Every spring, thousands of Jews from across Israel, Europe, and North Africa flock to the island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia to visit the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North Africa. The word “Ghriba” refers not only to the synagogue, but also to a young woman called the ghriba, described in various legends about the building and the foundation of the Jewish community on the island. In the early 19th century, if not earlier, people began to make pilgrimage to gather at the synagogue for a 4-day festival celebrating the ghriba as well as two famous Jewish rabbis who perished in the 2nd century C.E. Pilgrims worship and light candles in honor of the ghriba and rabbis, and parade through the streets in celebration of the Jewish people’s connection to God.
For centuries, the island of Djerba has been home to a diverse population, including Jews, Muslims, and Imazighen (Berbers). Over time, the Jewish community’s customs developed in tandem with and in response to local Muslim and Amazigh practice. The legends, rituals, and decoration of the synagogue reflect the Djerban Jewish community’s long history on the island and their adoption of local Djerban practices alongside Jewish traditions.
Jewish history in Tunisia
The Jewish community of Tunisia, and of the island of Djerba in particular, stretches back over 2,000 years. Jews are believed to have arrived in Tunisia with the Phoenicians, as early as the 10th century B.C.E., who founded the ancient colony of Carthage on the northernmost tip of Africa. According to a popular legend of the Jewish community’s origins, a group of high priests (kohanim) arrived in Djerba having fled Jerusalem following the destruction of the ancient Temple in 586 B.C.E. In their flight, they salvaged a fragment of a door of the ancient Temple and brought it with them to Djerba. They reportedly preserved it as a relic in a grotto, or a cave, beneath what would become the Ghriba synagogue. This narrative directly links the foundation of the synagogue of the Temple in Jerusalem, the symbolic center of Judaism.
Until the 1950s, Djerba was home to the largest Jewish community in Tunisia. While there is still a vibrant Jewish presence on the island—the second-largest active Jewish community in the Arab world—the community numbers fewer than 1,500 people. Of the more than 20 synagogues and yeshivot (schools of Jewish learning) on the island, many are abandoned. The Ghriba synagogue itself is no longer used by the Djerban Jewish community for weekly prayer. Other than its prominent role in the annual pilgrimage, the synagogue is primarily a tourist attraction.
The Ghriba synagogue: architecture and decoration
Although a synagogue has likely stood on the site of the Ghriba synagogue for centuries, the building we see today dates to the 19th century, with several renovations in the 1920s and 30s. In its architecture and decoration, it reflects a combination of essential forms in a synagogue and local Tunisian architecture, demonstrating the dual aspects of the community’s identity—Jewish and Tunisian.
Djerban architecture is broadly characterized by simple and modest exteriors with minimal ornament and whitewashed walls, an essential feature in Tunisia’s hot summer climate. With its white walls reflecting the sun, the Ghriba fits easily into this Djerban landscape.
The Ghriba, as well as other Djerban synagogues, all follow essentially the same layout—a prayer hall adjacent to an open courtyard. This plan borrows from a common arrangement in mosque architecture, including across Tunisia, which allows worshippers to congregate first in an open-air courtyard prior to entering into the main space of worship. At some point, the Ghriba’s architecture was modified, with a covered hall replacing the open courtyard, likely in order to accommodate the large numbers of pilgrims visiting the synagogue during the yearly pilgrimage.
Now covered, the previously open courtyard, overwhelms the visitor in its decoration with brightly colored ceramic tiles. The tiles are reminiscent of qallaline, painted tile murals, often depicting vases with flowering branches or representations of mosques framed by ornate geometric patterns. These tiles were commonly used to decorate elite Tunisian residences and mosque architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ghriba tiles follow the dominant color palette of Tunisian qallaline—green, yellow, and blue—and feature similar geometric patterns.
The main prayer hall is decorated by a series of blue columns supporting arches painted with alternating blue and white stripes in imitation of ablaq stonework, the alternation of light and dark stones commonly seen in masonry in the Islamic world.
At the center of the prayer hall is an ornate, carved wooden bema, or reader’s desk, from which the clergy read from the Torah and chant the weekly liturgy.
Rising above the bema is a tower (also known as a lantern) pierced by windows. Djerban synagogue lanterns typically feature 12 windows, evoking the 12 tribes of Israel. Like its architectural plan, the Ghriba lantern was also modified, expanding its 12 windows to 16, thereby offering more light to the sanctuary. Placed over the bema, the lantern floods the reader’s table—the central locus of the worship service—with light. From the exterior, the towering lanterns of the synagogues were made to be immediately identifiable in the landscape of the island, standing out on the horizon and marking the synagogues within the villages. However, with the successive modifications to the Ghriba synagogue, as well as security concerns, its lantern is no longer visible.
