In search of the Jewish heritage of the oasis in the south of Morocco
In the heart of a synagogue in Akka’s palm grove, two archaeologists, one Moroccan and one Israeli, scan the ground in search of the smallest fragment, bearing witness to the millennial Jewish presence in the oases of southern Morocco.
The unprecedented excavations are part of a project to explore and rehabilitate the Jewish heritage of the oasis, which fell into disrepair following the 1967 exodus of a large proportion of Jews from Morocco.
The dawn discovery of a fragment of a religious manuscript in Hebrew is “a sign from above”, Israeli archaeologist Yuval Yekutieli of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, a member of a team of six Moroccan, Israeli and French researchers, joked to AFP.
Scientific cooperation facilitated by diplomatic normalization between Morocco and Israel in December 2020.
Built in mud in the pre-Saharan architectural tradition, the synagogue in Tagadirt village was saved from ruin in the extreme. Located in the heart of the “Mellah” (Jewish Quarter), it allows you to understand the life of the community of Akka, which was once a crossroads of trans-Saharan trade.
“The urgency is to work on vulnerable sites of this type that are in danger of disappearing, while they contain parts of Judeo-Moroccan history”, explains Saghir Mabrouk, an archaeologist at the Moroccan Institute INSAP.
Existing since antiquity, increased by the expulsion of the Sephardim from Spain in the 15th century, the Moroccan Jewish community had 250,000 members in the mid-20th century, before the waves of departure that followed the creation of the State of Israel. They are around 2,000 today.
But the settlement of Jews in the Moroccan desert is poorly documented.
“The aim of this project is to study this community as an integral part of Moroccan society, and not from a Jewish-centric angle”, emphasizes Orit Aukanaine, an Israeli anthropologist of Moroccan descent.
– Looting –
The day progresses and archaeologists classify fragments of religious books, amulets and other objects buried under the “bimah”, a raised platform in the center of the synagogue from which the Torah is read.
“The most surprising thing is that no one had written about this burial before”, Yuval Yekutieli underlines, and “excavation was necessary to discover it”.
Because if it is not mandatory to throw away or destroy the scriptures of the Lord’s name, then it is unusual to bury them in such a place.
The material cataloged includes letters, commercial and marriage contracts, as well as everyday utensils and coins.
The synagogue was in disarray when the robbers tried to steal the buried treasure.
“The good news is that one of the beams collapsed, making access impossible,” says the Israeli archaeologist.
A similar looting attempt was observed at the synagogue of Aguedr Tamanart, 100 km from Akka, where excavations began in 2021.
This time the archaeological remains were not buried but hidden in a secret warehouse behind a broken wall. Most items can be salvaged, including 100,000 pieces of manuscripts, amulets, etc.
– “Precious Testimony” –
At Aguird Tamanart as Tagadirt, it was Moroccan architect Salima Naji who led the restoration in raw clay, respecting the tradition of this arid, impoverished region.
“More than ten years ago, I started by typing up all the synagogues in the region. My experience rehabilitating mosques and kasur (fortified villages) helped me understand synagogues better”, she explains.
Tagadert is still a work in progress. The team of architects is busy in fixing the skylight that brings light to the building.
A construction site was viewed favorably by the Muslim residents of East Mallah: “It is a good thing not to leave the synagogue empty,” said Mahzouba Obaha, a 55-year-old craftsman.
The discovery of the Judeo-Moroccan heritage makes it possible to study the objects, the habitat, but also the way of life of the last inhabitants of Mallah.
Orit Ouaknine conducted interviews with former Jewish residents of the two villages who had immigrated to Israel, the United States or France. “It is a race against time to collect these precious evidence”, explains the Israeli anthropologist.
Beyond the work of memory, says French geographer David Goéry, expert in the resilience of Oasis spaces and coordinator of the project, “These marginalized spaces are extremely valuable for understanding how to revitalize our lives in metropolises today”.