Tag: Holy sites

Thousands of pilgrims return to Al-Ghriba after two years of absence

May 14 marks the start of the annual pilgrimage to to the Al-Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Some 5,000 visitors are expected this year. DW.com reports:

Inside the al-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba

For the first time in the more than two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a large number of pilgrims to the North African country will be taking part in religious festivities over the course of eight days. In 2020 and 2021, pilgrimages were canceled due to the health crisis and access was very limited.

But this year, Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi told DW, between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors are expected. Trabelsi also chairs the pilgrimage organizing committee.

The synagogue on Djerba is one of the oldest in Africa and a site for Jewish pilgrimage. This is because, as religious legend has it, the 2,500-year-old place of worship — known as the Ghriba synagogue in Arabic — was built using remnants of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Bible says the temple was destroyed by a Babylonian king who sent Jewish worshippers into exile. These refugees are said to have brought fragments of the temple with them to Djerba.

Today, around 1,000 Jewish Tunisians live on Djerba. This makes it the largest Jewish community in Tunisia and the second-largest in the Arab world. Only the Moroccan Jewish community in Casablanca, between 1,500 to 2,000 members strong, is larger than Djerba’s.

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Discoverer of Sidon Torah detained at Beirut airport

The man who discovered Torah scrolls in a Lebanese synagogue (story broken by Point of No Return last week) has been prevented from leaving Lebanon.

The Sidon synagogue was taken over by squatters 10 years ago (Photo: Rebecca Collard)

Nagi Gergi Zeidan, an expert on the Jewish community of Lebanon and author of Juifs du Liban, has been undertaking research into Jewish sites. He was detained for eight hours at Beirut airport as he was about to board a plane for Brussels.

Belgium-based Mr Zeidan was eventually released but  his passport was confiscated. He was left wondering how he would survive this unexpected extension to his three-month trip, as he had just four Lebanese Euros to live on.

The authorities have imposed the travel ban on Mr Zeidan following a complaint by Samo Behar, vice-president of the Lebanese Jewish community.

The complaint alleged that Mr Zeidan had stolen the Torah scrolls (in fact there are two) and was intending to smuggle them out of the country.

Nagi Zeidan told Point of No Return that it was absurd to suggest that he would smuggle out scrolls weighing 50 kilos in his luggage.

The scrolls were discovered in the Sidon synagogue, a building which has been lived in by a Syrian-Palestinian squatter and his family for the past ten years. Following Mr Zeidan’s discovery, the scrolls were taken away to the home of the squatter’s father two kilometers away.

The squatters have demanded $100,000 for the scrolls.

The scrolls discovered by Nagi Gergi Zeidan are unusable (Photo: Nagi G Zeidan)

However, the scrolls are worthless as they are unusable (pasul) . They are in poor condition and have holes in them. According to Jewish law, pasul scrolls must be stored in a Geniza or buried.

Mr Zeidan would like to see the scrolls buried in the Jewish cemetery in Beirut.

He had originally contacted Samo Behar with a view to finding a solution for the scrolls, but received no reply.

Mr Zeidan intends to prove his innocence before the local Sidon magistrate in the next few days.




Lebanese Torah scroll ‘could be 400 years old’

Point of No Return exclusive


A Torah scroll which may be 400 years old has been discovered at the synagogue in Sidon, Lebanon. The discovery was made by Nagi Gergi Zeidan, an expert on the Jewish community of Lebanon and author of Juifs du Liban.

The scroll was written on deerskin

Zeidan was shown the scroll, which was stored in a black bin bag, by a member of the family which has lived in the synagogue for at least 10 years. The scroll was written on deerskin. Zeidan thinks it may be at least 400 years old. He has sent a fragment to the American University of Beirut to be carbon dated and is awaiting the result.

The scroll was kept in a black bin bag. Click here to see video

The current residents of the synagogue are a Palestinian-Syrian family. They are demanding $100,000 for the scroll. However, it is in poor condition and has several holes. According to Jewish practice, an unusable or pasul scroll  has to be buried in a geniza, a store containing documents bearing the name of God.

The synagogue at Sidon is the site of  one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Lebanon. A synagogue is believed  to have stood on the site of the current building since 632.

On the walls, there are still traces of Stars of David. Hebrew inscriptions have been daubed over with red paint.

