El Ghriba

On the Tunisian island of Djerba, Africa’s oldest synagogue is a stranger no more

Writer

Samuel McNeil

Photographer

ST McNeil

On Jazirat Djerba in Tunisia, past tall palm trees, cyclists carrying baguettes and old men wearing chechiya, stands the oldest synagogue in Africa, El Ghriba, a gleaming white two-storey structure with bright blue trellises topped by the nation’s red and white crescent and star. Near the Libyan border in Tunisia’s southeast, Djerba is no stranger to the history books: Odysseus called it the Island of the Lotus Eaters after the Trojan War, while Hayreddin Barbarossa’s corsair fleet moored in the island’s natural harbour.

The synagogue lies low to the ground, built in the modest Djerban style of the Malikite tradition. The three main buildings made from white concrete closely resemble other Tunisian religious structures, like mosques, zaouiat or the tombs of local Sufi saints, except there is no minaret or dome. A large anterior courtyard mirrors the arcades of a mosque’s sahan. But El Ghriba’s uniform exterior hides a complex inner beauty.

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Walking up the cobblestone path to the synagogue’s entrance, visiting men and women come to a huge wooden front door. There they don kippah skull caps and shawls before entering the main room, a large hall covered in mostly blue kaleidoscopic tiles. Sunlight streams in through red, yellow, green and blue stained glass to bathe pillars supporting white, black and blue arches. Crystal chandeliers dangle from the green ceiling while silver censers and barrel-candles illuminate the room. A steady island breeze blows through the entire chamber as two old men read the Torah aloud.

‘Shalom,’ says Khoudir Hania, the synagogue’s caretaker, replacing the Tunisian Arabic ‘aslema’ greeting for Hebrew, as he ushers tourists into the temple’s inner chamber. A large altar rises in the front of the room, covered in thick tapestries of Hebrew, menorahs and flower designs. Signs in German, French, Arabic and English state, ‘May God give your desires his consent of fulfillment.’

When the crowd leaves, Hania the caretaker crosses his ankles on a reed mat. It is quiet except for the wind and the prayers of the old men. Underneath the blue and white arches and silver menorahs, Hania grabs his chin, sighs and begins in Arabic to tell the ancient story of the synagogue.

When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Al Quds in 586 BC, and then destroyed the First Temple, many Jews fled southwestern Asia for safer lands. One tribe came to Djerba 2,600 years ago, carrying a fragment of the old temple.

Hania beckons to a locked, tiny wooden door at the back of the synagogue. It houses that stone fragment – the ‘heart’ of El Ghriba. With it, he says, the Jews of Tunisia founded the synagogue, and slowly expanded it over the centuries into a complex including one large hall, one inner chamber, a dormitory and a cemetery.

Above Al Quds stone’s receptacle is a sheet of glass holding hundreds of small silver charms and prayers in a smattering of languages. Last year, 3,000 pilgrims came to the synagogue according to the national Ministry of Tourism, including Tunisian Muslims. Most come for a uniquely Djerban tradition called Lag B’Omer, a pilgrimage related to fertility, marriage and health. Pilgrims write their prayer or wish on an egg, Hania opens the wooden door to reveal the ancient temple fragment, and then pilgrims rub their prayer-eggs on Al Quds stone.

‘Once, there was a woman struggling to have a child. So, she came to El Ghriba with a prayer-egg to have a child and then she became pregnant,’ says Hania, recounting one of the many stories he’s witnessed of the power of the temple fragment. ‘Now she comes back every year to show her appreciation.’

While El Ghriba, whose name means ‘the stranger’ or  ‘the marvellous’, comes from another country far away, it is now solidly both Tunisian and Arab. People have lived on Djerba for four thousand years, Hania says, and when the Jews escaped the Babylonian armies with Al Quds stone, they ‘melted into the Djerban culture.’ ‘It was not El Ghriba that affected the land,’ he says, ‘but El Ghriba that fit into the whole ecosystem.’

Now the synagogue is a national treasure for Tunisia and deeply integrated within its surrounding community. ‘We don’t have any problems, us Tunisian Muslims and Jews,’ says Sourour Laathiri, a private school administrator from Sousse. She’s visited El Ghriba three times for a reason: Laathiri thinks the synagogue is an institution that teaches students an important lesson.

‘It’s important to teach tolerance,’ Laathiri says. ‘For the kids in the new Tunisia, it’s important for them to know other cultures in order to have tolerance. We keep coming back because the students want to see El Ghriba and learn about others.’

One of her students spoke of her deep respect for fellow Tunisians with a different religion than hers. ‘I came because I respect other cultures and wanted to know about them,’ says Hejer Kamoun, 17. ‘We are here respecting the traditions of Tunisians.’

Tourists from across the globe come to El Ghriba every year, bringing vital income to Tunisia. Despite the country’s recent political upheaval, the current democratic government has vowed to continue the Muslim tradition of protecting this ancient Jewish temple – and Tunisia’s largest religious minority.

One hundred thousand Jews once lived in Tunisia. Today, more than half of the remaining 2,000 live on the island of Djerba. While the synagogue is in the original Jewish ‘small neighbourhood’ of Harra Sghir, many Djerban Jews are leaving for Harra Kabir, the ‘big neighbourhood’, for work opportunities there, near the bustling tourist zone of Houmt Souk. They are physically leaving El Ghriba behind for the modern economy.

These Orthodox Sephardim speak Tunisian Arabic, French and Hebrew learnt in Tunisian yeshivas – a unique linguistic blend. Another symbol of the community is their interpretation of the Mediterranean ‘evil eye’ legend, says Ouziel Haddad, 45, a Jewish Djerban, a son of the town’s kosher butcher and a restaurant owner. Instead of the hand of Fatimah, Tunisian Jews use a charm with a fish and the number five. In the Tunisian dialect, Haddad says the mélange tunisienne is a special combination of different cultures and tolerance.

‘There’s a cinema in Harra Kabir that’s behind a Catholic church, next to a mosque, 200 metres away from a synagogue – and it’s been this way for at least 200 years,’ Haddad says. ‘It’s written on the walls.’ While Jews and Muslims may not celebrate the same holidays, he says, both close their shops out of respect for the other’s. However, he admits to speaking Hebrew to pass on information confidentially between coreligionists in public. His sons play in his sandwich shop as his worker, Mehdi Fituri, 22, talks about the lack of deep sectarian divides in Tunisia. ‘Hadha a’di, c’est normal,’ says Fituri, a Muslim and fellow Tunisian Djerban. Wearing a white qaqiya hat and a stringy goatee, he says that when he first started working for Haddad two months ago, his friends heckled him. Fituri responded with tolerance. ‘I told them, “Jews are cool, you can work with them. The only difference is religion. We are both from Djerba – there is no difference between us.’’’

Once there was a woman struggling to have a child. So, she came to El Ghriba with a prayer-egg

This article appears in the issue40