In the middle of the last century, Morocco was home to some 250,000 Jews. Today, their descendants make up a sizeable portion of Israel’s population. Ofer Aderet reports on the discovery of the remains of a forgotten Moroccan Jewish community deep in the Atlas Mountains, near the Sahara Desert:
The small Jewish community of Tamanart lived there from the 16th century to the early 19th century. Recently, researchers from Israel, Morocco, and France conducted salvage excavations in its ruined synagogue. Along with the building’s walls, they found Scriptures and pages from the synagogue’s genizah, a repository for damaged written matter and ritual objects, as well as a few paper amulets. One was meant to protect a woman in labor and her newborn, another a personal charm meant to protect its owner from trouble and disease.
Over the past two decades, the Moroccan royal family has initiated and given support to a host of projects meant to preserve the kingdom’s Jewish history. . . . This plan also encompasses the project undertaken by the abovementioned researchers. The synagogue in Tamanart, a village with 6,000 residents, is just one of the locations on an honorable list of Jewish sites in a large region in the southern part of Morocco.
The list includes the adjacent village of Ifrane, which, according to tradition, was home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in North Africa and the oldest one in Morocco. Some traditions say that after the destruction of the First Temple, refugees fleeing Jerusalem established a Jewish kingdom in Ifrane, headed by a king called Efrati. The village was also known for a tragic incident which occurred there in 1792, when 50 members of the Jewish community jumped into a burning furnace after the local ruler made them choose between converting to Islam or death by fire. They’ve been called “the immolated” since then, their ashes interred in the ancient local cemetery.