Genetic research claims to trace mysterious origins of Israel’s Druze
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Genetic research claims to trace mysterious origins of Israel’s Druze

Controversial genome 'GPS' study suggests religious minority migrated to Levant from mountains of Turkey, Iraq; author asserts similarity to Ashkenazi Jews

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

File: Israeli Druze from the village of Yarka attend a demonstration in support of their brethren in Syria threatened by fighting in that country's civil war, June 14, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
File: Israeli Druze from the village of Yarka attend a demonstration in support of their brethren in Syria threatened by fighting in that country's civil war, June 14, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Researchers may have unraveled part of the mystery of the enigmatic Druze religion’s history and ancestry.

A study of Israeli Druze genetics published last week in Scientific Reports of Nature may help shed light on the secretive religious sect’s history and ancestry. Researchers examined a sample of genes from members of the country’s 130,000 Druze in an attempt to better understand the origins of the group.

Druze constitute a small minority, not quite 10%, of Israel’s Arab population. Around 138,000 of the world’s estimated 2.3 million adherents call Israel home; Syria is home to half a million and Lebanon to another 250,000.

Israel recognized the Druze as a distinct religious community in 1956. Since then, Druze are required to serve in the IDF.

The religion splintered off from Shia Islam in the late 10th century CE and spread to the Levant by the following century. Its actual beliefs and practices are kept a close secret by its members, but its theological principles draw from Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and a variety of other faith systems. One aspect of Druzism until recently was strict endogamy — marrying within the clan — a practice which began around the 12th century.

According to Druze authors writing centuries later, persecution of the faithful between 1021 and 1042 sent Druze fleeing for refuge from Levantine cities to the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and northern Israel that they inhabit today.

“The racial origins of the Druze have been the subject of wild speculation over the years,” University of Haifa historian Kais Firro noted in his 1992 “A History of the Druzes.” The theories have ranged from the “curious and amusing” to the “naive and strange,” including “Arameans, Arabians, Samaritans, Cuthites, Hivites, Armenians, Persians, and Turks, more strangely the French and British, and even the Tibetans,” he wrote.

Eran Elhaik (Courtesy)
Eran Elhaik (Courtesy)

The new study, supervised by University of Sheffield population geneticist Eran Elhaik, sought to put some of the more dubious theories to rest by using the geographic population structure (GPS) tool, an algorithm that tries to pinpoint a population’s origins based on their genetic code. Elhaik says the technique “works in a similar way to the sat nav in your car,” but for finding ancestry instead.

The method involves recreating ancient gene pools from around the world, then comparing individuals’ genetic fingerprints to find a corresponding population. By analyzing the DNA of Israeli Druze and testing it against different populations around the Middle East, Elhaik and his colleagues tried to determine the population’s origins.

Elhaik’s GPS method isn’t without controversy. Earlier this year Elhaik’s study which pointed to Ashkenazi Jews originating in what is today Turkey, supporting an equally controversial theory about the origins of the Yiddish language, was dismissed by some scholars.

The new study’s findings indicated Druze were most closely related to neighboring Arabs in Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian areas, and to Armenians. But the GPS data showed that “proto-Druze emerged from Armenian-Turkish tribes residing in the Zagros and surrounding mountains, prior to the end of the first millennium A.D.,” who later intermingled with peoples of Syria while migrating to the Levant.

The authors postulated that these Turkish-Armenian inhabitants of the mountainous terrain along the modern day Turkey-Iraq border swept southwest toward their heartland in what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel along with the Seljuk Turks after the battle of Manzikert in 1071.

“Although not actively encouraged by religious authorities, old and modern historical records, along with our genetic findings suggest that it is very likely that some conversions to the Druze faith were allowed after the 11th century A.D.,” the authors said. “Conversion efforts may have continued on a small scale until such regional operations drew the unwanted attention of local governments, forcing Druze leaders to halt further conversion efforts.”

In an article about his research published last week on Scroll.in, Elhaik claimed that the genetic proximity of Ashkenazi Jews and Druze is supported by his two studies this year indicating Turkish origins of both peoples.

“Our findings explain a 1,000-year saga of two people living side by side in these lands,” Elhaik wrote. Ashkenazi Jews moved north and west, he claimed, and Druze moved south, “only for both people to reunite hundreds of years later” in modern Israel.

“And although by that time, neither one recalled their common roots, both retained the evidence in their genes,” Elhaik said.

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