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In Pictures: Pilgrimage returns to Djerba

Only a minority of the community, some 500 Jews, live in the capital. The Grand Synagogue in the area of Lafayette in central Tunis was built in the 1930s. The art deco structure is just down the Avenue de Liberte from a prominent Salafi mosque.

In Pictures: Pilgrimage returns to Djerba

Roger Bismuth, Tunis-based head of Tunisia's Jewish community, says, "I myself am deeply Tunisian. It is my country." There were originally more than 100,000 Jews in the country in 1948, though there are now around 1,700.

In Pictures: Pilgrimage returns to Djerba

Young men from the local community, and from nearby cities such as Zarzis, celebrate the occasion with Tunisian Celta beer, festive songs and jubilant dancing.

But this year at one of the oldest synagogues in Africa there were more government security personnel and journalists than actual pilgrims, who numbered no more than several hundred.

Women in brightly-hued dresses accompany the men leading the procession. Many pilgrims from France and elsewhere came to Djerba for the first time, as Tunisia tries to recover from a tourism slump in the aftermath of the nationwide uprising.

In a procession that some critical members of the community view as superstitious and reminiscent of pagan practices, pilgrims push a cart carrying a metal case decorated with symbolic menorahs and containing the Torah.

A young child climbs into the cave behind the most revered section of the synagogue. Worshippers leave prayer messages on eggs that the children place inside.

Maimon, a French Jew of Tunisian origin, lives in the northern suburbs of Paris in close proximity to his Arab and Muslim neighbours. Many of the visitors from France see the annual affair as a way to reconnect with their roots and promote tourism to their former homeland.

Devotees came to enjoy the traditional Tunisian-Jewish music and honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century scholar of the Torah, also known as the five books of Moses.

The community, which some say dates back 2,500 years, speaks a variant of the Tunisian dialect of Arabic as its first language, but many speak French and Hebrew as well. Many of the men have jewelry businesses in Houmt Souq, the largest town on the island.