Cemetery in Ghardaya, Algeria

Though located a good walk from the town, the Jewish cemetery served as a hub for community activity. Every spring the community would hold the feast of "Beshemaun" in memory of Rabbi Shimon, a legendary rabbi who had come to Ghardaya from Morocco centuries earlier and (by legend) performed miracles. The celebration would be held at the entrance of the cemetery with a community-wide picnic. Afterwards, the town's burial society would take old religious books no longer fit for use and bury them in the cemetery's geniza in a joyous ritual. When France made Ghardaya its regional headquarters in 1882, the Jewish community began to throw off certain restrictions traditionally imposed upon it by the town's Muslims. 75 years later, as the Algerian revolution against French rule ignited, the Jewish community came under great pressure. In 1959, rebel commanders forbid Muslims from buying Jewish property. Prominent community leader Makhlouf Partoshe suddenly fled, in January 1962, leaving his home and shop shuttered. In March of that same year, Arab patrols began to harass Jews in the Jewish quarter, outwardly discussing which Jewish girls they would "claim." Sensing their 450-year-old community was about to end, the remaining Jews of Ghardaya gathered on May 22, 1962 for the feast of Beshemaun one last time and then buried all the books and Torah schools they could not take with them on the subsequent emergency airlift to France [1].


IBADITES: The Ibadites of the Mzab are a Shi’a break-off sect in mostly-Sunni Algeria; a small Berber enclave in a region otherwise dominated by Arabs; and a rare urban community in the typically-nomadic Sahara. The Ibadites follow a doctrine established in the early days of Islam by Abdallah ibn Ibad, who believed all Muslims were equals, that the community’s leader should be elected, and that Muslims should live an ascetic life (no music or dancing), and be upright in all business dealings [2].

GHADAYA’S ROOTS: Frequently persecuted by fellow Muslims and often forced to meet in secret, a group of Ibadites left Iraq for the Maghreb, where some Berber tribes found their doctrine of equality appealing. The growing sect soon founded the city of Tiaret as the seat of their theocratic mini-empire for over a century, until militant Sunnis sacked the city in 909. After searching for a safe place to re-establish themselves, the Ibadites eventually settled on this rocky site along the Mzab river, which typically flows only once every five years. Ghardaya was a built as a walled city on a hill capped by a mosque, the center of government for the town’s theocratic leadership [3].

COMMUNITY DYNAMICS: While disciplined ascetics, Ibadites also believe that acquiring wealth is a moral duty to help glorify God and the community. Ghardaya’s remote location afforded them safety, but also placed them far from the main Saharan trade routes. The men thus had to leave home to trade, earning money far outside Gharadaya as merchants (with a particularly strong presence in Algeria’s and Tunisia’s textile and grocery trades). Ghardaya’s women, however, were by tradition barred from leaving the Mzab region and so served as the city’s pillars, drawing husbands back every year [4].

JEWISH ROLE: Ibadite doctrine bans its followers from becoming “impure” by working with fire and metals, yet community members still needed gunsmiths, carpenters, and jewelers (to produce gifts for their wives). Jews were thus able to establish a unique space for themselves in Ghardaya. The legend among both Muslims and Jews is that in 1350 the elders of Ghardaya imported four families of Jewish craftsmen from Djerba, Tunisia (site of another major Ibadite community) to provide items Ghardaya’s Ibadites could not produce themselves. This small Jewish community grew substantially after the 1492 destruction of Tamentit, southwest of Ghardaya [5].

MELLAH: Jews were allowed into Ghardaya on the condition that they live in a ghetto, known as a “mellah” (as in Moroccan towns), on the edge of town. Living inside this town within a town, Jews largely kept to themselves and stayed out of their Muslim neighbors’ way except for commercial exchanges. Several Jewish men had shops near Ghardaya’s central market, yet women almost never left the mellah [6]. Every night the mellah door was locked – a practice that only ended with French rule. At the end of a dark cave-like 50 foot tunnel leading into the Jewish quarter sat the massive mellah door. Until French conquest, Jews also had to wear a black turban, could not ride donkeys, and were obliged to walk barefoot outside the mellah – all signs of their degradation as non-Muslim "dhimmis" [7].

SYNAGOGUE LOCATION: Ghardaya’s theocratic rulers allowed Jews to build one synagogue and worship freely inside it. The synagogue was not in center of the mellah but rather near the old mellah gate, at top of the mellah’s narrowest street. Its location at the top of the mellah mirrors the location of the mosque (with its towering minaret) that sits at Gharadaya’s highest point. In the 1890s the old synagogue on the site burned down one evening (oil candles were used to line the walls, creating a serious fire hazard). Neighbors whose homes were ruined in the fire agreed to vacate them in order to construct a much larger synagogue. The local French commandant arranged for Italian masons to come from Algiers to make the modern synagogue’s copula [8].

SYNAGOGUE INTERIOR: From the outside, the synagogue looked like a nice house, with a wooden Jewish star over the entrance. The interior was spacious, lit by a high pyramidic copula supported by arches with benches running between them. A raised platform in the middle comprised the bimah (podium), with a wooden armchair facing the door and a copula overhead that bathed the platform in light during the daytime. At the far end, opposite the entrance door, a long platform ran along the length of the wall. Above the platform was the ark that held torah scrolls, its exterior featuring panels painted green, yellow, red, and brown, as well as Ten Commandment tablets in gilded letters. Above the doorway to the left was a women’s gallery jammed up against the roof and concealed by a screen. The women’s section had its own entrance [9].

RITUALS: Many men attended morning service, with the more pious also attending afternoon and evening services. All men in the community attended on Friday night. The entire community attended services on Yom Kippur. A few women attended on Shabbas. The synagogue also hosted wedding ceremonies and a ritual called “kittab” celebrating young boys who were beginning their Jewish education [10].

CURRENT STATUS: Gharadaya’s Jewish community fled in May and June of 1962. Yet the synagogue was never torn down or converted for another purpose, even as homes abandoned by Jews in Ghardaya’s mellah were taken over by Muslim families. The Ibadite leaders of the town apparently believed the synagogue and the nearby Jewish cemetery were holy sites to be respected. Another possible explanation is that the Ibadites’ puritan doctrine considers Jews impure, and thus both the synagogue and cemetery were to be avoided in order to maintain purity. In fact, a man ostracized by the community (the reason is not clear) has been banished to the synagogue for some years now. He and many cats squat inside the structure. Part of the roof has collapsed. A young man who lives nearby has the key for the front door [11].

Ghardaya (Ghardaia), Algeria

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