Two archaeologists are digging the floor of a synagogue in Morocco’s Akka oasis in quest of even the smallest traces of the country’s Jewish past.
Morocco’s Jewish population, which dates back to antiquity, reached its zenith in the 15th century, following the violent expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain.
Morocco had roughly 250,000 Jews at the turn of the century. However, following waves of departures during the establishment of Israel in 1948, particularly following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, their number has been reduced to only 2,000 now.
There is scant record of the community’s rich legacy.
According to Saghir Mabrouk, a Moroccan archaeologist, this undertaking is unique.
“This is a first. The first archaeological excavation of the Jewish-Moroccan heritage, it is the first time that the National Institute of Sciences of Archaeology and Heritage (INSAP) begins an excavation in the field of Jewish archaeology, Jewish-Moroccan,” said Saghir Mabrouk, archaeologist at the National Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage of Morocco.
Saghir Mabrouk is part of a coalition of six researchers from Morocco, Israel and France, in a project to revive the Jewish heritage of the North African country.
The team was able to recover a majority of objects including fragments of manuscripts and amulets.
“We excavated the synagogue of Akka, we found traces of several phases inside. It was renovated several times and before the people left here, during the great emigration in the 1960s if we understand correctly, they buried inside the synagogue the holy book and other things, what we call in Hebrew ‘genizah’ (storage area in a Jewish synagogue). So they put it in the synagogue and protected it very carefully,” explains Yuval Yekutieli, an Israeli archaeologist from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Although the archaeological site has not yet been dated, experts say it is essential to understanding the region’s Jewish-Moroccan history, keeping it alive and passing it on.
“And that is very valuable, because it is a memory that is still alive. For us, what is important here is to keep this memory alive, to make the link with the people who will then be the actors of this territory, since they will be the ones to welcome the tourists who will come, or the people who have their families here, or the people who are also trying to understand how these communities lived,” attests Salima Naji, architect in charge of the restoration of the Akka Synagogue.
Akka, a green valley of date palms surrounded by arid hills 525 kilometers south of Rabat, was formerly a trans-Saharan commerce crossroads.
The remnants of the synagogue, made of earth in the architectural tradition of the region, can be seen in the oasis, in the center of Tagadirt’s “mellah,” or Jewish district.
Although the site has not yet been dated, scholars say it is crucial to understanding the region’s Jewish-Moroccan history.
Attempts to unearth these Jewish historical artifacts are one of the outcomes of stronger ties since Morocco and Israel normalized relations in 2020.