Refuge of PLO harbours ancient shrine of Judaism: On the eve of Passover, Adel Darwish visited the Jews of Ghriba, Tunisia, home of the world's oldest synagogue

IN the oldest Jewish quarter in Tunisia, 81-year-old Yaqoub Bishari was supervising the collective baking of matza bread for the celebration of this year's Passover.

Mr Bishari, who was born in 1912 and has always lived on the remote island of Djerba near the Libyan border, is the oldest of the 750 Jews still living in el-harah elkabeira (the greater ghetto), surrounded by Muslims in the village of Riyadh.

After 60 years of social activities such as playing music and singing at weddings, Mr Bishari became, at the age of 77, the official matza baker. 'This year we are baking over 140kg of flour,' he said proudly.

The matza is not just intended for the residents of the island's two ghettos, where once several thousand Jews lived, part of a Jewish population of more than 130,000, who were driven out as a result of Arab-Israeli wars between 1948 and 1967. Some of this matza bread is sent to the thousands of Sephardic Jews living in Europe and the United States who still retain strong emotional links with Djerba.

One mile down the road in el-harah saghira - the lesser ghetto - a handful of French Sephardic Jews, most born in Tunisia, were lost in a crowd of more than 100 European tourists visiting the ghetto's Ghriba synagogue, believed to be the oldest in the world, and built around a stone from the temple of Solomon.

Despite their limited knowledge of Judaism, tourists visit because they are fascinated by the manifestation of Jewish culture in the country which became home to the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Victor is the 23-year-old son of Perez Trabelsi, the president of the Ghriba Committee - a post passed from father to son for generations. He was helping 70-year-old Yaqoub, who can only speak Hebrew or Arabic, explain to a flood of tourists that unlike any other synagogue in the world, Ghriba is so sacred that visitors must take their shoes off before going in - just as Muslims do at the door of a mosque. He was also handing French and German female tourists scarves to cover their hair; many also had to be given a large piece of cloth to tie around their waist to cover their bare legs.

Ghriba's Jews - who were here for hundreds of years before Arab Muslims began to move into North Africa from the east in the 7th century - believe their synagogue was the first to be built in Africa.

The locked shrine is a small chamber built of bricks housing a stone which bears the name of Yochoub Ben Yohab, the leader of a small band of Jewish warriors who carried a stone from the temple of Solomon after its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC.

For many Sephardic Jews, visiting Ghriba is an experience second only in importance to visiting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The pilgrimage sank to a low point in 1985, but in the last two years the number of pilgrims has increased.

After making wishes, young women write their names on eggs and leave them near the shrine. 'It's to find a husband,' said Victor Trabelsi, who remembered a French Jew called Claire who left an egg in 1991. The next year she came back with a husband on her arm, to give an offering.