Morocco & Andalusia: Jewish Heritage

Historical Notes:

  • Jewish presence in Morocco has been documented for over 1,300 years, though many believe it to be much older, as inscriptions in Hebrew have been found at Roman sites and in the Anti Atlas there is tomb of a Jewish sage who is thought to have died in 5 BC.

  • One of the early strongholds of Moroccan Judaism was Sefrou in the Middle Atlas mountains, where in the 8th C. Moslem Shi’a cleric Moulay Idriss found shelter from persecution amid the Jewish community (he was also sheltered by the Christian Berbers of Volubilis, which might have led him to declare that the town of Fes, which he founded, would be a place of refuge for peoples of any creed).

  • Maïmonides, the luminary Jewish “Renaissance man,” resided in Fes in the 1260s, where he taught and practiced, but also gained most of his secular knowledge at the Al Qarawïne Islamic(!) University. Unfortunately, there are no vestiges of his sojourn; while local tourism authorities have identified a house as his near the Bou Inania Koranic school, there is no documentation whatsoever that he ever set foot there!

  • There were dozens of Jewish Berber communities scattered throughout Morocco through the mid-20th C., some 40 of them just in the Souss region of the southwest. The bulk of the silver adornments worn by Berber tribesmen originated in these communities.

  • The creation of Jewish quarters, the mellahs, originated under the 14th-C. Merinid dynasty. The rulers deemed the Jewish population vital to the kingdom’s functioning and thus, to protect them from any eventual threats, established the mellahs next to the sultans’ palaces.

  • The largest Jewish community as of the late 18th C. was Essaouira, where the Jews comprised some 40% of the town‘s population and acted as trade intermediaries between the kingdom and Europeans. Vast fortunes were made (that continue to play a role in Morocco’s economy) and Jews played an important political and diplomatic role in the court of Sultan Mohamed ben Abdellah. Even today, one of the key advisers to both the current and former king is an Essaouiri Jew.

  • During WWII King Mohamed V stopped attempts by the Nazi-controlled Vichy government to herd Jews away to camps, declaring that the Jews of Morocco were his people first, Jews second.

  • There are roughly 5,000 Moroccan Jews left in the country, down from some 270,000 in the 1940s.

What to see

Museum of Moroccan Judaism: In Casablanca, the sole institution of its kind in the Arab World, tracing the origins, history, culture, arts and diaspora of Moroccan Jews, along with a reconstructed synagogue.

Historic synagogues: Two restored ones stand out: The 17th-C. Aben Danane of Fes, believed to be the last in the country to contain a full set of synagogue fittings, is on UNESCO’s World Legacy List. Essaouira’s synagogue of respected sage Rabbi Chaïm Pinto (1748-1845), to many the city’s “patron saint.” There once were hundreds of synagogues, in towns and remote hamlets, some still in use* (3 in Marrakech’s old city alone), though most either abandoned to the elements or converted to schools, gymnasia, warehouses or inns.

*(The bulk of Morocco’s Jews congregate in newer synagogues that have been built in every major city.)

Cemeteries: The largest historic Judaic cemeteries are next to the Marrakech and Fes mellahs, the latter with a small museum of Fes’s Jewish heritage, although there are old cemeteries in most towns, notably Tangier, Salé, Essaouira, Meknes, as well as the Middle Atlas’s Sefrou and Ifrane, site of a former Jewish fiefdom. Dozens exist in the deep South, though, in keeping with local customs, the graves are unmarked and thus impossible to identify. The largest Judaic cemetery is the post-WWII Ben M’Sik outside Casablanca, where all the graves have been catalogued.<

A Moroccan gazetteer: Tangier | Rabat & Casablanca | Andalusia | Meknes & Volubilis | Fes | Marrakech | The High Atlas | The Middle Atlas | Taroudant & the Anti Atlas | On the Sahara's Edge | The Atlantic Coast | Jewish Heritage | Architecture | Festivals

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