druse homestead, tasted mouthwatering Druse pita filled with delicate homemade cheese, stayed in a Circassian bed-and-breakfast, listened to the sound of the ancient Circassian language and heard tales about Circassian methods for raising young warriors, you will want to come back again - and again.
A few months ago, we took a riveting trip to one Circassian and several Druse villages with a group of journalists. Accompanying us was tour guide Farid Fadul, a former naval officer from Peki'in who holds a degree in Land of Israel studies and kept us mesmerized with his stories.
At the Circassian village of Kafr Kama (not to be confused with Kafr Kanna, traditional site of a New Testament miracle), we learned how Circassians came to be living in Israel.
Long ago, Circassians from 12 different tribes lived in the northwestern corner of the Caucasus - a geopolitical region at the meeting point between Europe and Asia. In the 18th century, Peter the Great decided to annex the Caucasus and began the Russian-Caucasian War.
Of all the ethnic populations in the Caucasus, the Circassians held out the longest, but after over 101 years of fighting, in 1864, the Russians completed their bloody conquest. One and a half million Circassians had been slaughtered or killed in battle, and the remaining one million men, women and children were expelled to Turkey.
Six years later, the Turks decided to take advantage of the Circassians' military skills by having them keep order in the Land of Israel.
Indeed, joked Zoher Tehowha from Kafr Kama, the Circassians (called Cherkessim in Hebrew) were this country's very first Border Police. Home to 3,000 people, Kafr Kama is one of only two Circassian villages in Israel; the second is Rehaniya, in Upper Galilee, with 1,000 residents.
Tehowha, who runs the village museum, takes visitors on a tour of Kafr Kama along some of the cleanest lanes, alleys and streets in the whole of Israel. On the way, visitors pass an unusual-looking mosque that replaced the house of worship built here just over a century ago.
The original mosque had closely resembled a Circassian church, said Tehowha. He told us that Circassians had been Christians until they converted to Islam in the 17th century. Then, instead of building mosques for their prayers to Allah, they continued worshiping in churches.
Not surprisingly, when they came to this country, they erected mosques that resembled the Circassian churches. In 1970, however, the mosque here was torn down and this structure put up in its place.
On our visit to the museum, we heard about the cultural changes that have taken place within Circassian society over the last few decades and viewed the museum's rich collection of exhibits. As we explored the utensils, traditional clothing, farming implements, weapons and furniture, we also learned how Circassians hone their martial skills, why men have to have flat stomachs (the women are allowed four centimeters extra), and even what Circassian men do first on their wedding night.
Finally, we were treated to a fantastic breakfast at Kafr Kama's brand-new restaurant, where we ate traditional cheese dishes and wonderful salads.
Over 120,000 Druse live in Israel. One-fifth of the population, located in villages on the Golan Heights, is relatively new to Israel, while the remaining Druse reside on Mount Carmel and in Galilee. We spent the rest of our day in three of their Galilee villages: Kisra, Peki'in and Beit Jann.
Founded in the 11th century, the Druse religion is an offshoot of Islam, but differs markedly in its beliefs. Fadul explained that while you cannot be forced to become a Muslim, you may not abandon the religion once you do. As a result, as the Druse religion spread throughout the Middle East, followers suffered severe persecution.
Until the 13th or 14th century, Druse families in Israel lived in scattered, makeshift colonies near sources of water and in strategically protective hills. One day, however, two hunters looking for hyraxes stumbled upon a cave that led to an ancient cistern filled with water. That seemed like a good site for a permanent settlement, and area Druse flocked to what would become Beit Jann. The village is located nearly 950 meters above sea level, on the ridges of Mount Meron.
Indeed, all the Druse villages to follow were built high in the hills, for reasons of security. When danger approached, the Druse would light torches and send messages from mountaintop to mountaintop - much like the ancient Israelites, who used this method to announce the coming of the new month to their brothers in the Diaspora.
Large by village standards, with a population of over 10,000, Beit Jann has a lot to offer visitors - including overnight accommodations. You can stroll through narrow lanes only wide enough for one loaded donkey to walk through easily, see piles of logs ready for burning in winter, and note how they preserve their very old houses by simply constructing new ones on top of them.
Without a guide, however, you won't spot the hilwe, or Druse house of worship, here or in any other village; it looks just like any other building. Probably because they have been persecuted so often, the Druse tend to live humbly and try not to be noticed.
Only 15 percent of the Druse are religious, and they are the only ones allowed to pray in the hilwe and access the holy books.
Fadul noted that the Druse have only recently begun to make public one of their main principles: At the moment of death, the soul of the deceased enters the body of a newborn infant somewhere in the world. If you are lucky, some of the Druse you meet will tell you stories proving that they, or family members, have lived former lives.
Beit Jann resident Nadil Halabi has opened his family's ancestral home to strangers. On the way there, he led us through the village, explaining which donkey gets to go first if two beasts of burden happen to be going up and down the street at the same time. He also showed us where the "lost market" once stood. A center for village gossip, it was also the first place you looked when you couldn't find your child.
Halabi stopped us at the house of a family whose son was killed while serving in the IDF. Here we learned that there were dozens of such families in Beit Jann. In fact, said Halabi, relative to the population, a greater percentage of people in Beit Jann have lost family members in the line of duty than anywhere else in Israel.
The roof on this house stretches to cover at least four others. This proved useful during the Turkish rule of Israel, when Druse children were taken forcibly into the Turkish army and the young men rarely returned. The Druse had an efficient way of avoiding this conscription: When the Turks approached, people would knock on the common walls or on doors that led into hollow cupboards; village boys would then climb from rooftop to rooftop and escape the village.
Halabi then took us to the hyrax hunters' famous cistern, located in the courtyard of the old homestead where his family has lived since the very beginning of Beit Jann. We were then invited into the family diwan (room for offering hospitality), where we tasted baklawa and drank tea while listening to tales about the village and its people.
We continued our day with a trek through the geological wonders of Park Hasela'im - a rock park full of natural sculptures and thick foliage - and then moved on to the adjacent, unusually colorful Druse village of Kisra.
The Kabalan family recently opened up its centuries-old home to visitors and filled their old stable with authentic tools and utensils. We were privileged to combine a fascinating peek into Druse life with a taste of delectable, labane-filled pita and a variety of delicious sambusa.
Long open to visitors, the mainly Druse village of Peki'in can be your last port of call. Peki'in, where Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai hid in a cave for over a decade nearly 2,000 years ago, has a spring some consider holy, and a wonderful sculptor who was indisposed the day we visited.
Instead, we were treated to Druse dance and music at the home of a bus driver with a joyful heart and some incredibly touching stories. His living room was decorated with traditional garments and headgear, woven baskets, and the Israeli flag.
Finally, we devoured a wonderful meal in the house where the mukhtar - the head of the village - once lived. Kamal Abbas is one of his descendents. Born in Peki'in, he moved with his family to Tel Aviv as a child. When he returned to the village of his birth, he found his 400-year-old ancestral home desolate. Now, years later, he has finished restoring it to its former beauty and enjoys offering food and village tales to visitors.