In search of Jewish heritage in Morocco’s southern oases
In the depths of Morocco’s Akka oasis, two archaeologists go above the floor of the synagogue in search of the smallest fragments that testify to the ancient Jewish history of the country.
They are from a team of six researchers from Morocco, Israel and France, as part of a project to revive the country in North Africa of Jewish heritage after it was almost all lost after the exodus of the minority.
The discovery of a fragment of a religious Hebrew manuscript is a “sign from above,” says Israeli archaeologist Yuval Yekutieli, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Efforts to reveal Jewish historical treasures scattered throughout the kingdom’s oases are one of the results of warming ties from Morocco and Israel normalizing 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 a crossroads for trans-Saharan trade.
Within the oasis, located in the center of the “mellah” or Jewish quarter of the village of Tagadirt, are the ruins of the synagogue — built from the ground up in the architectural tradition of the area.
Although the site has yet to be dated, experts say it is crucial to understand the region’s Judeo-Moroccan history.
“It is urgent to work on these types of fragile spaces that are in danger of disappearing,” said Saghir Mabrouk, an archaeologist from Morocco’s National Institute of Archeology and Cultural Heritage (INSAP).
– Looting –
Dating back to antiquity, the Jewish community in Morocco reached its peak in the 15th century, after the brutal expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain.
By the beginning 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 after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the number was reduced to just 2,000 today.
Little documentation remains of the rich heritage the community left behind.
“The aim of this project is to study this community as an integral part of Moroccan society, and not from a Jewish-centric perspective,” said Israeli anthropologist Orit Ouaknine, herself of Moroccan roots.
As the day progresses, the archaeologists collect a small collection of manuscript fragments, amulets and other objects found under the “bimah”, a raised platform in the middle of the synagogue where the Torah was once read.
Yekutieli, the Israeli archaeologist, said that the “most surprising thing” was that no one had written about the buried objects, and that they were discovered only when excavations began.
Although Jewish tradition dictates that such texts are never destroyed, it is unusual to find them buried at such sites.
Artefacts carefully discovered and cataloged by the team include commercial contracts and marriage certificates, everyday tools and coins.
The synagogue had already collapsed when looters tried to raid the buried treasure.
“The good news is that one of the beams fell, making access difficult,” said Yekutieli.
A similar looting attempt was recorded at the ruined Aguerd Tamanart synagogue, located in another oasis about 70 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of Akka, where excavations began in 2021.
In this case, the artefacts were not buried but hidden in a secret compartment behind a fallen wall.
The team was able to save most of the objects, around 100,000 pieces including fragments of manuscripts and amulets.
– ‘Precious testimonials’ –
At both sites, the architect Salima Naji is leading efforts to restore the earthen monuments, being careful to remain faithful to the traditions of the desert region.
“More than 10 years ago, I started to recreate the typology of all the synagogues of the region,” she said.
“My experience in rehabilitating mosques and ksour (fortified villages) helped me understand the synagogues better.”
The Tagadirt synagogue is still undergoing renovations, where Naji’s team is working hard to recreate the skylight that lights the building.
Today, Muslim residents of the former Jewish quarter welcome the restoration.
“It is good not to leave the synagogue abandoned,” says the craftsman 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 conducted interviews with former Jewish residents of the two villages, who now live in Israel, the United States and France.
“Collecting these precious testimonies is a race against time,” said the Israeli anthropologist.