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Morocco: a coalition of archelogists seeks out Jewish heritage

Archaeologists dig in the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish neighbourhood, or mellah, in the village of Tagadirt in Morocco's oasis region of Tata on February 28, 2023.   -  
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FADEL SENNA/AFP or licensors


In the depths of the Akka oasis in Morocco, two archaeologists are excavating the floor of a synagogue in search of even the smallest fragments of the country's Jewish history.

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

At the beginning of the 20th century, Morocco had approximately 250,000 Jews. But after waves of departures at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948, particularly following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, their number has been reduced to only 2,000 today.

There is little documentation of the rich legacy the community left behind.

According to Saghir Mabrouk, a Moroccan archaeologist, this undertaking is unique.

"This is a first. The first archaeological excavation of the Jewish-Moroccan heritage, it is the first time that the National Institute of Sciences of Archaeology and Heritage (INSAP) begins an excavation in the field of Jewish archaeology, Jewish-Moroccan," said Saghir Mabrouk, archaeologist at the National Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage of Morocco.

Saghir Mabrouk is part of a coalition of six researchers from Morocco, Israel and France, in a project to revive the Jewish heritage of the North African country.

The team was able to recover a majority of objects including fragments of manuscripts and amulets.

"We excavated the synagogue of Akka, we found traces of several phases inside. It was renovated several times and before the people left here, during the great emigration in the 1960s if we understand correctly, they buried inside the synagogue the holy book and other things, what we call in Hebrew 'genizah' (storage area in a Jewish synagogue). So they put it in the synagogue and protected it very carefully," explains Yuval Yekutieli, an Israeli archaeologist from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Although the archaeological site has not yet been dated, experts say it is essential to understanding the region's Jewish-Moroccan history, keeping it alive and passing it on.

"And that is very valuable, because it is a memory that is still alive. For us, what is important here is to keep this memory alive, to make the link with the people who will then be the actors of this territory, since they will be the ones to welcome the tourists who will come, or the people who have their families here, or the people who are also trying to understand how these communities lived," attests Salima Naji, architect in charge of the restoration of the Akka Synagogue.

Akka, a green valley of date palms surrounded by desert hills some 525 kilometers south of the capital Rabat, was once a crossroads for trans-Saharan trade.

In the oasis, in the middle of the "mellah" or Jewish quarter of the village of Tagadirt, are the ruins of the synagogue, built of earth in the architectural tradition of the region.

Although the site has not yet been dated, experts say it is critical to understanding the Jewish-Moroccan history of the region.

Efforts to uncover these Jewish historical treasures are one of the results of strengthening ties since the normalization of relations between Morocco and Israel in 2020.

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