The Muslim family that guards the empty synagogue of Yefren

  • Yosef
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A 2,000 year old synagogue is hidden away in the picturesque region of Yefren, high up in Libya’s Nafusa mountains.

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The synagogue is considered one of the seven “marvellous” synagogues of the Maghreb. Boasting some of the finest ancient Hebrew inscriptions in Africa and stone that traditions says is from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

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But despite all of its majesty, there are no Jews to pray at this holy place as Libya’s Jews fled the country decades ago.

With the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the region was thrust into conflict and it was widely reported that the synagogue had been targeted and destroyed by militants. And while this was later dispelled as a rumour, it brought something truly beautiful to the world’s attention.

Yefren is home to Berber Muslims, who prefer to be called Amazigh, or “free people” – whose culture and language long pre-dates their Arab neighbours. The conflict broadcasted the incredible story of Mohamed Madi, an Amazigh and the latest of three generations to have guarded the ancient synagogue of Yefren. His grandfather protected Yefren’s Jews with a rifle in 1948. Under Gaddafi, his father secretly tended to the synagogue and now it is Mohamed’s turn to guard the jewel of Yefren.

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The Jewish Chronicle reported Mohamed explained his families actions by saying it was about “honour and respect for our neighbours, and for their religion”. His families noble actions would have probably remained a secret of the Nafusa mountains had militants not claimed to have destroyed this incredible synagogue.

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A newer synagogue that dates to the 1500s in Shgarna village, Yefren

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The Muslim family that guards the empty synagogue of Yefren