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In search of Jewish heritage in Morocco’s southern oases

AKKA, Morocco: In the depths of Morocco’s Akka oasis, two archaeologists pore over the floor of a synagogue searching for the minutest of fragments testifying to the country’s ancient Jewish history.

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

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

Efforts to uncover Jewish historical treasures scattered across the kingdom’s oases are one of the outcomes of warming ties since Morocco and Israel normalized relations in 2020.

Akka, a lush green valley of date palms surrounded by desert hills some 525 km south of the capital Rabat, was once a crossroads 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 from earth in the architectural tradition of the area.

While the site has yet to be dated, experts say it is crucial to understanding the Judaeo-Moroccan history of the region.

“It’s urgent to work on these types of vulnerable spaces that are at risk of disappearing,” said Saghir Mabrouk, an archaeologist from Morocco’s National Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage.

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

By the early 20th century, there were about 250,000 Jews in Morocco. But after waves of departures with the creation of Israel in 1948, including following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the number was slashed to just 2,000 today.

Little documentation remains of the rich legacy that the community left behind.

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

As the day progresses, the archaeologists amass a small trove of manuscript fragments, amulets and other objects discovered under the “bimah,” a raised platform in the center of the synagogue where the Torah was once read.

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