Circassian Summer Festival

The Circassian Festival in Rehaniya offers a rare opportunity to see and experience ancient Circassian traditions firsthand.

VILLAGE RESIDENTS serve traditional dishes and food during the Circassian Festiva (photo credit: MAOR BACHAR)
VILLAGE RESIDENTS serve traditional dishes and food during the Circassian Festiva
(photo credit: MAOR BACHAR)
When a Circassian man wants to get married, he goes to his beloved’s house to abduct her. He knocks on her door, shoots in the air three times and then she joins him.
Although this sounds like something that might take place in Afghanistan and not here in Israel, you’ll be relieved to know that in actuality, the bride is excitedly expecting her groom and has even donned a special gown for the occasion. It is all part of the Circassian traditional wedding ceremony in which the male demonstrates his courage and serious intent to marry his beloved.
The values of honor and respect stand out in many of the Circassian community’s rituals. For example, Circassians would not dare leave a piece of paper or litter in the streets of their village. One of the most important tenets residents of Israel’s two Circassian villages in the Galilee – Kafr Kama and Rehaniya – grow up with is “a house without guests has no blessing in it.” They even bring animals into their homes in the winter to keep them warm.
If I’ve piqued your interest, then you’ll be happy to know that on August 1, the Circassian Festival will begin in Rehaniya, a picturesque village about eight kilometers north of Safed that was established in 1880. About 1,000 people live in the village, all of whom belong to the Circassian Abzakhs tribe, one of 12 Circassian tribes.
The Circassian Festival in Rehaniya offers a rare opportunity to see and experience ancient Circassian traditions firsthand. Once a year, the residents open their homes and their village to the public and offer an up-close glimpse of their colorful culture. The 4,500 Circassians who live in Israel, also known as “mountain people,” serve in the IDF (the men only) and many continue on as career soldiers or join the Israel Police.
Over the millennia, the Circassian community survived a large number of conquests since they had worked diligently to perfect their fighting skills. So much so that when the Mongols arrived, they decided to circumvent the Circassian villages and continue westward, leaving them intact. In ancient times, Circassian boys left home at the age of eight to train as warriors and would only come back home for a visit at 14 when they’d become skilled combatants.
Children in the Circassian community begin learning traditional dance at a young age, which means that everyone in the community is lithe and strong. Every Circassian must know all five of the traditional dances, as well as be proficient in the Circassian language. The dances are a bit like capoeira, the African-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and music.
Circassians in Israel this day wear traditional battle wear on festival days that include special bullet casings, and visitors can watch the traditional dances performed at the festival. At this year’s festival, the main attraction will be a Jordanian group called Nadi Al Jil, which will be performing in Israel for the second time.
COURTSHIP IS an important tradition in Circassian culture. Although they are Muslim, they may marry only one wife, who must also express a desire to marry her husband. A Circassian woman may even be courted by more than one man and then select the one she desires.
After a couple decides to marry, the “abduction ceremony” described above takes place. They keep their decision a secret from their parents and carry out the kidnapping as a surprise. This act is meant to show the groom’s courage and prove his serious intentions. A few days later, the wedding takes place, which is accompanied by a huge celebration, lots of dancing and tasty Circassian cuisine.
Circassian community leaders in Israel go to great efforts to maintain a close relationship with Circassian communities in neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Turkey and the Caucasus, for which they receive special visas. Circassian children come to Israel for a two-week camp, and adults participate in tours around the country and are warmly hosted by Israeli Circassian families.
In addition to being invited to watch the awesome dance performances and gaze at the spectacular costumes at the festival, visitors can also partake in a guided tour of the Circassian museum, which offers a rare glimpse into the fascinating story of the Circassian people. Viewers will be exposed to their history and see traditional clothing, food, household utensils, agricultural tools, musical instruments and typical weapons.
For the first time ever, guests this year will also be invited to partake in cooking workshops that will take place in a number of homes in the village. The menu will be based mostly on dairy specialty dishes that are commonly eaten in the Circassian community. Participants will learn how to prepare haleva, which are fried dough turnovers filled with either potatoes or goat cheese and fried in olive oil, and mataz, which are cheese-filled dumplings.
Guests will also learn how the Circassians’ unique cheese is made.
In the tour of the village, guests will be given a glimpse of the community’s early settlement in Israel, including a visit to a 150-year-old building. The tour will continue to the community’s mosque, which is like no other mosque in the entire Middle East. Visitors are not allowed inside, but you can see just by looking at the exterior how impressive it is. In fact, it is quite reminiscent of Eastern European churches, which is how mosques in the Caucasus look, too. The most notable difference between these mosques and typical Middle Eastern mosques is that the former don’t have minarets.
Other events that will take place during the festival on Wednesday, August 1, include guided tours of the village and the museum; an acrobatic show at 6 p.m.; and the main attraction – the Nadi Al Jil performance – at 8 p.m., which will include a troupe from Rehaniya and a drumming ensemble. The evening will conclude with a festive display of fireworks.
The next day, there will be guided tours of the village and the museum throughout the day. At 7 p.m., there will be a party with traditional music and Circassian dancing.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.