Tunisian synagogue struggles to bounce back

Amid fears of instability in the country, attendance at the landmark Ghriba pilgrimage site has dipped in recent years.

A heavy security presence is typically in place during the pilgrimage [Abdelaziz Zguem/Al Jazeera]

Djerba, Tunisia – A month after the end of Passover, Jews around the world travel annually to Tunisia’s Ghriba synagogue, an ancient temple on the island of Djerba.

According to an old folktale, the synagogue takes its name from the Jewish saint El Ghriba, meaning “The Stranger” or “The Miraculous”.

“There is nothing like it [elsewhere] – it only exists in Tunisia,” Perez Trabelsi, chair of the synagogue board, told Al Jazeera.

But the temple, a visible symbol of the centuries-long coexistence of Jews and Muslims in the country, has struggled in recent years to secure consistent funding, and attendance has dipped since the revolution, with international visitors apparently wary of the country’s security situation.

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In 2000, the number of pilgrims peaked at 10,000, but fell after a bombing at the synagogue two years later. The revolution introduced new instability; in the year before the 2011 uprising, 4,000 pilgrims visited Ghriba, but by 2013, fewer than half that number attended, according to synagogue curator Khoudhir Hania. In 2012, a synagogue in Ghabes city was set ablaze but no casualties were reported. It nonetheless served as a grim reminder of the 2002 bombing which targeted Ghriba synagogue and left 19 people, mostly German visitors, dead. 

In 2010, 4,000 pilgrims visited Ghriba [Abdelaziz Zguem/Al Jazeera]

Funding has also been inconsistent. This year, preparations for the pilgrimage were aided by a 10,000 dinar (about $6,300) ministry grant, which went towards restoring the intricately painted interior of the synagogue, known for its distinct blue, white and green hues. That was up from 2,000 dinars (about $1,250) in 2012 and nothing in 2013, Trabelsi said.

“The Ministry of Religious Affairs supports religious minorities. Above all, they are Tunisian citizens,” Abdessatar Badr, chief of staff to the Minister of Religious Affairs, told Al Jazeera. The increase of funds in 2014, he said, is “proof of [the ministry’s] support for the Jewish community”.

Ghriba is located in the southeastern village of Hara Sghira, several kilometres from Houmt Souk, the largest city on the island of Djerba. Jewish pilgrims come to Ghriba from all over the world – with a significant number from Europe and Israel – but the annual pilgrimage also presents an opportunity for the Jewish-Tunisian diaspora to visit their ancestral home.

The Jewish population in Tunisia peaked at 110,000 in the 1950s, but now is believed to be around 1,700, according to a report in the Haaretz newspaper. About half of those who left went to France and the other half to Israel.

At Ghriba’s core, Hania told Al Jazeera, lies a stone brought from Jerusalem 2,600 years ago by a group of Jewish refugees who fled after Babylonian forces besieged Jerusalem in 586 BC. “People come to see it from everywhere,” Hania said. In accordance with tradition, some pilgrims write wishes on hard-boiled eggs and place them next to the stone. They also light candles and pray.

A heavy security presence is typically in place during the pilgrimage, including metal detectors and a ban on cars at the Ghriba site. In a recent interview, tourism Minister Amel Karboul told Al Jazeera: “I am confident that they [Ministry of Interior officials] have taken the necessary measures.”

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Djerba’s tourism industry depends on the steady flow of visitors. Souvenir stalls are set up near the synagogue at a caravanserai – an old inn courtyard – with vendors selling Jewish-Tunisian wares. Photos of the synagogue are sold along with Tunisian sweet treats and music CDs, embroidered balghas (traditional heelless slippers) and colourful fez-like caps.

Kosher Tunisian food, such as couscous and brik, a deep-fried egg in a pastry shell, is also sold, along with boukha, an alcoholic beverage made from dates.

“The Ghriba pilgrimage is very important in the sense that it shows the world that Tunisia is open and tolerant,” said Jerry Sorkin, a Tunis-based tourism professional and founder of TunisUSA. “The [Ghriba pilgrimage] tradition has always been in Tunisia… That is very important for the image of Tunisia and tourism, and for the revival of tourism.”

Hania, who has been taking care of the synagogue for nearly two decades, calls the Ghriba pilgrimage a bellwether for the success of the following tourist season: “I always say this: if Ghriba passes by safely, the [summer] tourism season will be good.”

Source: Al Jazeera