In search of the Jewish heritage in the southern oases of Morocco

In the depths of the Moroccan oasis of Akka, two archaeologists search the floor of a synagogue for the smallest fragments that bear witness to the country’s ancient Jewish history.

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

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

Efforts to uncover Jewish historical treasures scattered across the kingdom’s oases are one of the results of warming ties since normalizing relations between Morocco and Israel 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 hub for trans-Saharan trade.

Within the oasis, tucked away in the middle of the “mellah” or Jewish quarter of the village of Tagadirt, lie the ruins of the synagogue – built of earth in 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.

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

– plunder –

Dating back to ancient times, the Jewish community in Morocco reached its peak in the 15th century after the brutal expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain.

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

But after waves of exodus with the founding of Israel in 1948, including after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the number has been reduced to just 2,000 today.

Little is documented of the rich legacy left by the community.

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

As the day progresses, archaeologists amass a small trove of manuscript fragments, amulets and other objects discovered 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 nobody wrote about the buried objects and that they were only discovered when excavations began.

While Jewish tradition dictates that such texts are never destroyed, it is unusual to find them buried in such places.

Artifacts unearthed and meticulously cataloged by the team include trade contracts and marriage certificates, everyday objects and coins.

The synagogue was already beginning to deteriorate when looters tried to loot the buried cache.

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

A similar attempted looting 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 save the bulk of the objects, about 100,000 pieces, including fragments of manuscripts and amulets.

– ‘Precious Testimonies’ –

In both locations, architect Salima Naji has led efforts to restore the earthen monuments while remaining faithful to the traditions of the desert region.

“More than ten years ago I started recreating the typology of all the synagogues in the region,” she said.

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

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

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

“It’s good not to let people leave the synagogue,” says craftswoman Mahjouba Oubaha.

The excavation has only just begun to scratch the surface of what is known about Morocco’s Jews and shed light on their everyday objects and way of life.

Orit Ouaknine said she conducted interviews with the two villages’ former Jewish residents, who now live in Israel, the United States and France.

“It’s a race against time to collect this valuable testimony,” said the Israeli anthropologist.


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