The prayer hall culminates in the east end with the heikhal, or the Torah Ark, featuring 5 cabinets to house the synagogue’s Torah, the most sacred object in Judaism. At the base of the heikhal, is a small wooden door, offering an entrance to the grotto where the relics of the body of the ghriba and the fragment of the ancient Temple’s wooden door are believed to have been buried (more on the this topic below). The glass frames of the Torah cabinets are filled with engraved silver ex-votos, or objects given in gratitude or devotion. The ex-votos feature commemorations of members of the congregation who have passed away, as well as records of newborns. They take varying shapes, including some symbols also popular in Muslim communities, such as fish—a symbol of fertility and protection against the evil eye, and hamsas, believed to ward off evil. Small folded pieces of paper with inscribed wishes are slipped inside the crevices of the doors. This practice is reminiscent of a contemporary ritual observed by worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the extant retaining wall from the ancient Temple. The relic of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that is believed to lie beneath the synagogue’s heikhal likely inspired this ritual. Its presence brings the holiness of the now-destroyed ancient Temple to the Ghriba, and spiritually brings the worshippers in Djerba that much closer to the Holy Land.
Legends of the ghriba and sainthood in Judaism
The legend of the ghriba emphasizes the synagogue’s local dimension, drawing on similar narratives found in local Muslim and Amazigh communities. According to one version of the legend, a solitary young woman, called the ghriba, arrived on the shores of the island of Djerba and lived alone in a small hut. One day her hut burned down, and to the astonishment of the island’s residents, her body remained intact. The island’s inhabitants buried her, hoping that they would be forgiven for not having honored her during her lifetime. After her burial, those who visited her grave reported miracles of healing. They built a shrine above her grave, which is today believed to be the grotto underneath the Torah shrine within the Ghriba synagogue.
In Djerba, the ghriba is revered as a Jewish saint, or holy dead. It’s commonly believed that the veneration of saints and their relics—holy bodies and objects that have come into contact with holy bodies—is marginal or foreign to Judaism. However, from ancient Judaism to the present, Jewish communities have venerated at the tombs of rabbis and martyrs, performed annual pilgrimages to the graves of righteous Jews (tsaddiqim), and used and valued the earth and other secondary relics, or objects that have had contact with burial sites. This is especially the case among North African Jewry, who lived alongside their Muslim neighbors, and were likely informed by Muslim practices of saint veneration.
The pilgrimage to the ghriba’s grave is celebrated annually along with the anniversary of the deaths of two famous rabbis—Shimon bar Yochai and Meir Ba’al Hanes—who lived in Palestine in the 2nd century C.E., and who are both credited with miracles. Although not from Tunisia, their veneration is so strong among Tunisian Jews that they are often taken for local saints as well. Pilgrims from all over the world, but especially Tunisia, Libya, France, and Israel, flock to the Ghriba synagogue. Many pilgrims stay in the oukala, or caravanserais—a large open courtyard with rooms for travelers—opposite the synagogue.
A menara, a large 5-level hexagonal candelabrum, is decorated with symbols celebrating Djerban Jewish history including the twelve tribes of Israel, famous Tunisian rabbis, and the two mystical rabbis celebrated in the pilgrimage festival. The menara is draped in silk scarves and paraded through the streets between the Ghriba synagogue and other synagogues in nearby villages. The journey is intended to celebrate the mystical marriage of the Jewish community with God. The procession resembles the local Djerban wedding ritual in which the bride is conveyed on a camel inside a colorful, decorated palanquin, from her father’s home to the groom’s house. The word menara means bride in Arabic, and fianceé in Hebrew, further emphasizing the parallels between the wedding ceremony and the annual procession.
Pilgrims to the Ghriba synagogue also visit the grotto under the Torah shrine, where they light candles and deposit eggs on which are inscribed Hebrew verses and wishes. According to local tradition, if a woman eats the egg, her wish for love and fertility will be fulfilled within a year. As with Muslim practice during a ziyara (pilgrimage), Jews who visit the ghriba promise to return to visit the saint when their prayers are answered.
The many rituals of the annual pilgrimage reinforce their Jewish identity as well as affirm their belonging to the broader Djerban community.
Issachar Ben-Ami, Saint Veneration Among the Jews in Morocco (Wayne State University Press, 1998).
Ra’anan Boustan, “Jewish Veneration of the ‘Special Dead’ in Late Antiquity and Beyond,” in Saints and Sacred Matter: The Cult of Relics in Byzantium and Beyond, edited by Cynthia Hahn and Holger A. Klein (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2015), pp. 61–81.
Joseph W. Meri, The Cult of Saints among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Shalom Sabar, “The Khamsa in the Synagogue: A Meeting of Oppositions? The Evolution of the Khamsa in Judaism and Jewish Folk Culture,” in Khamsa, Khamsa, Khamsa: The Evolution of a Motif in Contemporary Israeli Art, edited by Ido Noy (Jerusalem: L.A. Mayer, 2018), pp. 44–53, 163–69.