El Ghriba Synagogue

Coordinates: 33°48′50″N 10°51′34″E / 33.81389°N 10.85944°E / 33.81389; 10.85944
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
El Ghriba Synagogue
Interior of El Ghriba Synagogue
AffiliationOrthodox Judaism
RiteMaghrebi (Tochavim)
StatusPilgrimage site
LocationDjerba, Tunisia
Geographic coordinates33°48′50″N 10°51′34″E / 33.81389°N 10.85944°E / 33.81389; 10.85944

The ancient El Ghriba Synagogue (Arabic: كنيس الغريبة), also known as the Djerba Synagogue, is located on the Tunisian island of Djerba. It is situated in the Jewish village of Hara Seghira (currently known as er-Riadh), several kilometres southwest of Houmt El Souk, the main town of Djerba.

The synagogue is the oldest in Tunisia, and possibly all of Africa.[1] Besides being the center of the island's Jewish life it is also a site of pilgrimage. While extensively renovated in the 19th century CE, the buildings may date to the 6th century BCE:[1] one of the legends associated with its founding claims that either a stone or a door from Solomon's Temple or the Second Temple is incorporated in the building.


Inside the synagogue

Djerba is home to around 1,300 Jews,[2] and El Ghriba is an important feature of Jewish life on the island.[3] According to legend, the construction of the synagogue goes back to the High Priests' escape following the destruction of Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II in the year 586 BCE (or, alternately, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE). The High Priests carried with them a door and a stone of the destroyed Temple. Thus the synagogue links the Jewish diaspora to the "sole sanctuary of Judaism".[4] In modern times, the local Jews are distinguished by their dress, which includes a black band around their pants, which signifies the destruction of the Temple.[5]

Another tradition says the synagogue was built on a spot where a young girl (ghriba, "the isolated one") had lived, that had not been accepted by the others. She died, and her uncorrupted body was found by the Jews of the nearby village, and then buried in a cave which became the site of an annual pilgrimage for Lag BaOmer.[4]

In 1985, during the festivities for Simchat Torah, a local policeman responsible for the synagogue's safety opened fire into a crowd of celebrating Jews, killing three people, among them one child,[3] and wounding 15.[6][7] This occurred in the aftermath of Operation "Wooden Leg" (Hebrew: מבצע רגל עץ, Mivtza Regel Etz) when Israel targeted the PLO headquarters in Tunisia. The local policeman, whose relative was killed in the operation, targeted the synagogue in a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment following the operation. On April 11, 2002, a truck full of explosives was detonated close to the synagogue, killing 21 people, among whom were 14 German tourists, five Tunisians, and two French nationals. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing,[8] which was found to have been masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and financed by a Pakistani resident of Spain.[9]


Entrance of the synagogue

The synagogue is located in the village of Erriadh, southwestward of Houmt Essouk on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The Ghriba is the most famous of the about 20 synagogues that were being used until the 1950s in the three Jewish villages on Djerba.


Courtyard of El Ghriba

The synagogue was built at the end of the 19th century at the spot where the sixth-century building had stood.

On the outside, the current synagogue is a modest building, whereas the interior is richly decorated. In contrast to the other synagogues of Djerba, El Ghriba consists of two covered halls. Following several structural extensions the first of the two halls was built through the roofing of a formerly open courtyard in order to increase the capacity for the number of visitors. At the entrance, there are two columns dividing the room into three areas. This hall is connected to the main hall by three vaults. At this side there are two columns, supporting a high skylight of numerous windows. Initially there were twelve windows in the hall, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

During later renovations further windows were added. The north side also was modified. The Teva (the cupboard for the Torah) is located under the skylight (at the western side of the prayer room). A third column to the east is missing. It probably never got constructed. Local tradition sees that as a reminder of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. Furthermore, it is said that the building should remain unfinished, because "nothing, except for the divinity, is perfect". The wooden benches for the believers are situated around the Teva. The inner walls are decorated ceramic tiles with blue, white and brown ornaments that were painted in hand work. A recess underneath the holy arc marks the spot where the body of the girl is supposed to have been found: It is known as «the cave of the girl».[10]

The inner courtyard is surrounded by covered loggias standing on columns. Pilgrims can use the adjacent buildings for accommodation. The oldest of them were built at the end of the nineteenth century, whereas the newer ones stem from the early 1950s.


The synagogue is being supervised by an independent administration committee that was established at the end of the nineteenth century, when Djerba was a French protectorate. The administration committee organizes the annual pilgrimage and distributes the pilgrimage's revenues to the village elders.


Lag Ba'Omer procession returning to the El Ghriba synagogue, 2007
People visiting El Ghriba

The pilgrimage takes place every year on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, in between Pesach and Shavuot. On the 14th of Iyar, the festivities begin, in remembrance of the tannaitic rabbi Meir Baal HaNess, and last until the Lag BaOmer on the 18th of Iyar, in remembrance of Tannaitic Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai (regionally known as Rabbi Shimon).


On 9 May 2023, a shooting occurred near the synagogue, killing two Jewish cousins, one a French tourist and a Tunisian citizen living in Netivot, Israel, and two Tunisian security guards.[11] Ten others were injured. The shooter, a guard at a naval center, initially shot and killed a colleague and seized his ammunition before heading to the synagogue. He was shot dead by security guards during a gunfight.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Oster, Marcy (14 May 2017). "Tunisia to seek World Heritage status for Djerba island, site of Jewish pilgrimage". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved 10 May 2023.
  2. ^ "Tunisia's Prime Minister joins guests as Jews celebrate a unique Lag Ba'Omer festival". Jewish Chronicle. May 23, 2019. Archived from the original on February 2, 2021. Retrieved November 13, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Gilbert, Martin (2010). In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands. McClelland & Stewart. p. 345. ISBN 9781551993423.
  4. ^ a b Meddeb, Abdelwahab; Stora, Benjamin, eds. (2013). A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day. Princeton University Press. p. 926. ISBN 9781400849130.
  5. ^ Blady, Ken (2000). Jewish Communities in Exotic Places. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 338. ISBN 9780765761125.
  6. ^ "Shots kill 3 at Tunisia synagogue". Chicago Tribune, 9 October 1985, p. 11.
  7. ^ "Policeman shoots into Jewish quarter". UPI. Archived from the original on 2022-01-16. Retrieved 2022-05-20.
  8. ^ "Tunisian bomb attack trial opens". BBC. Archived from the original on 2017-12-08. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
  9. ^ Reinares, Fernando (2016). Al-Qaeda's Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings. Columbia University Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780231801409.
  10. ^ DK (2011). DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Tunisia: Tunisia. New York: DK Publishing. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-7566-8479-2.
  11. ^ Yee, Vivian (2023-05-10). "Naval Guardsman Attacks Synagogue in Tunisia, Killing 5". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-05-10.
  12. ^ "4 killed in shooting near pilgrimage at ancient synagogue in Tunis". The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Archived from the original on 2023-05-10. Retrieved 2023-05-10.

External links[edit]