El Ghriba synagogue

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El Ghriba Synagogue
El Ghriba.jpg
Interior of El Ghriba Synagogue
Basic information
Location Djerba, Tunisia
Affiliation Orthodox Judaism
Rite Maghrebi (Tochavim)
Country Tunisia
Status Pilgrimage site
Architectural style Moorish

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 Souk, the main town of Djerba.

In Arabic, the term ghriba means «wonderful» or «alien», which mirrors the synagogue‘s particular significance whithin the Jewish traditions of Tunisia. It is the most famous of several synagogues of the same name that are located in different countries in North Africa (especially near Annaba).


Inside the synagogue

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. The High Priests carried with them a door and a stone of the destroyed Temple‘s altar. Nowadays, visitors can find a stone embedded in one of the synagogue‘s vaults, which is said to be the original stone from Jerusalem.

The significance and holiness of the synagogue are also explained by other traditions. In one of them, the synagogue has been built in the first half of the 19th century at a spot where, previously, a young, foreign girl (ghriba) had lived, that had not been accepted by the inhabitants of the island. Since she is supposed to have died in a fire that had burnt her cottage but not her body, the Jews of Djerba thought her to be holy and decided to build a synagogue at said place. In a different version, the girl is a Jewish refugee that fled Jerusalem with a Torah and a stone from the Temple. Upon arriving on Djerba, she died from exhaustion and the synagogue was built at the place of her death.

In 1985, a local policeman responsible for the synagogue‘s safety opened fire into a crowd of celebrating Jews during the festivities of Simchat Torah, killing three people, among them one child.

On April 11th, 2002, an attack on tourists visiting the el-Ghriba synagogue was committed, when a truck, loaded with 5000 liters of liquefied gas, drove into the synagogue‘s wall and exploded. 19 tourists died in the incident [2], further approximately 30 people were injured, some of them severely

An oral tradition passed down by the Jews of Djerba claim that a stone taken from Jerusalem's Second Temple was laid-up as a memorial in the El Ghriba synagogue.


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.

On Simchat Torah 1985, a police officer charged with the security of the synagogue opened fire on the congregation causing the death of three people, including a child.

On April 11, 2002, a truck full of explosives was detonated close to the synagogue, killing 21 people, of whom 14 were German tourists, five Tunisians and two French nationals. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing.[1]


Courtyard of El Ghriba
The synagogue was built at the end of the 19th century at the spot where the 6th century building had been.
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 girls is supposed to have been found: It is known as «the cave of the girl».[2]
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 pro-tectorate. The administration committee organizes the annual pilgrimage and distributes the pilgrimage‘s revenues to the village elders.


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 rabbi Meir Baal HaNess, and last until the Lag BaOmer on the 18th of Iyar, in remembrance of rabbi Simeon bar Yochai (regionally known as rabbi Shimon).

See also


  1. ^ Tunisian bomb attack trial opens, BBC
  2. ^ DK (2011). DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Tunisia: Tunisia. New York: DK Publishing. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-7566-8479-2. 

External links

Coordinates: 33°48′54″N 10°51′31″E / 33.8149361111°N 10.8586916667°E / 33.8149361111; 10.8586916667

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