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Jewish pilgrims return to Tunisia after a COVID-induced hiatus

Hundreds of worshipers pass through armed police guard to enter the Ghriba Synagogue, Africa’s oldest shul

A Jewish pilgrim writes her wishes on an egg before putting it back in the cave at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia's southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)
A Jewish pilgrim writes her wishes on an egg before putting it back in the cave at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia's southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

DJERBA, Tunisia — Hundreds of Jewish worshipers flocked to Africa’s oldest synagogue in Tunisia on Wednesday, reviving an annual pilgrimage after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pilgrims passed through airport-style scanners and passed a heavy, armed police guard to enter the whitewashed Ghriba Synagogue on the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba, believed to have been founded in 586 BCE by Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

Inside, they lit candles, prayed and handed each other sweets and nuts.

Many took photos and filmed relatives and friends inside the intricately decorated synagogue.

Others sat praying or reading scripture on their own, before leaving with their friends and family.

Solange Azzouz, 75, who was born in Tunis but has lived in Marseille, France, for 58 years, said she had “lots of emotion.”

“My father was from Djerba and for him, the pilgrimage was very important,” she said. “As I get older I appreciate it more and more.”

She wore a brightly colored silk blouse and pearls as she stood outside in the heat.

French Jewish pilgrims light candles at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022, during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

The pilgrimage marks the Lag B’Omer festival, which is held 33 days after the start of the Jewish Passover.

Djerba is home to one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world, and the synagogue is believed to date to the sixth century BCE.

A suicide bombing claimed by Al-Qaeda at the synagogue in 2002 killed 21 people.

Before that, some 8,000 pilgrims used to travel to Djerba for the annual celebration. The number plunged afterward but had since recovered somewhat — until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

A Jewish pilgrim reads from the Torah at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia’s southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022 during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

Last year a pilgrimage was held but with much-reduced numbers and strict sanitary conditions.

Moroccan-born Paris resident Adi Wizman Nicodeme, 74, said he was on the pilgrimage for the first time at the invitation of a friend.

“For me, it was important to come and get to know the place,” he said. “I’m a professor of Judaism and Hebrew. My friends and students have told me about this place.”

“After more than two years of closure, it was important to be able to come. I hope we’ve reached the end of this pandemic which was so difficult for the entire world.”

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