DJERBA, Tunisia — Thousands of people participated in an annual Jewish pilgrimage to Tunisia’s famed Ghriba synagogue, which ended Thursday night without incident under heavy security.
For two days, pilgrims prayed and sang in Hebrew as they lit candles and placed votive eggs in a cave below Ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue, on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia.
About 3,000 people took part in the first day of the festivities, a police official told AFP.
Cheering and dancing, worshipers completed the pilgrimage by leaving the “Menara,” an object of worship mounted on a cart for the ritual procession, at Ghriba’s closely monitored outer gate.
The joyful march usually makes a tour of other synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods on the island before returning to Ghriba, but in recent years, celebrations have been confined to Ghriba for security reasons.
According to Rene Trabelsi, co-organizer of the annual pilgrimage, nearly 400 Israelis took part in this year’s festivities.
Organized every year on the 33rd day of the Omer, the traditional counting of the 49 days separating the Jewish festivals of Passover and Shavuot, the Ghriba pilgrimage has long been a central tradition for Jewish Tunisians.
The day is called Lag B’Omer, and is also celebrated in Israel and throughout the Jewish world with bonfires and pilgrimages.
The number of Jews in Tunisia has fallen significantly in the 20th century, from around 100,000 before independence from France in 1956 to an estimated 1,500 today.
The community is still recovering from a 2002 Al-Qaeda suicide bombing on the Ghriba synagogue that killed 21 people, mostly Germans.
Before the attack, some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration.
Although the security situation in Tunisia has improved over the past two years, authorities remain wary.
A state of emergency imposed after a series of attacks on tourists and security forces in 2015 remains in place, having been extended in March for a another seven months.
Authorities are particularly concerned over threats to tourist hotspots and voting installations for Sunday’s municipal elections.