Thousands of Jews Make an Annual Pilgrimage to This Muslim Country

These communities coexist against all odds.

The small island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia has all the ingredients for the perfect holiday: Glistening white sands, warm Mediterranean waters, small villages with mazelike alleys, and hundreds of archaeological sites witnessing the land's long history. After arriving, many tourists seem content to burrow under a thatched umbrella of a luxury resort along the beach of Sidi Mahres, neglecting some of the real charm of the island.

Although welcoming and attractive, Djerba's beach resorts offer only one side of the island.
PHOTOGRAPH BY REINHARD SCHMID, ESTOCK PHOTO

Head deeper inside, past craft markets, café terraces, and decrepit colonial buildings, and a fascinating contrast is revealed: There remains one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world, in a country that’s 98 percent Muslim.

The island's prominent Ghriba synagogue has been in continuous use for over two millennia. People believe that it was built around 500 B.C. by Jews who had fled after the Roman destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. The community grew during the Spanish Inquisition, and later from nearby countries. Eventually, around 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia before the country won independence from France in 1956.

Today, the 1,100 Jewish people centred around the famous synagogue in Djerba are nearly all that remain of the once thriving community. But every year, thousands fill the blue tiled Ghriba synagogue again during the annual pilgrimage for Lag BaOmer, which takes place 33 days after Passover.

People travel from around the world each year to join the Lag BaOmer celebrations in Djerba's Ghriba synagogue.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

During a ceremony which marks his readiness for Judaism, a three-year-old boy receives a ritual haircut during the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

A group of women chat together in the Ghriba synagogue during the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Pilgrims place eggs with handwritten wishes for the next year near a stone in the synagogue that's believed to originate from Jerusalem more than 2,500 years ago.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

On Shabbat, a Jewish man reads a prayer book while watching his goats in Hara Kebira, Djerba's main Jewish neighbourhood.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

People hang scarves on a pyramid that represents Moses' five books, which will be part of the Lag BaOmer procession.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

A local artisan looks for photos in the drawers of his shop, where he's made reed mats for the Ghriba synagogue for about 50 years.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

A young girl peeks through the stained glass windows which adorn the Ghriba synagogue, believed to be built around 500 B.C.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Deep in prayer, a woman reads in the Ghriba synagogue.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

The mazelike alleys of Djerba's Houmt Souk, or "the market neighbourhood," just beg to be explored.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Music provides a festive atmosphere for the crowd gathered during the Lag BaOmer holiday.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Evident throughout the complex, the Ghriba synagogue is considered the oldest in Africa.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Nearby, café terraces and beach resorts provide the perfect island vacation destination.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IAN DAGNALL, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Jewish pilgrims travel from countries such as Israel, France, and the United Kingdom each year.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Celebrations are washed down with strong fig wine that's unique to Tunisia.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Candles symbolically honour the memories of deceased loved ones during Lag BaOmer.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Women read and discuss the Torah together in the Ghriba synagogue complex.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Visiting from Tunis, women write wishes for good fortune during the upcoming year on hard-boiled eggs.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Although attendance is down in the past few years, thousands still make the journey to Djerba during Lag BaOmer.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

A man bikes through the market neighbourhood of Djerba, Houmt Souk, home to a labyrinth of several small streets connected by arcades. 

PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Guellala Museum offers insight into the history and traditions of the people of Djerba, both Muslims and Jews.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NORBERT SCANELLA, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO 

Pilgrims light candles and place eggs covered with handwritten wishes into the synagogue’s floor, on the stone supposedly from the Temple of Jerusalem. They continue the celebration with music playing over feasts of couscous, fish, and strong fig wine that's unique to Tunisia.

The pilgrimage is a point of local pride, confirming a practised coexistence on an island that hosts centuries-old mosques, churches, and synagogues. Unfortunately, past years have not been easy: The event was cancelled in 2011 during the Tunisian revolution, and later reestablished. More recently, three major terrorist attacks since 2015 raise security concerns. Cruise lines send fewer ships during the year, and beach chairs sit empty on the island paradise. Yet the country looks to the future.

This year, the country announced its intent to apply for coveted UNESCO World Heritage status for the island of Djerba, to recognise the cultural uniqueness of the synagogue and annual pilgrimage. Attendance may be down, but thousands of Jews still travel to the island of Djerba once a year for the special event. Any time of the year, tourists can explore the unique cultural and religious diversity, sitting just beyond the beach.

Art murals on the streets of the Tunisian village of Erriadh on the island of Djerba were created in 2014 as part of an urban art project that included 150 artists from all over the world.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

This year, the country announced its intent to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for the island of Djerba, to recognise the cultural uniqueness of the synagogue and annual pilgrimage which attracts worshipers from around the world.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIELLE VILLASANA

Header Image: Men wear tefillin, small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, to pray in the historic Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia's Djerba island. Photographs by Danielle Villasana

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