Tlemcen, Algeria: The Jewish Holy Land of North Africa

Tlemcen, Algeria: The Jewish Holy Land of North Africa

Darb al-Yahoud, or the Jews’ Path, is one of the most prominent neighborhoods in the Algerian city of Tlemcen that lies on the border with Morocco. The name of the neighborhood is no coincidence; it reflects a history that was once the reality of the area, though one that is today ignored by most Algerians, who have collectively forgotten that one of the most renowned Jewish rabbis in the world is buried there.

‘The Holy Land of North Africa’

Not far from Darb al-Yahoud, on the eastern front of Tlemcen, lies a Jewish synagogue, surrounded by a high wall that can only be crossed through a large metal gate. Inside the wall is a garden with trees bearing various fruit, peering over the height of the wall.

A family lives in the garden, tending to the property. “This is an Arab Muslim family, and the father guards the tomb and the mausoleum,” Shawi Boudaghn, the tour guide, tells Raseef22.

Near the synagogue, behind yet another metal gate bearing the Star of David, lies a graveyard. The graves are emblazoned in Hebrew lettering, with the names of the dead. There is a nearby well, holding what many Jews consider to be holy water.

However, the most important relic is the mausoleum of the Rabbi Ephraim Alnaqua, considered one of the most prominent rabbis in Jewish history. Entry to the mausoleum is forbidden without prior permission granted by the governor (wali) of Tlemcen.

Ephraim Alnaqua

Rabbi Ephraim ben Israel Alnaqua was born in 1359 in Spain, from which he escaped with a number of Jews, during the Inquisition, which gave them the choice between Christianity or death. Though his father was burned alive, Alnaqua managed to escape to Algeria. In 1442, he died and was buried in Tlemcen.

“Ephram Alnaqua is a famous Jewish theologian who was knowledgable in Jewish doctrine and faith. He was also a philosopher and a skilled physician,” researcher Attar Ahmed tells Raseef22. “This rabbi entered Tlemcen through the coastal city of Honaine, before settling in Agadir with the Jewish community that arrived with him.”

Ahmed further notes that the ruler of Tlemcen at the time had a daughter who suffered from a chronic illness that no physician was able to cure. It was said, however, that Alnaqua cured her, and so the Sultan awarded him a neighborhood in Tlemcen where he could live in peace with his fellow Jews, near the Sultan’s palace. It was this neighborhood that would become known as Darb al-Yahoud.

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Share TweetOnce the site of an important Jewish pilgrimage, Tlemcen's synagogues now lay abandoned.

The site of Alnaqua’s burial in Tlemcen made it to be revered as a holy land over generations of Jews, whereby the mausoleum marked a point of pilgrimage in May of every year. After the Algerian independence from French colonialism, the pilgrims were banned from entering.

Reviving the Pilgrimage

After the independence of Algeria, Jews were forbidden from pilgrimage to most of the holy sites in North Africa. In 2003, under the rule of current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a plan was set, in collaboration between France and Algeria, to reopen the Jewish synagogues and burial sites in Algeria.

In 2006, the Algerian parliament passed a law guaranteeing freedom of religion, which led to the authorization of an official Jewish association in Algeria.

Moreover, in 2005, in response to a request from France, the Algerian authorities permitted the relaunching of the pilgrimage season for Jewish delegations from Europe. Jewish delegations began pouring in to visit the various historical and religious sites, and to perform the pilgrimage to the mausoleum of Ephraim Alnaqua.

Those would mark the last of the publicized pilgrimages, as Algeria once again suspended them during the Israeli war on Gaza in 2006. In the meantime, the locals in Tlemcen had not taken well to the initial decision to allow Jewish visitors in. Instead, they organized large marches in protest, and threatened to burn the remaining Jewish properties in the city.

Prior to the resumption of the ban, the Jewish pilgrims and visitors recorded the largest touristic group to visit independent Algeria. The visit lasted for eight days, during which they celebrated their rituals in front of Rabbi Ephraim Alnaqua’s mausoleum, including performing the ritual circumambulations around it and spraying it with water and salt.

Belbachir Jalloul, a former professor at the Faculty of the Arts, tells Raseef22: “I was there for the Hilloula rites held by the Jewish delegation in Tlemcen. They walked from the graves to the end of the synagogue, chanting words from the holy book.”

Visitations Continue

“Every year, a number of Jews travel to Algeria to visit their properties here. I worked as a tour guide with a convoy of Jewish tourists in 2011, and they visited a number of places marked with the Star of David here in Tlemcen,” Shawi Boudaghn says.

“However, they weren’t able to visit the mausoleum of Ephraim Alnaqua, since their visit coincided with the declaration of Tlemcen as a capital of Islamic culture, and the wali was not there to grant them an entry permit."

She adds, “during the visit, I could hear many of them exclaiming that this was someone’s home once, or that was someone’s father’s shop.”

In 2014, Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Eissa declared his intent to reopen the closed Jewish synagogues. Against the outcry by Salafis, who considered this an act of provocation, he affirmed that the Algerian constitution guarantees the freedom of belief, and that the authorities would provide security protection to these areas. He later backtracked, stating that there was no clear timeline for reopening the synagogues, and claiming that the Jewish representatives themselves were not enthusiastic about the reopening, as they feared potential tensions.

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