In search of Jewish heritage in the oases of southern Morocco

In the depths of the Moroccan oasis of Acre, two archaeologists search the floor of a synagogue in search of the smallest fragment testifying to the ancient Jewish history of the country.

They are part of a team of six researchers from Morocco, Israel and France, who are part of a project to revive the North African country’s Jewish heritage after it was all but lost. following the exodus of the minority.

The discovery of a fragment of a Hebrew religious manuscript is “a sign from above”, jokes Israeli archaeologist Yuval Yekutieli of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Efforts to uncover Jewish historical treasures scattered across the kingdom’s oases are one result of warming ties since relations between Morocco and Israel normalized in 2020.

Akka, a verdant valley of date palms surrounded by desert hills some 525 kilometers (325 miles) south of the capital Rabat, was once a crossroads for trans-Saharan trade.

In the oasis, nestled in the middle of the “mellah” or Jewish quarter of the village of Tagadirt, are the ruins of the synagogue – built from earth in the architectural tradition of the region.

Although the site has yet to be dated, experts say it is crucial to understanding the region’s Judeo-Moroccan history.

“There is an urgent need to work on these types of vulnerable spaces that are at risk of disappearing,” said Saghir Mabrouk, an archaeologist with Morocco’s National Institute of Archeology and Cultural Heritage (INSAP).

– Looting –

Dating back to antiquity, Morocco’s Jewish community reached its peak in the 15th century, following the brutal expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain.

At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 250,000 Jews in Morocco.

But after waves of departures with the creation of Israel in 1948, including following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the number has shrunk to just 2,000 today.

Little documentation remains of the rich legacy left by the community.

“This project aims to study this community as an integral part of Moroccan society, and not from a Judeo-centric perspective,” said Israeli anthropologist Orit Ouaknine, herself of Moroccan descent.

As the day progresses, archaeologists amass a small hoard of scroll fragments, amulets and other artefacts unearthed beneath the “bimah”, a raised platform in the center of the synagogue where the Torah was once read.

Yekutieli, the Israeli archaeologist, said “the most surprising thing” was that no one had written about the buried objects, and it was only when excavations began that they were discovered.

While Jewish tradition dictates that such texts should never be destroyed, it is unusual to find them buried at such sites.

Among the artifacts unearthed and meticulously cataloged by the team are business contracts and marriage certificates, everyday utensils and coins.

The synagogue had already begun to fall into disrepair when looters attempted to loot the buried cache.

“The good news is that one of the beams collapsed, making access difficult,” Yekutieli said.

A similar looting attempt was recorded at the ruined synagogue of Aguerd Tamanart, located in another oasis about 70 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of Akka, where excavations began in 2021.

In this case, the artifacts were not buried but rather hidden in a secret compartment behind a collapsed wall.

The team was able to save the majority of the objects, some 100,000 pieces including fragments of manuscripts and amulets.

– ‘Precious testimonies’ –

At both sites, architect Salima Naji led efforts to restore the earthen monuments, making sure to stay true to the traditions of the desert region.

“More than 10 years ago, I started by recreating the typology of all the synagogues in the region,” she says.

“My experience of rehabilitation of mosques and ksour (fortified villages) has allowed me to better understand that of synagogues.”

Restoration is still underway at the Tagadirt Synagogue, where Naji’s team is hard at work rebuilding the skylight that illuminates the building.

Today, Muslim residents of the former Jewish quarter hail the restoration.

“It’s a good thing not to leave the synagogue abandoned”, explains craftswoman Mahjouba Oubaha.

Excavations have only just begun to scratch the surface of knowledge about the Jews of Morocco, shedding light on their daily objects and way of life.

Orit Ouaknine said he conducted interviews with the former Jewish residents of the two villages, now living in Israel, the United States and France.

“It’s a race against time to collect these precious testimonies,” said the Israeli anthropologist.


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