Kfar Kama, Israel’s Authentic Circassian Village

Kfar Kama’s historic center

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Following the Russo-Circassian War in the 18th and 19th centuries, more than a million Circassians were either killed or exiled from their native homeland. While the vast majority of refugees from this bloody conflict settled in Turkey, a few thousands or so spread out across the Middle East. Perhaps the most well-preserved community of which currently lies in modern-day Israel. Located in the Lower Galilee, Kfar Kama offers an authentic glimpse to the culture, history and cuisine of this Caucasian nation, possibly more so than any other place in the world.

A Little Bit of History

Up until the mid-1700’s, the territory of Circassia (aka Adygea) in the North Caucasus was inhabited by a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. The Circassians were a decentralized mosaic of isolated tribes, whose rural lifestyle was centered around shepherding. That all changed in 1763, when the Russian Empire launched a military campaign to conquer, colonize and ultimately annex the Caucasus region.


Under the direct order of Catherine II, Russian forces embarked on a series of attacks across Circassia during the late 18th century. Despite the fierce resistance by Circassian warriors, the numerical and technological superiority of the Russian Empire rapidly tilted the balance in favor of the former, eventually resulting in the complete conquest of the once independent nation.


As Russia sought to assert control over the then newly-occupied territory, it became crystal clear that the natives won’t sit ideally by and will most probably engage in guerilla warfare. To dodge this very scenario, nearly one million Circassians were massacred or forced into exile by Russian troops between 1859–1864, with the vast majority of whom being absorbed in the Ottoman Empire.


Whereas most deportees started their new life in Turkey, a small fraction was scattered throughout the Levant, including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Hundreds of Circassian refugees also arrived in the mid 1800’s to the then Ottoman-ruled Holy-Land, where they established three ethnically homogenous villages – Mez, Rehaniya and our protagonist, Kfar Kama. While the first townlet, Mez, was abandoned due to the outbreak of malaria, the other two became an integral part of the State of Israel upon its establishment in 1948.


Following the creation of the Hebrew state, the Circassians opted to fully integrate into the mainstream Israeli society by committing to a military conscription in the IDF. Nevertheless, in spite of the apparent assimilation into the broader Israeli population, they miraculously managed to retain much of their centuries-old traditions. In fact, as recently as 2022, the village of Kfar Kama was recognized by the UN as a global tourist village for its well-preserved cultural heritage.

Visiting the Village

Founded in 1878 at the foot of Mount Tavor in the Lower Galilee, Kfar Kama is home to more than 3,500 inhabitants, accounting for roughly 70 percent of all Circassians in Israel. As the primary languages in the village’s schools are Adyghe (aka West Circassian) and Hebrew, most residents are native speakers of both languages. All street signs are trilingual, written in Arabic, Hebrew and Adyghe, whose alphabet is Cyrillic-based.


The village comprises a historic core, surrounded by a series of newer, suburban-style neighborhoods. Kfar Kama’s old part is dominated by gobs of 19th century houses, built with basalt stones which impart an iconic dark hue to their walls.


As visitors wander through the town’s narrow streets, coming across the Circassian flag is only a matter of time. Otherwise known as the Flag of Adygea, it consists of twelve stars arranged collectively as a bow, next to a bundle of three arrows. While the stars stand for the 12 Circassian tribes, the three arrows at the bottom represent “Adyghe Xabze”, a moral code predicated on peace for peace and war for war.


Once a family home as well as a mechanized flour mill, Shami House is one of Kfar Kama’s most conspicuous buildings. Following decades of abandonment, the edifice was recently renovated, becoming the Circassian Heritage Center, where organized tours and traditional dancing performances currently take place (tours and performances can be booked online via their website). The complex also has a small museum which showcases the Circassian culture, including a medley of traditional garments, tools and perhaps most strikingly, a century-old dagger made of dry cheese.


Towering over the low-rise houses is Kfar Kama’s sole mosque. Constructed in the 1970’s over the ruins of an older mosque, it features an octagonal minaret in stark contrast to any other building of its type in Israel. The minaret juts out from a rectangular base that serves as the prayer hall, both of which are decorated with black and white stripes of stone cladding. According to local villagers, the architectural style of the mosque resonates with the Circassians’ Christian past, before their mass-conversion to Islam which took place between the 17th-19th centuries.


While the Circassian cuisine is not considered particularly sophisticated, there are still a couple of scrumptious eats to challenge your pallet with, including haliva – a fried pastry with cheese or potatoes, mataz – boiled dumplings filled with minced meat or cheese, and a lentil paste garnished with local herbs. Alongside several restaurants throughout the village where visitors can try traditional food, one can also find a dairy shop which sells an assortment of Circassian cheeses.