GONDAR, Ethiopia — The brightly painted Star of David comes as a surprise on the road from Gondar toward the Simien Mountains, just around a bend as you leave the city in northern Ethiopia. “Wolleka Falasha Jewish Village,” the hand-painted sign proclaims.
Welcome to an abandoned Jewish village, one of Gondar’s top ten recommended tourist attractions. A few hundred Jews lived in this village for generations, until they left in the 1980s and early 90s. Some went by foot to Sudan and were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984. Others made their way to Addis Ababa and went to Israel from the capital.
There are no Jews left in the village of Wolleka. But today, the former Jewish village is a kitschy shopping stop for tourists on their way to treks in the Simien Mountains.
Ethiopia’s Jews, called “Falashas” or “strangers,” were typically not allowed to own land or property. This meant many of them turned to professional crafts, including pottery, blacksmithing, embroidery, and cloth and basket weaving.
Wolleka’s reputation as a craft center made it a natural home for a touristy market. But interestingly, the current residents have chosen to celebrate the village’s Jewish roots rather than let them fade into history.
One family keeps the keys to the old synagogue, a round, squat building located a ten-minute walk from the road. The turquoise Stars of David painted on the mud walls outside are starting to fade, but the interior’s intricate paint job is still preserved, a mosaic of natural paints made from red earth, ash, and water.
“We keep this for a memorial,” explained Ethiopia Berihe, 40, the matriarch of the family that holds the keys. “It’s like a historical place. Maybe their children will come here to visit.”
Children holding trays of tchotchkes and crafts hover around the doorway, cajoling the visitors to buy this, come to my shop, buy from me, buy from me.
“We get tourists from all over, Americans, Australians, Spanish, Israelis,” said Berihe. “Sometimes they buy and sometimes they only come to visit. Most people that come don’t know about the Jewish part, except for the Jews that come.”
Improved infrastructure means Ethiopia’s tourism is growing exponentially. This means more and more international tourists are making their way to Gondar, the gateway to stunning vistas in the Simien Mountains, known as the Grand Canyon of Africa.
According to Lonely Planet, Wolleka is number five in the top ten destinations in Gondar, after a traditional restaurant, royal castles, and trekking in the mountains.
“Research suggests Falashas may have provided the labour for the construction and decoration of Gonder’s castles,” Lonely Planet’s entry for Wolleka reads. “Sadly, the pottery for which they were once famous has mostly degenerated into half-hearted art, though the figurine trinkets do make cool souvenirs.”
There is also a Jewish cemetery in Wolleka, with a Jewish Agency memorial to the Ethiopian Jews who lost their lives on the treacherous journey to Sudan. The brightly painted graves are all adorned with Stars of David.
Few of the actual Jews living today in Gondar have been to Wolleka, though they are proud that the site has retained its Jewish character. “I like that when tourists come, they can still see the synagogue and the cemetery,” said Atenkut Setataw, a cantor at the HaTikva synagogue, which serves Gondar’s Jewish population.
“I hope when all the Jews are gone, people who have relatives buried here will continue to help keep up the graves,” said Gashaw Abinet, another cantor at the synagogue who went to Wolleka for the first time with a visiting reporter. He has lived in Gondar for 17 years, waiting to move to Israel.
“But sometimes, I feel like we are like the bones left behind,” he added as he picked his way through the old graves. “Our fathers are already forgetting their brothers.”
Local Wolleka residents have caught on to the Jewish tourism, and have begun demanding 15 Ethiopian birr (about NIS 3, or 75 cents) for each visitor to the cemetery and the synagogue for “protection” of the sites.
Many of the residents left in Wolleka are from the Qemant tribe, according to Abinet. Oral history holds that the Qemant tribe is originally from northern Africa, possibly Egypt, but arrived in Ethiopia with Beta Israel, the Jewish population. According to legend, the Qemant followed the Beta Israel after learning they had spirited away the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia some 2,500 years ago.
Qemant used to be a separate religion, with many similarities to Judaism, but most Qemant have now converted to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
Berihe, who has lived her whole life in Wolleka, says little in the village has changed since the Jews left, although she misses her former Jewish neighbors. The village still proudly displays the Stars of David on many of the homes.
“The advantage we have is the crafts and metal[working],” said Berihe. “The Jews taught us how to do pottery and metal. When they left, we kept doing it.”