A whitewashed synagogue gleams in the sunlight as Saidia Ben Khayat, a basket of raw eggs in hand, labors up a winding path on Tunisia’s Djerba island.
“I’ve come to congratulate the Jews, and wrote on some of these eggs my wish that my sons will get married,” says the 63-year-old Muslim, as she approaches the El Ghriba synagogue, Africa’s oldest.
The journey to the synagogue is part of Lag BaOmer, a Jewish holiday marking the end of an ancient plague that nearly wiped out a generation of scholars. It has been celebrated on the island for about 200 years, and at its height attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world.
Nowadays, only a few hundred people turn up, and festivities take place amid high security. That’s partly because of lingering memories of al-Qaeda’s 2002 truck bomb attack, which killed 21 people. It’s also because two years after the downfall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the struggle between moderate and hardline Islam plays out daily.
As pilgrims walk on police-lined streets and past ambulances park near checkpoints, helicopters hover above. There is no violence this year. While locals say they are relieved, they are not too surprised, because Muslims and Jews live on Djerba in near-perfect harmony.
“There is no alienation between us,” says Khamsana Zaafran, a 61-year-old Tunisian Jew. “We buy and sell from each other, visit each other, there are rarely any problems between us.”
Men and women of all ages, some carrying babies and holding young children’s hands, begin arriving at the synagogue in small groups. They walk up the hill, their brightly colored clothes standing out against the deep blue sky.
Inside El Ghriba pilgrims light candles, say prayers, and write wishes on eggs that they place in the wall of the inner sanctuary.
Locals say the synagogue was named in honor of a Jewish refugee who once lived on the island and was known as “El Ghriba,” meaning ’stranger’ or ’the miraculous’ in Arabic. According to one tale, she survived a fire that engulfed her cabin, and people subsequently began visiting her to seek guidance on getting married or overcoming infertility.
At the height of Lag BaOmer, the Grande Menorah is paraded through the streets of Harah Sghira village, covered with silk scarves, in a ceremony signifying the mystical union between the people of Israel and the Divinity.
Locals say El Ghriba was built by exiles who fled Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in 586 B.C., bringing with them a stone from those ruins. It has been rebuilt several times and its mosaics and turquoise columns date back to the 19th century.
At one time, there were about 100,000 Jews in Tunisia. That number dropped with the creation of Israel in 1948 and with Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956, and then again after anti-Semitic riots during the 1967 Six Day War.
About 1,600 Jews now live in Tunisia, mostly in the capital Tunis and Djerba, said Peres Trabelsi, a community leader. The island has about 20 synagogues and prayer houses, of which El Ghriba, in the north, is the most famous.
For some pilgrims, traveling to the island is a chance to reconnect with their roots.
“Taking part is a dream come true,” said Bazalel Raviv, 31, whose parents emigrated from Tunisia to Israel in 1951. “It is beyond description.”
This year’s event, held from April 26 to 28, was the second time the ritual has been held since the 2011 uprising. It tested the Islamist-led government’s ability to provide security after the February killing of an opposition leader, which sent Tunisians into the streets to denounce authorities they said were unable, or unwilling, to protect minorities.
Israel had advised citizens not to attend last year because of the risk of violence from Salafists, whose members have clashed with students over dancing and stormed concerts and art galleries.
In November, the imam of a mosque south of Tunis delivered a sermon calling for Jews to be wiped out, and during a rally for Sharia law in March 2012, another cleric called on youths to fight Jews. The comments were denounced by the religious affairs ministry, which said Tunisia Jews are full citizens.
The success of the pilgrimage in face of those threats “is a positive indicator for the next tourist season,” Tourism Minister Jamel Gamra said. Tunisia hopes to attract 7 million tourists by the end of the year, he said.
Tunisia relies on tourism as well as exports, mining and agriculture for growth. Tourist arrivals reached 6 million in 2012. That’s up from 4.8 million in 2011, though it still falls short of the year before the uprising, when 6.9 million arrivals were recorded, according to World Tourism Organization data.
At the synagogue’s door, Belgace Jlidi, distributes kippas and veils to visitors.
“I don’t find any embarrassment working here,” the 60-year-old Muslim says. “We have lived as brothers for a long time.”
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