The Druze are the Mormons of the Middle East, or perhaps the Scientologists, members of a sect that most people know nothing about and about whom all sorts of wild stories have come about. The Druze arose out of Ismaili Shia Islam in the 10th century under the ruler of the Fatimid Caliph Hakim. The Druze believe that Hakim was the incarnation of God and the religion grew out of that, drawing heavily on Christianity and Plato. They maintain all the prophets of Christianity and Islam but have a large streak of Gnosticism. For centuries the Druze community was persecuted for their beliefs that most considered to be heretical. Thus they practiced the Islamic doctrine of taqiyyeh, concealing one’s religion to avoid persecution. Because of this, the Druze religion has always been secretive and among the Druze the people are even divided into two groups, uqqal (knowledgeable) and juhhal (ignorant). Those who are “knowledgeable” have access to all the secrets of the religion and form the religious and political backbone of the community. Today there are large numbers in Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. Most Druze consider themselves Arab, and thus most Israeli Druze, most of whom live in the occupied Golan Heights, stay loyal to Syria. Inside unoccupied Syria, however, most of the Druze live in the area known as the Jebel Arab. They make up one of the wealthiest communities in Syria but are noticeably insular, and thus many people look at them slightly suspiciously.
The Jebel Arab lies only an hour and a half to the south of Damascus and is a small hilly land that rises out of the Harran plains. Heading into the Jebel al-Arab reminds me why I love Syria so much. It is such a diverse country, full of so many communities, that each area of the country is like a whole new country with its own traditions and even with their own accents. One of the first things you may notice when entering Druze country is the complete lack of minarets. The Druze do not build traditional mosques, and the call to prayer is not done. Instead you will recognize houses of worship as discreet buildings flying the druze flag.
Another thing you will immediately notice is that in general Druze are a lot lighter. Many have red hair, freckles, or blue eyes.
The capital of Druze country is Suweida, a town that is worth a visit for three things: its wonderful museum, excellent kebobs, and ubiquitous arak (anis-based spirit). Most people who make it into the Jebel Arab stop here, but the region has much more to offer. One of these is the town of Shahba, a town that contains a plethora of basalt Roman ruins and a wonderful mosaic museum. The main attraction of Shahba is the towering Roman baths, but there is also a nice Roman theater. Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, is how Shahba, a small down in rural Syria can feel more modern that parts of Damascus. Part of it has to do with the wealth of the Druze. The other part is that the Druze, like most minorities in Syria (i.e. Druze, Alawis, Christians, Ismailis), carry a bit of a more liberal air. The women are dressed in the most stylish fashions available in Syria, trotting around on stone streets in high heels. But even with the modern influence, you can still spot many elder Druze women wearing the traditional white scarf and veil that they are known for.
Nearby to Shahba is Qanawaat, another small town that contains a magnificent old basilica, as well as a nice Roman temple. Outside the temple there are a few vendors selling goods, but other than that there is no trace of tourism.
The Jebel Arab do not contain the most impressive ruins in Syria and are probably not worth a visit unless you have a lot of time, but they do provide an interesting insight into one of Syria’s most interesting minorities, the Druze. And one thing is for sure: you will likely be the only one there and be treated as a welcome guest by curious Druze wondering why you are there. It’s also likely that you’ll get a few stares, just as did when I sitting on the side of the road when of a whole school full of teenage girls came running by giggling, smiling, laughing, and daring each other to come and talk to me. Two finally did, shouting out “Hello” in English, but when I replied in Arabic, they got scared and ran away.