But while little remains of the synagogue’s former life, tourists with Lebanese Jewish roots from Canada, France and Brazil have continued to visit.

In 2012, two rabbis from Neturei Karta — a group of anti-Zionist Jews who believe that the state of Israel should not exist — prayed in the synagogue.

There is no Jewish community remaining in Lebanon.

More about Nagi Zeidan

Iraq’s Jewish heritage is in a parlous state

The walls of Baghdad’s last synagogue, Meir Tweg, are crumbling, reports Salam Faraj; all but 10 percent of Syria and Iraq’s 300 heritage sites are still standing. However, there is a small hope that the Sasson synagogue in Mosul will be restored, and renovation work has been carried out on the shrine of Nahum in Kurdistan. AFP report in Times of Israel: 

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — In a busy district of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, there is little to distinguish the faded brick building, except for a Hebrew inscription above the entrance.

Iraq’s Jewish community was once one of the largest in the Middle East, but its members have dwindled to a handful, outside of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

“Our heritage is in a pitiful condition” and authorities take no notice, said a member of the congregation who requested anonymity, fearing reprisals.

Their precious history, including the synagogue, is threatened in a country torn apart by decades of war, corruption and armed groups.

While historical treasures ruined by jihadists are being restored in Iraq, rare international efforts at saving the Jewish heritage have not been enough.

Baghdad’s Meir Tweig Synagogue, built in 1942, seems to have been frozen in time.

Behind its padlocked doors, the benches are covered in white cloth to shield them from the sun. The walls of the sky-blue two-story columned interior are crumbling.

The steps leading to a wooden cabinet holding the sacred Torah scrolls are coming apart.

Flanked by marble plaques engraved with seven-branched candelabra and psalms, the cabinet shelters the scrolls written in hand calligraphy on gazelle leather.

“We used to pray here,” the member said. “We celebrated our festivals, and in summer we studied religious courses in Hebrew.”

One synagogue in Iraq’s south has been illegally occupied and turned into a warehouse, the woman added.

“Save this heritage,” she said, asking for the United Nations’s help.

A view of the interior of the dilapidated Sasson Synagogue in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, February 2, 2022. (Zaid AL-OBEIDI / AFP)

Jewish roots in Iraq go back about 2,600 years, on the land where the patriarch Abraham was born and where the Babylonian Talmud was written.

More than 2,500 years later, in Ottoman-ruled Baghdad, Jews made up 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants.

By the time of Israel’s creation in 1948, they numbered 150,000, but three years later, amid persecution by Iraqi authorities that swelled in the wake of the establishment of Israel, 96% of the community had left.

A report published in 2020 listed Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, some dating back to the first millennium BC. The study identified 118 synagogues, 48 schools, nine sanctuaries and three cemeteries among the Iraqi Jewish heritage sites. Most are now gone.

“In Iraq, only 30 of the 297 documented sites are confirmed to still exist,” according to the report published by the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage and ASOR, the non-profit American Society of Overseas Research.

“Of these 30 sites, 21 are in poor or very bad condition,” it added.

The few remaining Jews in Iraq “worked very hard to protect and preserve their heritage, but the scale of the work was beyond their abilities,” said Darren Ashby, who worked on the study.

“Over time, much of this heritage was lost to seizure, sale or slow decay and collapse,” said Ashby, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Iraq Heritage Stabilization Program.

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More about the preservation of heritage sites

Tombstone of a death foretold in Tunis’s largest cemetery

During a clean-up  operation  in the Jewish cemetery of Le Borgel in Tunis, the tombstone of a 37-year old batchelor, Leon Coscas, was revealed in all its splendour. (Via Jo Krief Facebook page)

The inscription was written in the first person, as if Coscas himself had written it and predicted his demise. It describes how he had died in an accident at sea.

There are magnificently- decorated tombs in the Borgel cemetery, which was established in 1894 and named after Chief Rabbi Elie Borgel. It has over 20,000 graves and is the largest Jewish cemetery in North Africa. The Twensa (original Jewish settlers) are buried separately from the Grana (Sephardim). Dignitaries, important rabbis and famous personalities, such as the singer Habiba Messica,  are buried there. Bodies exhumed after the redevelopment into a park of the Avenue de Londres cemetery, the Jewish community’s oldest, were transferred to the Borgel.  An association ((AICJT) was formed in France to carry out an inventory of the graves and restore the cemetery.


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