Jewish Heritage in Morocco
Morocco is a country that holds many surprises, no wonder so many travelers fall in love with it and they cannot resist to visit it over and over. The great historic legacy goes from roman ruins to imponent medieval Kasbahs.
The interesting Jewish legacy cannot be overlooked, and it is a great example of how both cultures cohabitated in the past and in the present, what makes Morocco a unique country in the Arab world. The Jewish community in Morocco is the oldest and the largest of northern Africa.
The presence of a Jewish community in Morocco can be traced back to the year 70 a.C and even if their history in the country has, sadly, black chapters it has nothing to do with the centuries of persecutions they lived in Europe.
During WWII Morocco became for many a beacon of hope because while being a French protectorate the sultan Mohamed V refused to implement the antisemitic laws enacted by the disgraceful Vichy government.
For the Moroccan society it is important to preserve cultural legacy of the many civilizations and cultures that have formed Morocco through history, being another example of its tremendously hospitable character.
Since 2016, the government of King Mohammed VI is doing a great effort to renovate ruined synagogues, preserve Jewish cemeteries and restore names of streets that were named after Jewish personalities.
Take a walk with us to some of the highlights of the Jewish legacy in Morocco that will take you from the ancient mellahs to Jewish cemeteries and synagogues all through the country!
We will help you to put together an itinerary that covers the most important sites and that will allow you to discover the Jewish legacy in Morocco.
FEZ, THE OLDEST MELLAH IN MOROCCO
The mellah is the Arab name for the Jewish neighborhoods, mellah comes from the Arab word “salt” as for centuries the commerce of salt was held by them. Officially the mellah of Fez dates from 1438 and it is the oldest in Morocco.
Its location near the Royal Palace, is not casual and shows the good relationship that has always maintained the Moroccan monarchy and the local Jewish community, to whom he assigned real surveillance, which aroused reticence among the rest of the population at different times, such as the attack of 1465.
The first thing that will strike you eye is the characteristic architecture completely different to the buildings in the rest of the medina. The facades are wide and spacious, with large latticed balconies, reminding of the architecture of southern Spain. Not by chance, as this neighborhood was the place where the Sephardic community found shelter after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.
A tour will not be complete without visiting the Synagogue of Ben Dannan, one of the few pre-20th century synagogues that can still be seen in Morocco. The structure and decoration of this small temple squeezed between two houses dates back to the 17th century. A timely intervention by UNESCO saved it from ruin and can be visited today.
The old Hebrew necropolis is located at the southern end of the Mellah. Thousands of small white tombs extend down the slope creating a unique landscape. It is worth taking a short walk and stopping at the tombstones that remind us of the families that populated the Mellah until many of them emigrated to Israel.
Photo: Josep Renalias. Adapted under license (CC BY-SA 3.0)
THE JEWISH MUSEUM IN CASABLANCA
Although the number of Jews is gradually decreasing throughout Morocco, in Casablanca the Hebrew population still has a social, economic and political weight. Dozens of synagogues are still active in the most populated metropolis of the country and you can find a good number of kosher establishments.
Casablanca also homes the only Jewish Museum in an Arab country. A unique example of how Morocco is a happy exception of easy coexistence between both cultures.
The Jewish Museum is one of the most interesting cultural centers of the city, with a collection of objects of great value that invite us to know the Hebrew customs in the country and to build a bridge of encounter and tolerance between cultures. Among its highlights you will find liturgical objects like Torah scrolls from synagogues from other parts of Morocco.
Other pieces are related to the Jewish customs in the country, with special mention to the Berber population: you can see coins, ancient books, colorful wedding dresses or mezuzah coming from Hebrew houses in the country.
ESSAOUIRA AND THE WILL OF PRESERVING THE LEGACY
This small town perched on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, is a simple city in every sense. It is easy to walk, easy to find nice restaurants and cafes and easy to fall in love with the charm and slow pace of life.
Essaouira was declared a World Heritage Site. This old walled town maintains the charm and authenticity of a land that has remained untouched by the pass of time.
Inside the walls you will find the old city, the Medina and within the Medina its small mellah. Sadly, a big part of the houses are in a ruined state however the authorities have started a slow process to recover the area starting by the most precious buildings: the ancient synagogues.
In the recent years the restoration works on three synagogues have been completed: the Haim Pinto Synagogue, the Simon Attias Synagogue and the Slat Lkahal synagogue. The three shine like in the past and offer a great vision of the role the Jewish community had in the city.
The Simon Attia synagogue is one of the most representative and prestigious remains of the Jewish legacy and could be in the future the museum of Judaism in Essaouira.
Rabbi Haim Pinto was a doctor who was said to perform miracles. He died in 1845 and his mausoleum in the Jewish cemetery of Essaouira is a site of pilgrimage for many devotees seeking blessings and inspiration. Inside his synagogue a 1800 blue ark keeps the scrolls containing the Five Books of Moses.
Behind the humble blue door of Slat Lkahal synagogue visitors are surprised by a beautifully restored temple with colorful tiled floors, turquoise ceilings white walls and stone columns that matches the color palette of the city!
Photo: World Imaging. Adapted under license (CC BY-SA 3.0)