In search of Jewish heritage in the oases of southern Morocco

In the depths of the Akka oasis in Morocco, two archaeologists examine the floor of a synagogue in search of the smallest fragment that testifies to the ancient Jewish history of the country.

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

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 throughout the kingdom’s oases are one result of strengthening ties since Morocco and Israel normalized relations in 2020.

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

Inside the oasis, hidden in the middle of the “mellah” or Jewish quarter of the town of Tagadirt, are the ruins of the synagogue, built with earth according to the architectural tradition of the area.

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

“It is urgent to work on these kinds of vulnerable spaces that are at risk of disappearing,” said Saghir Mabrouk, an archaeologist at the Moroccan National Institute of Archeology and Cultural Heritage (INSAP).

– looting –

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

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were around 250,000 Jews in Morocco.

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

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

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

As the day progresses, archaeologists amass a small trove of scroll fragments, amulets and other artifacts discovered under the “bimah,” a raised platform in the center of the synagogue where the Torah was once read.

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

While Jewish tradition dictates that such texts are never 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 tried to raid 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 hidden in a secret compartment behind a collapsed wall.

The team was able to salvage most of the artifacts, some 100,000 pieces, including fragments of manuscripts and amulets.

– ‘Precious testimonials’ –

At both sites, architect Salima Naji has led efforts to restore the earthen monuments, taking care to remain true to the traditions of the desert region.

“More than 10 years ago I began recreating the typology of all the synagogues in the region,” he said.

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

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

Today, the Muslim inhabitants of the old Jewish quarter welcome the restoration.

“It’s good not to leave the synagogue abandoned,” says the artisan Mahjouba Oubaha.

The excavation has just begun to scratch the surface of knowledge about the Jews of Morocco, shedding light on their everyday objects and way of life.

Orit Ouaknine said she interviewed the former Jewish residents of the two villages, who now live in Israel, the United States and France.

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

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