Druze dynasty: A family history worth telling

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As a people who value privacy, the history of the Druze has often been misunderstood. To tell the stories of the prominent Arslan family, and of their links to other Arabian royal families, a museum has opened in Aley, Mount Lebanon.

The story of the Druze family of Arslan, descendants of the third-century Lakhmids kings in southern Iraq, begins with the survival of an infant after a massacre of the tribe’s men by the Crusaders.

Thirty-three Arslan princes were killed at a river north of Beirut, known ever since as Nahr El Mawt, or the River of Death.

Decades later in 1187, under the leadership of the legendary Saladin, the baby had grown to become Prince Jamaleddine Hujji the First, chief of the Arslan Druze tribe.

Along with the Tanukhi Druze, they fought and fended off the Crusaders from the Mount Lebanon area.

The Arslan name appears throughout the region’s history. Prince Toufic Arslan was one of the major figures behind the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920 and his son, Prince Majid, was one of the country’s independence leaders in 1943.

Stories like these are the legacy of Princess Diala Arslan, one of the younger members of the oldest Druze families, who now lives in Dubai with her husband and two sons.

“We want the story of our family and place in history to always be remembered,” Princess Diala says. To keep those memories alive, and to tell a story with links to other royal families in the Arabian Gulf, a museum has been opened in a palace in honour of her father, Prince Faisal, who passed away in 2009.

It is the first of its kind in the Arab world and an unprecedented move for a group who have always valued privacy.

The Druze religion traces its origins to 11th-century Egypt and, while there are nearly two million Druze in the Levant today, few know much about their way of life.

Always a minority, they have always adapted to their surroundings. At the heart of their faith is the Epistles of Wisdom, or Rasa’il Al Hikma.

The origin of the name Druze is traced to Nashtakin Ad Darazi, one of the first preachers of the religion, although they prefer to be called Al Muwahhidun (Unitarians) or Bani Maarouf (The people of goodness).

They are an exoteric group whose religion incorporates concepts close to Sufism, Greek philosophy and gnosticism. You are born into the religion, you cannot convert.

“There are many misconceptions about the Druze, and so one of the ways to tell our story is through our home,” says Princess Diala. “Every corner of the house has a story.”

But to open the palace last April was not a random choice. It was done to honour a tree’s birthday.

“The cedar tree planted by [my] great grandfather turned 100 years old this year. It is symbolic of the survival and endurance of an ideology and love for a home and country,” she says.

It was planted on April 15, 1915, by Prince Toufic after he was forced to leave his home by the Ottomans for exile in Anatolia, only to return at the end of the First World War in 1918 and lobby heavily for Greater Lebanon.

The majestic cedar is the first thing anyone sees as they approach the L'Emir Faisal Arslan Museum.

Built in 1895, the palace is perched on a hillside in the Aley area of Mount Lebanon, reached by a series of twists and turns along the Damascus road.

Inside the 12-room, white and beige stone structure is a combination of Oriental arches and European medieval towers. It houses treasures from old documents, books and manuscripts, to weapons, cannon and tokens from important historical periods, such as the creation of Greater Lebanon and then its 1943 independence.

One example is the Arslan family registry in Kufic writing, from 800AD. More recently there are relics from the 1948 war with Israel, including helmets from the Haganah defence forces and a cannon from Nazareth. A French chest from the time of Napoleon Bonaparte shares space with porcelain washstands dating to 1920.

There are 19th-century items from Syria, such as a mother of pearl antique bridal chest, and Ottoman antiques, such as a tapestry designed as currency.

When the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi visited he presented an 18th-century Persian Tabriz carpet. Other guests included Prince Moulay Abdallah of Morocco, who came in 1961 while preparing to marry Lamia Solh, the daughter of the first prime minister of Lebanon, Riad Solh, and the former Qatari emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani.

There are also less visible historic stories tied to the castle, such as tunnels that connect to the other end of the Damascus road. They were dug by the British army when Maj Gen Sir Edward Spears lived at the palace with the Arslan family, during the fight for independence.

They were used by the British army during the Second World War, then by the Arslans during the Lebanese civil war.

The L’Emir Faisal Arslan Museum is private, with plans to open it to the public on special occasions. At present it is open for free tours only through request to the museum.

“We still live there, so there are certain parts that will remain closed off to the public, but people are welcome to visit by request and will be given a tour of our family’s story,” says Princess Diala.

The Druze are known for their love of the land and their sense of Arabism. They also pride themselves on being of pure Arab blood because only Druze marry Druze.

The current chief of the tribe is Princess Diala’s uncle, Prince Talal, who formed the Lebanese Democratic Party in 2001 and held many ministerial positions. The other ruling Druze camp in Lebanon is led by Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, who is related to the Arslans.

He is the maternal grandson of Prince Shakib Arslan, known as Amir Al Bayan or the Prince of Eloquence because apart from being a politician, he was an influential writer, poet and historian.

Adel Arslan, Shakib’s brother, joined King Faisal I in establishing the first post-Ottoman government in Damascus, serving as the new king’s private secretary. He also became head of the royal diwan to Faisal’s brother, Prince Abdullah, the founder of modern Jordan. He was an important figure in Syrian politics as foreign minister in 1949.

Traditionally two branches of Druze have lived in Lebanon. The Yemeni Druze, led by the Hamdan and Al Atrash families, and Kaysi Druze, led by the Arslan and Jumblatt families.

The Hamdans were banished from Mount Lebanon after the battle of Ain Dara in 1711. They migrated to the Jebel-Druze region in south-west Syria.

One distinct characteristic often found in the Arslan family is their blue-green eyes.

“It is from marrying the prominent Chehab family, and how we only married within ourselves,” the princess says. The Chehab are a noble Sunni family originating from Qurayesh of Mecca.

“But that is changing as more and more Druze are marrying non-Druze. Before, you could get killed for marrying a non-Druze.”

The most famous example is Amal Alamuddin, from one of the biggest Druze families, the human-rights lawyer who married American actor George Clooney last year.

As for the religion, Princess Diala says it is much misunderstood, including claims that they do not fast or pray.

“Some call us Kufar [unbelievers], or non-Muslims, but we believe in the Quran and the more religious of us pray and fast like Muslims.

“Alcohol is not allowed, and we always pray and are quite conservative. The difference lies in the fact we also believe in the other book, the Book of Wisdom.”

Druze also believe in reincarnation and in the country where they reside, their affairs are governed by a special set of religious laws.

She dismisses any links to Freemasonry, which began in medieval Europe as a guild for stonemasons, but has acquired a reputation for secrecy and influence.

The Druze believe in one God and seven prophets – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. They have a special reverence for Jethro and make an annual pilgrimage to his town at the Horns of Hittin in what is now Israel.

They wear the five-coloured Star of Druze, representing five cosmic principles: intelligence and reason (green), soul (red), word (yellow), precedent (blue) and immanence (white).

The ordained are called uqqal, or “the enlightened”, and have full knowledge of all the holy texts. They live simply and traditionally, away from technology and luxury, rejecting material things such as television. They avoid bright colours.

Women wear a headscarf tied in a particular style, and men a headpiece with a moustache and beard. The elders often have a very distinct accent and spend most of their time in the mountains.

“The sheikhs or sheikhas, or the elders, spend their time with nature. They eat what they grow. The Druze have strong farming traditions and are very proud of their land and their gardens,” says Princess Diala.

“At the heart of it, the Druze are not different from other religions, they just like to keep to themselves.”

For more information, visit www.faisalarslanmuseum.org