Thousands of Jews Make an Annual Pilgrimage to This Muslim Country

These communities coexist against all odds.

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Men wear tefillin, small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, to pray in the historic Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia's Djerba island.

The small island of Djerba off the coast of Tunisia has all the ingredients for the perfect holiday: Glistening white sands, warm Mediterranean waters, small villages with mazelike alleys, and hundreds of archaeological sites witnessing the land's long history. After arriving, many tourists seem content to burrow under a thatched umbrella of a luxury resort along the beach of Sidi Mahres, neglecting some of the real charm of the island.

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Although welcoming and attractive, Djerba's beach resorts offer only one side of the island.

Head deeper inside, past craft markets, café terraces, and decrepit colonial buildings, and a fascinating contrast is revealed: There remains one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world, in a country that’s 98 percent Muslim.

The island's prominent Ghriba synagogue has been in continuous use for over two millennia. People believe that it was built around 500 B.C. by Jews who had fled after the Roman destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. The community grew during the Spanish Inquisition, and later from nearby countries. Eventually around 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia before the country won independence from France in 1956.

Today, the 1,100 Jewish people centered around the famous synagogue in Djerba are nearly all that remain of the once thriving community. But every year, thousands fill the blue tiled Ghriba synagogue again during the annual pilgrimage for Lag BaOmer, which takes place 33 days after Passover.

Pilgrims light candles and place eggs covered with handwritten wishes into the synagogue’s floor, on the stone supposedly from the Temple of Jerusalem. They continue the celebration with music playing over feasts of couscous, fish, and strong fig wine that's unique to Tunisia.

The pilgrimage is a point of local pride, confirming a practiced coexistence on an island that hosts centuries-old mosques, churches, and synagogues. Unfortunately past years have not been easy: The event was cancelled in 2011 during the Tunisian revolution, and later reestablished. More recently, three major terrorist attacks since 2015 raise security concerns. Cruise lines send fewer ships during the year, and beach chairs sit empty on the island paradise. Yet the country looks to the future.

This year, the country announced its intent to apply for coveted UNESCO World Heritage status for the island of Djerba, to recognize the cultural uniqueness of the synagogue and annual pilgrimage. Attendance may be down, but thousands of Jews still travel to the island of Djerba once a year for the special event. Any time of the year, tourists can explore the unique cultural and religious diversity, sitting just beyond the beach.

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Art murals on the streets of the Tunisian village of Erriadh on the island of Djerba were created in 2014 as part of an urban art project that included 150 artists from all over the world.

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This year, the country announced its intent to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status for the island of Djerba, to recognize the cultural uniqueness of the synagogue and annual pilgrimage which attracts worshipers from around the world.

Danielle Villasana is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. Follow her on Instagram @davillasana.