Deep in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco’s Sahara desert, an abandoned mud-brick synagogue was in the process of slowly crumbling, its roof caving and columns teetering, when, in 2020, it was rediscovered by a group of Israeli and Moroccan researchers.
Antiquities thieves had already ransacked the former house of prayer, searching for anything of value and scattering sacred Jewish texts that had been buried in the geniza, a repository for old or unusable holy texts.
To salvage and study what remained, the group of researchers started the process of obtaining permits to start an archaeological dig at the synagogue. The Israeli researchers — as usual — played down affiliations with their home universities.
But in December of 2020, Israel and Morocco normalized relations as part of the Abraham Accords. This was a boon for Israeli researchers who, having worked in Morocco in an unofficial capacity for years, could now formalize their academic relationships and pursue joint research projects — such as excavating and preserving the synagogue.
“This research is a new opportunity which is sitting at the intersection of changes in the way [Israelis] are thinking about Jews from Morocco, the agreement with Israel, and the relationship between Jews and Morocco itself,” explained Dr. Orit Ouaknine-Yekutieli, a historian at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who uncovered the geniza along with her partner, BGU archaeologist Professor Yuval Yekutieli, and a number of Moroccan experts.
“Our research is taking advantage of this unique intersection of opportunities, but it’s also the result of years of close cooperation with friends in Morocco that was less formal until now,” she said.
An uphill battle
As a historian, Ouaknine-Yekutieli has faced challenges on several fronts in Israel: first, for scholarly recognition of research into the history of Jews from Mizrahi (Eastern) backgrounds — from North Africa and the Middle East — which hasn’t been invested in as deeply as has research into the Holocaust and European Jewish history. And even within the scant studies on these Eastern Jewish communities, research into Jews from rural areas was often dismissed in favor of investigations of Jewish life in major cities.
But Ouaknine-Yekutieli has always been drawn to Morocco’s harsh southern desert and the small oases that have supported Jewish life for thousands of years as they built a rich community life amid the stark mountains. She has worked with Dr. Salima Naji, an award-winning Moroccan social anthropologist and architect, to investigate the network of oases and how Jews became one of many minorities living in these small villages.
“The story of Amizigh [also known as Berber] Jews was often pushed off to the side, and we’re trying to fix that issue,” she said.
Ouaknine-Yekutieli’s most recent article will be published in the upcoming issue of the research journal Jewish Social Studies about spiritual charms connected to the Jewish cemetery in the southern village of Oufran, considered to be the oldest Jewish settlement in Morocco, with grave markers dating back to the third century CE, and possibly even earlier.
The Yekutielis have worked with Moroccan experts including Naji, Dr. David Goeury of the Sorbonne University, Prof. Aomar Boum of UCLA, and Prof. Mabrouk Saghir of the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Rabat, Morocco.
They uncovered genizas in synagogues in the villages of Akka and Tamanart, whose buildings were in use for hundreds of years and abandoned in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the vast majority of Moroccan Jews moved to Israel.
Starting this week, ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People is hosting a series of lectures about Moroccan Jewry and the Yekutielis will deliver the first lecture, delving into some of the traditions of charms they discovered in the genizas.
One of the challenges with archaeological excavations in southern Morocco is that all of the buildings were made from mud, which makes them very difficult to unearth and exceptionally susceptible to destruction from the elements afterward. It requires a painstaking process of slow excavation and immediate conservation by using local artisans and materials to rebuild the buildings in the same manner, explained Yuval Yekutieli.
“When we got there there was no roof and the columns were tipping over, the walls were falling apart,” recalled Yekutieli. In Akka, just before the Jews fled they dug a hole in the bima, the central prayer platform, and buried letters, magical charms written on parchment paper, and sacred texts including Torah scrolls. In Tamanart, they placed their holy objects in a hole in the wall.
When the researchers arrived, many texts were scattered on the floor of the two synagogues, a testament to antiquities thieves who had already searched the buildings for valuables. Before they could obtain permits to return and begin the excavation, torrential rain and floods swept through the area, the first time it had rained in nearly six years, Ouaknine-Yekutieli said. On the one hand, the researchers tried to match the excitement of the villagers about the rainfall, but they also worried that the texts would be ruined.
When the researchers returned to the site with the permits just after the rains, they were thrilled to discover that most of the papers were safely buried inside the mud walls or floors of the synagogue. In fact, the moisture from the rain had actually helped them.
“We spent a number of days and nights in this operation to remove all of the papers and unfold them while they were still wet because if they had dried out and we tried to open them they would have disintegrated,” said Ouaknine-Yekutieli.
“As Moroccans, we say it was the many tzaddikim [righteous Jews] and maraboutim [Islamic holy men] that are in this place that took care of the geniza and guarded our project,” she said.
If not now, when?
The genizas have led to a number of interesting discoveries, including that both villages were likely workshops for writing all sorts of magical, kabbalistic charms to protect women in childbirth, children, or elderly people. Other documents included letters from rabbis to various communities dating from the 17th and 18th centuries until the 1950s, and legal land documents between Jews and their Muslim neighbors.
The genizas are a treasure trove of information about social ties and traditions that are unique among Moroccan Jews, who placed great faith in kabbalistic charms.
Today, the parchments are housed for conservation in Rabat, but the project needs funding to research and digitize all of the items found in the genizas. These genizas are some of the most significant discovered in Morocco recently and offer a priceless opportunity to understand southern Moroccan culture throughout the ages, Ouaknine-Yekutieli said.
Although the traditions of Jewish life in southern Morocco goes back thousands of years, there’s an urgency to carry out the archaeological excavations and research now, while many of the Moroccans who lived in these villages are still alive in Israel.
“Through someone’s micro-history, we can understand so much more about the community, and now we can even talk to the people who left,” she said. Imagine if archaeologists excavating a village in Israel could call up former residents and ask which family lived in what house, or what a certain building was used for, Ouaknine-Yekutieli said.
Many of the Moroccan Jews who fled when they were adults are too old to travel today, but Ouaknine-Yekutieli takes them on video tours of the villages, so they can point out various features the researchers may have missed.
“We’re going back in time and seeing the moment they left in the late 1950s,” she said. “There’s such a rich history here, that really diversifies the stories we know about Moroccan Jewish history.
“We are trying to show the joy of this community of Jews of Morocco, and how, through the stories of a singular community, we can gain a larger understanding of Moroccan Jewry,” she said.
While Ouaknine-Yekutieli is working to spread the knowledge about Moroccan Jewish life in Israel, there’s also a rekindling of interest about Jews in Morocco itself, where about 2,500 Jews live today. In 2018, prior to normalization, King Mohammed VI of Morocco ordered schools to incorporate Holocaust studies into the curriculum. “Education has the power to fight against discrimination and racism, as well as the ugly phenomenon of antisemitism,” he said at the time.
One of the king’s personal advisers, Andre Azoulay, is Jewish, and he has been instrumental in advocating for teaching more Jewish history in Moroccan schools, and has also assisted Ouaknine-Yekutieli and the team in different ways, she said. Many of the Moroccan researchers she works with are not Jewish but were interested in the Jewish history of the area. Boum, a Moroccan professor who also works at UCLA, was researching Jewish life in Akka before the Yekutielis arrived.
“This is part of a larger story in the past 20 years of Morocco becoming more interested in its Jewish history,” said Ouaknine-Yekutieli. “Morocco is developing its identity as a diverse and multicultural place, and that includes its Jewish identity.”
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