Marrakech’s historic Jewish heart

Exploring the Mellah, a run-down, walled enclave  which was once a thriving hub with royal protection.

They were shepherded into one neighbourhood and protected not just by high walls but also by being neighbours of the Royal Palace. The royalty offered them this security because of the key role they played in Morocco’s economy.

But, over the centuries, it hasn’t always protected them from angry Moroccans who blamed them for controversial events elsewhere in the world. This is the story of the Mellah, a fortified Jewish neighbourhood in Marrakech, the fourth- largest city in Morocco, a north African country which is 99 per cent Muslim. 

Whereas once the Mellah was a thriving commercial hub home to tens of thousands of people, now it is a run-down place which hosts only a few hundred Jews, as well as many of the poorest Muslims in the city.

There is an odd energy to the Mellah. The neighbouring medina area is boisterous and colourful, bulging with people and commerce. Yet once I pass through the walls of the Mellah there is a distinct change in mood. The streets are comparatively quiet and empty. Whereas in the medina I felt safe and welcome taking photos, in the Mellah immediately I am confronted by two men merely for carrying a camera. 

While I cannot understand what they’re saying their hostility is clear due to their tone, body language, their encroachment on my personal space and the wagging of their fingers as they gesture at my bulky camera.

I am rescued from this volatile situation by a third man who intervenes on my behalf and calms the agitated men. As he leads me away down a narrow alley he warns me to be particularly discreet while taking photos in the Mellah.

Then the man —“call me Ali” — says he can give me a tour of the neighbourhood for 30 Moroccan dirhams (about $5). My natural suspicion makes me wonder whether the confrontation over my camera was all a set-up to earn Ali some cash. But he seems genuine enough, and I figure $5 is a low-risk investment, so we shake hands on the deal.

As it turns out Ali, whose English is limited, doesn’t seem to know much at all about the Mellah other than the directions to my desired destination, the Miara Jewish Cemetery. By the time we reach this site — the largest Jewish cemetery in Morocco — I figure our relationship has run its course and wave Ali goodbye. 

The sun is strong this afternoon. Its fierce rays are creating a blinding glare off the whitewashed tombstones tightly packed into this burial ground. These unusual headstones are shaped like coffins and few have any details clearly etched on them. On the perimeter of the cemetery are several mausoleums which house the bodies of rabbis.

This cemetery dates back to the 15th century, a time when Jews throughout Morocco began to be housed in their own walled neighbourhoods. Morocco’s Jewish population had swelled in the 1400s as many Jews fled persecution in Spain. 

While the Mellah is in quite a state of disrepair these days, there are obvious and subtle signs throughout of its history as a Jewish neighbourhood. 

A keen eye will spot the fact many houses in this area have balconies, distinguishing them as Jewish homes because the traditional Moroccan abodes typically did not have such exterior spaces.

 Observant visitors will also note the presence of Hebrew language above many of the Mellah’s jewellery shops, as this is has long been one of the key trades of the Jews here.

What visitors will not overlook is the attractive Slat Al Azama Synagogue. Built in 1492, this remains the hub of the Jewish community of Marrakech. 

Designed in a striking blue- and-white colour scheme, the synagogue has a spacious central courtyard and a relatively small prayer room. Visitors are free to wander through these spaces and to inspect a small museum detailing some of the most prominent people in the history of Mellah and the synagogue. 

As I walked around this complex I was regularly met with smiles by the volunteers who maintain the synagogue. One lady asked where I was from before thanking me, in a very genuine manner, for my visit. The Mellah’s heyday may be well gone but here a fierce pride remains.


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