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According to legend, a band of Jews fleeing the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem headed west, eventually arriving at this oasis, Ifrane d’Anti-Atlas (Oufrane) in southern Morocco, at the foot of a sloping mountain along the edge of the Sahara desert. Having experienced the magnificent temple in Jerusalem, they are said to have created an independent Jewish realm and built a mini-temple of their own. That legendary building still stands as a testament to the 2,000 year-old Amazigh (Berber) Jewish culture that somehow flourished amidst the raw power of the desert. After the Jewish community left en masse in the 1950s, the synagogue was locked and began to decay — only to be restored in 1999. But the symbolic depiction of the Ten Commandments (evoking the original tablets stored in Jerusalem’s Temple) that once sat above the Torah ark has mysteriously vanished.
Description: The town of Oufrane (Caves in the local Berber dialect) lies at the edge of the Sahara on an ancient caravan trade route. For centuries, this was a major commercial center, with spices, gold, and even slaves passing through en route from points south in Africa north toward port cities. Jews supposedly once ran an independent realm in the area, headquartered in Oufrane. After the Muslim conquest, Jews lived under the rule and personal protection of the local Tazeroualt dynasty. Oufrane’s Jewish community once numbered in the hundreds, with many running successful businesses. But the caravan trade long ago dried up and in 1958 almost the entire Jewish community migrated north or to Israel.
Status: Now a small regional market, the town is a shell of its former glory and its ancient Jewish quarter lies partially in ruins. Reaching the synagogue in this palm tree oasis is a journey back in time, with the narrow access road winding past women washing laundry in the waterways and age-old irrigation systems. The synagogue, situated at the bottom of the mountain’s slope, is attended to by a guardian, who lives next door and is building a guesthouse for Jewish visitors.
Ifrane d'Anti-Atlas (Oufrane) Synagogue 2008
School: For centuries, Jews from southern Morocco have been drawn here to visit the ancient cemetery, located one kilometer away on the other side of a small mountain. On the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer, the synagogue would host many of these pilgrims. In the 1940s and 1950s, the synagogue also housed a small school run by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which sometimes held classes for the two dozen young pupils in the courtyard outside the synagogue entrance.
Origins: The exact age of the synagogue is unclear, with some dating its origins to the 1620s and others to over 1,800 years ago. Its structure represents a classic Berber Jewish format, with interior benches along the walls (which feature small windows and slots for candles) and an elevated central platform for the service leader illuminated by an overhead thatch skylight. Photographs of the synagogue from the 1950s reveal a Torah ark covered by a suspended cloth and featuring a crown model of the Ten Commandments.
Restoration: By the 1990s, the synagogue has begun to decay substantially. A grant from the European Union enabled the Casablanca Museum of Moroccan Jewish Heritage to restore the structure as a tourist spot. But the crown model of the Ten Commandments has vanished – and so the space over the ancient Torah arks sits empty, perhaps a fitting monument to the ancient Jewish community that has similarly disappeared from Oufrane.