Synagogue Ruins Tell Secrets of Jewish Community in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains

A team of Israeli, Moroccan and French researchers on a rescue excavation at a ruined synagogue in Morocco found amulets, the last remnants of a bygone community. The project will soon be expanded to the entire region, under royal sponsorship

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Shoham Yekutieli, left, Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, Adi Gura and Mona Goury Nacich at the site of the ruined synagogue.
Shoham Yekutieli, left, Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, Adi Gura and Mona Goury Nacich in the site of the ruined synagogue.
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Remainders of a Jewish-Moroccan community that existed for centuries were recently found in a remote town in the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The small Jewish community of Tamanart lived there from the 16th century to the early 19th century. Recently, researchers from Israel, Morocco and France conducted salvage excavations in its ruined synagogue.

Along with the building’s walls, they found Scriptures and pages from the synagogue’s genizah, a repository for damaged written matter and ritual objects, as well as a few paper amulets. One was meant to protect a woman in labor and her newborn, another a personal charm meant to protect its owner from trouble and disease. “The texts in these amulets are based on formulas found in the Book of Raziel, an ancient Kabbalist book,” says Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a researcher of modern Morocco who teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The book, which includes texts for charms, was in use by Jewish communities in Morocco.

The facade of the ruined synagogue in Tamanart, Morocco.

Among other texts written on these amulets were a Kabbalist version of one of God’s names, as well as quotes from the book of Genesis and from the priestly blessing (such as “the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” Genesis 48:16) and “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace; So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them,” Numbers 6:26-7).

Ouaknine-Yekutieli says the synagogue was damaged by natural events such as the recent floods in the area, as well as by looters. She reached the remote site last month as part of a new historical and anthropological research study, together with her archaeologist husband Yuval Yekutieli and Moroccan and French researchers Salima Naji, Mabrouk Saghir, David Goeury and Aomar Boum.

They found the synagogue after conducting a preliminary survey of Jewish sites in the area. This included interviews with locals who remember their Jewish neighbors who left 70 years ago, and the gathering of archival information. Together, they took the first step in preserving the physical structure and the culture it represented, which was part of the Jewish-Muslim legacy of this desert oasis.

The texts the researchers managed to salvage from this site were transferred to a secure location in Morocco, where they will be studied and analyzed in coming years. In order to connect the tattered shreds of text, researchers will use artificial intelligence technology such as the one used in recent years to analyze ancient Jewish texts in universities with digital humanities’ studies. The researchers are now looking for Jews who lived in the region and were familiar with the synagogue and the village so that they can reconstruct these.

An amulet found in the synagogue ruins. 'The texts in these amulets are based on formulas found in the Book of Raziel, an ancient Kabbalist book.'
Inside the ruined synagogue in Tamanart, Morocco.

'A country without Jews has no history'

Ouaknine-Yekutieli, whose father immigrated to Israel from Morocco, says that 20 years ago, while doing research in Fez, she heard a sentence that greatly affected her and has accompanied her since then. “A country without Jews has no history,” said one of the craftsmen she was talking to. She later found out that behind these lofty words there was also some action.

Over the past two decades, the Moroccan monarchy house has initiated and given support to a host of projects meant to preserve the kingdom’s Jewish history. The list includes the inauguration of a synagogue in Casablanca, the revival of Jewish names in the Mellah (the Jewish quarter) in Marrakech, the renovation of 170 Jewish cemeteries across the country and the designation of Jews, in Morocco’s constitution, as one of the elements of Morocco’s national identity. Along with this, Ouaknine-Yekutieli tells of a growing number of conferences, academic publications and doctoral theses devoted to Morocco’s Jews.

Tamanart's oasis.

On the backdrop of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI announced last week a plan to renovate hundreds of Jewish sites across the kingdom. As part of this plan, hundreds of synagogues will be renovated, as well as cemeteries and other Jewish heritage sites in several Moroccan cities.

This plan also encompasses the project undertaken by the abovementioned researchers. The synagogue in Tamanart, a village with 6,000 residents, is just one of the locations on an honorable list of Jewish sites in a large region in the southern part of Morocco, which is a focus of their interests. The list includes the adjacent village of Ifrane, which, according to tradition, was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in North Africa and the oldest one in Morocco. Some traditions say that after the destruction of the First Temple, refugees fleeing Jerusalem established a Jewish kingdom in Ifrane, headed by a king called Efrati.

The village was also known for a tragic incident which occurred there in 1792, when 50 members of the Jewish community jumped into a burning furnace after the local ruler made them choose between converting to Islam or death by fire. They’ve been called “the immolated” since then, their ashes interred in the ancient local cemetery.

Yuval Yekutieli and Mabrouk Saghir on site in Morocco.

Other communities on the list of intended research targets include Tiznit, known as a center for producing silver jewelry, with its Jews making a living as silversmiths; Tehaleh, where a synagogue was built in the 18th century; the port city of Agadir, which also had an 18th century synagogue, and where half of its Jewish population died in the 1960 earthquake; Taroudant, the main city in the Sous region, called “the grandmother of Marrakech.”

“As part of our research, we want to conduct interviews and collect memories, testimonies and photographs of people from this region who now live in the Moroccan diaspora around the world, especially in Israel, France and North America,” concludes Ouaknine-Yekutieli.

An archaeologist examines an amulet found at the site.

The ancient Jewish community of Morocco, considered to have been established 2,000 years ago, numbered at its peak, in the mid-20th century, 250,000 people, 3 percent of the general population. Beginning in 1948 (during Israel’s War of Independence), through 1956 (when Morocco gained its independence) and up to 1967, the community gradually declined in numbers, with only 2,500 people still remaining, one percent of its peak size.

Updated studies show that Jewish emigration left behind a big vacuum in Moroccan society, one that refuses to heal. “The uprooting of the Jews is akin to a painful sore in Morocco’s national history,” says historian Jamaa Baida, the director of Morocco’s national archives.

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