The village of Hara Sghira in Djerba, an island off the coast of southern Tunisia will welcome Jewish visitors between 11 and 17 May 2017 to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday during a week of rituals as the village is home to the Ghriba synagogue which is believed to be the oldest Jewish temple in Africa.
Displaying intricate tile walls bearing blue and yellow geometric shapes El Ghriba is the most famous and venerated of the twenty synagogues and prayer houses dotting the three Jewish villages on Djerba.
Its surrounding streets include a kosher butcher, a bakery that sells a traditional tuna-filled pastry known as “brik” and schools that teach lessons in Hebrew, French and Arabic.
According to local tradition, the first Jews settled on Djerba in the wake of Solomon Temple’s destruction in Jerusalem 586 BC. In the millennia that followed the original settlement, waves of Jewish immigrants from around the Mediterranean flocked to it as a haven from persecution.
Upon arrival, they were greeted by a Jewish community that existed in surprising harmony with its local Muslim neighbours. Whilst most of this community has since then moved to Israel, Djerba is still home to some 1,500 Jews.
The pilgrimage includes a visit to the synagogue, alms giving, prayers and a procession where participants carry the menorah, a large pyramidal lamp mounted on three wheels.
The chandelier is decorated with symbols representing the twelve tribes of Israel, the names of the three Patriarchs and four Matriarchs as well as the names of venerated rabbis of Tunisia. The structure is then topped by a Star of David.
Following another local custom, women hand write the name of unmarried girls on eggs placed in the Ghriba synagogues for the duration of the festival. The eggs are then returned to the unmarried girls who, after eating them, are supposed to find a groom
Tunisia is less than 3 hours flying from the UK with daily flights from London Heathrow and Gatwick airports to Tunis. It is a year-round destination blessed with 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, beautiful landscapes, unspoiled beaches, world-class golf, great food and the Sahara Desert.
From souks and spices to sun-kissed beaches and historic buildings, Tunisia had it all for holidaymakers – until it morphed from a tourist hotspot into a terrorism target.
But as the inquest into the deaths of 38 people on a beach and hotel in Tunisia comes to its conclusion, we find out if it is safe to return to what was once a popular holiday destination.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has just extended its warning against all but essential travel to every part of Tunisia, after the Republic's Government elongated a state of emergency imposed last year for another month, until July 21.
The FCO has repeated its caution that: “The threat from terrorism in Tunisia is high. Further attacks remain highly likely, including against foreigners.”
And despite the introduction of additional security measures by the Tunisian Government, the FCO says the “threat picture” has developed considerably, stressing that it doesn't believe there's adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia, which borders Libya and Algeria.
As a result of the high threat level, large tour companies had halted charter flights from the UK to Tunisia. Thomson and Thomas Cook have cancelled their summer packages to the country, with no flights currently available on their website.
Consequently, it's estimated there's been around a 90% drop in British visitors to the country in the first part of 2016.
However, the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London has insisted the British warnings against travel to Tunisia mean: “You are telling the terrorists that they are winning.”
So if you don't want to let the terrorists win and you fancy Tunisia, while there are no direct flights between the UK and Monastir or Enfidha airports, there are daily Tunis Air flights from Tunis-Carthage airport direct to London, and indirect daily departures with European carriers.
However, the FCO warns that if you choose to travel to Tunisia: “You should be vigilant, avoid crowded places and follow the advice of the Tunisian security authorities and your travel company, if you have one.”
It also stresses you should take out comprehensive travel insurance before travelling, and check the insurance policy provides adequate cover.
Frank Brehany, consumer director of HolidayTravelWatch, says he welcomes the extension of the Tunisian state of emergency, and cautions against a rush back to tourism there until there's stronger protection for holidaymakers.
“The failure to do so will lead consumers to conclude their safety is not important, and this would impact the region for years,” he warns.
“It's no good saying, 'We must not give in to terror' unless such beliefs are matched with deeds.”
He suggests holidaymakers should carefully research and assess the situation in Tunisia before deciding to visit, and speak to their travel insurer.
Bob Atkinson, a travel expert at Travel Supermarket, points out that while there are currently no organised holidays available to Tunisia from the UK, additional services have been laid on to destinations like Spain, the Algarve and value-led Bulgaria.
“When Tunisia does go back on sale, I expect uptake to be slow,” he says. “However, this interest will steadily grow as customer confidence in this value-for-money destination returns.”