El Ghriba, Djerba Island, Tunisia, where Jews & Muslims Celebrate Together.
Djerba is an island off the coast of Tunisia. It’s the largest island in North Africa.
The sun shines there 324 days a year. It’s beautiful and unspoilt.
Prices are low and shopping in the souks is an absolute Must!
Around 163,000 people live there.
It doesn’t seem like an island as it’s so close to the mainland. A Roman bridge originally linked it to the mainland, and a ferry travels to and fro regularly.
I visited the island recently. We flew to Carthage from Gatwick, and then caught the domestic flight to the Djerba airport.
Like thousands of other people, we were travelling there for La Ghriba Pilgrimage.
The Ghriba Synagogue is one of the oldest Synagogues in the world. The site dates back to 586BC, but the present building was built in the 20th Century.
If you’re feeling a bit confused, I’d better explain something;
El Ghriba is the Arabic name, and La Ghriba is French. So both versions are correct.
Ghriba means Stranger, and all strangers of all races and religions are welcome at the Synagogue.
History of Djerba’s Jewish community
This community is unique in Jewish history for its unusually high percentage of Kohanim (Hebrew; the Jewish Priestly caste), direct Patrilineal descendants of Aaron, the first Biblical high priest. Because of this, the island is known among Jews as the island of the Kohanim. One of the community’s synagogues, known simply as El Ghriba synagogue, is one of the most famous synagogues in the world. This is because it has been in continuous use for over 2,000 years. The Jews were settled in two main communities: the Hara Kabira (“the big quarter”) and the Hara Saghira (“the small quarter”). The Hara Saghira identified itself with Israel, while the Hara Kabira identified with Spain and Morocco. In the aftermath of World War II, the Jewish population on the island declined significantly due to emigration to Israel and France. As of 2011, the permanent resident community on the island numbered about 1,000, but many return annually on pilgrimage.
On April 11, 2002, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a truck bomb attack close to the famous synagogue, killing 21 people (14 German tourists, 5 Tunisians and 2 French nationals). Although tourists ceased visiting Djerba for some time after this event, normal activity has since resumed.
Yes, but what is it? I’m not Jewish and I had no idea what was going to happen there.
Although it’s a Jewish celebration, everyone’s welcome – and made welcome!
‘Tunisia will continue to be a country open to the coexistence of religions,’ Tunisian prime minister Youssef Chahed said in a visit to the island of Djerba at the start of El Ghriba.
Security was tight. I’ve never seen anything like it, anywhere!
We were checked and re-checked as we went in, and our photos were individually taken.
Police, wall-to-wall soldiers, fire engines, anti-aircraft guns, helicopters, masked soldiers on rooftops, tanks: you name it, they were there. But they were all very friendly and polite, and they even posed for us to take photos!
We made our way through the crowds, who were dressed in their best clothes, and obviously loving every minute of it!
There was an open square with arches round the outside. Music was playing in the centre, and market stalls lined the outside, with a large selection of goods for sale at very reasonable prices, varying from shoes to sweets.
We shouldered our way through and found ourselves outside what I believe was the main synagogue. Shoes had to be removed before entering.
Inside, people were lighting candles, and at the rear, an old lady guarded a hole in the wall where hard-boiled eggs with written messages of good luck and wishes on were posted through.
Gently forcing our way outside into the warm evening air again, we watched a procession making its way along the road and back again with people chanting. They carried a religious statue.
We were told that there’s an auction held and people bid to go to the front.
The whole atmosphere was like a big party. Nearly everyone made eye contact and smiled at us.
Some ladies were wearing traditional costumes.
Youngsters ambled up and down, showing off and eyeing each other up. Like the traditional promenades in countries like Spain, it’s obviously a place to meet future boy/girlfriends and wives/husbands.
Leaving the Ghriba was quite easy, with no traffic holdups. In fact, everything was well-organised.
I only have one complaint; I wish they’d give the loos a good clean!
Tunisian National Tourist Office UK & Ireland
3rd Floor, 111 Baker Street, London, W1U 6SG
T: 020 7224 5561; E: firstname.lastname@example.org