FEZ, Morocco — Among the spice souks and craft shops that line the turns and alleys of the mellahs, or old Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities, are traces of a rich history. Mixed in with the shades of crimson and the scent of smoke and mint are imprints of Morocco’s Jewish past.
The Jewish character of the old mellahs (plural of mellah, or “salt” in Arabic and Hebrew) is tangible – not only because these walled neighborhoods have Jewish cemeteries and preserved synagogues, but because the Jewish community once lived here, giving birth to the markets that, until today, are filled with a dizzying array of goodies: everything from fine silver, amber, and soft leather booties to textiles and natural perfumes from Africa and beyond.
Between these lustrous objects Jewish mementos, like Passover plates and pottery adorned with a Star of David, and centuries-old Hebrew-inscribed calendars, can be discovered. These are the testaments to Morocco’s Jewish past, openly on display among the antique shops and canopied walkways that have become Morocco’s most popular tourist destinations.
Before the Inquisition, Morocco had a native Jewish population that could be traced back to the period following the destruction of the Second Temple during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. These former Jewish communities settled among and mixed with the Berbers, and only later, when Sephardic Jews escaped Spain for Morocco and the rest of North Africa — such as the brilliant Jewish scholar Maimonides, who hailed from the Iberian Peninsula during its so-called golden age of Judaism — did Sephardic traditions trounce the former group’s indigenous customs and form of Judaism.
The first mellah was established in 1438 in Fez, Morocco’s oldest Imperial city, where Jews played an important development role, particularly through their commercial skills and regional contacts.
Although the Jews were forced to live in these walled areas until the late 19th century or early 20th century, an address in the mellahs was not always considered a disadvantage. They contained large homes and their prime location, typically near the king’s palace, was considered to be for the Jews’ benefit as it meant greater protection from attacks.
Yet over time, the quarters’ narrow streets became congested and overrun with people, and they became synonymous with ghettos. The Jews were confined to the inner walls of the rundown mellahs, and the areas became associated with cursed, “salted” land, much like the Jews were perceived among Moroccan society. Historians claim the term mellah also pointed to the rituals the Jewish community was made to carry out: salting the heads of fellow Jews who were to be executed.
Over the years, Morocco became home to the largest Jewish population in the Arab world. Before the founding of the State of Israel, there were more than 350,000 Moroccan Jews scattered throughout the country in almost 100 communities.
Under its current leader, King Mohammed VI, Morocco is tolerant, if not welcoming, of its domestic Jewish community and Jewish communities abroad, as well as Israeli tourists. The king recently vowed to restore the country’s synagogues — and in 2013, he made good on part of his promise by allocating money to have Slat Alfassiyine, a 17th century synagogue in Fez, refurbished.
The country also hasn’t had a history of persecution of Jews in recent decades – and it has recognized the Jewish community’s contributions to its rich culture and history.
Yet, popular opinion toward Jews remains tenuous, especially after the creation of Israel in 1948.
“My grandfather used to have a store near the mellah,” Mohammad, a chatty, middle-aged taxi driver from Marrakech, said during a recent ride. “He died after the war [World War II], but I still remember popping into his store every day after school… A lot of his friends and clients were Jews. The Jews were mixed in with the Muslims back then. Things were easy, you know?”
He added: “It’s different now. I’m not sure why. Plus, a lot of the Jews have already moved away… I guess I’d say politics makes things more complicated.”
Still, Morocco is arguably the Arab world’s most Israel-friendly country – despite the fact that increasingly vocal strands of society are urging anti-normalization with Jerusalem, as evidenced by two bills introduced in the legislature last year that would make it illegal to have any contacts with Israel.
Today, the Moroccan Jews who didn’t leave for France or Israel number about 3,000, and most live in Casablanca, the country’s political and economic center. Those who remained own businesses and are generally well connected and wealthy.
A walk through the old mellahs provide a refreshing glimpse into the history of the Jewish people. The quarters’ squalor still exists, but they’re also picturesque and bustling — and that, too, speaks to Morocco’s vibrant Jewish past.
Here is a collection of photographs that show present-day life in and around the mellahs of Marrakech and Fez, the cities that were once home to some of Morocco’s largest Jewish communities.
A view overlooking the Jemaa el-Fnaa, or central market square, in Marrakech’s old city, a maze that’s home to the mellah and various other historic districts. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The mellah, or old Jewish quarter, in Marrakech is home to many silver stores and tiny herb and spice shops. This street vendor displays, from left to right: natural toothbrushes; soft, amber resin that can be used as incense or perfume; and fresh Moroccan mint. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A man wears a djellaba, a traditional Moroccan hooded cape for men or women, in the old mellah of Marrakech. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Fez’s old city, or medina, is a large UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sometimes referred to as the “Athens of Africa,” this medieval capital city was famous for, among other things, its highly specialized Jewish, Muslim, and Berber craftsmen. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Homes in the mellah, or old Jewish quarter, of Fez, are located very close together, with tiny alleys featuring as streets. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Jewelry and silver shops in Fez’s medina display traditional tagine pots (front, center), which are placed in the fire to cook the Moroccan stew, often made with lamb, vegetables, fruit, and spices. Shops in Fez also have a variety of old and new Judaica, such as the vase pictured here. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Morocco is known for its excellent craftwork, particularly zellige, or painted tiles, and mosaics. When a large number of the wealthy Jews left Morocco during times of political uncertainty around the 16th century CE, other Jews became involved in manufacturing and craftwork; a great number came to be excellent craftsmen. Pictured here is a madrassa, or religious school, in Fez, with intricate zellige and mosaics decorating the exterior. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A street view around the mellah in Marrakech, which is sometimes referred to as ‘the red city’ for its deep, terracotta-colored walls. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A crowded street leading to Marrakech’s mellah. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The antique shops and souks that run adjacent to the mellah in Marrakech have Jewish-engraved silver items and pottery with Hebrew writing on it. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The entrance to the Jewish cemetery in Fez, located on the edge of the mellah, right outside the king’s palace. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Jewish cemetery in Fez is home to more Jewish saints and famous rabbis than any other Jewish cemetery in Morocco. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Jews in Fez had a mixed existence — at times, the community flourished, as it did during its golden age between the 9th and 11th centuries CE. During other periods, Jews were subjected to violent uprisings, and were expelled and killed. Pictured here are the burial sites of important Moroccan Jews, as evidenced by the large gravestones. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of the Jewish cemetery in Fez, one of the oldest in Morocco, with homes in the background. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The energetic and friendly Mr. Edmond Milmoun Gabay, a Moroccan Jew, is the caretaker of a small museum on the outskirts of the Jewish cemetery in Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A sign points tourists in the direction of the Habarim Synagogue, which houses a museum of Jewish Moroccan historical items. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Edmond Milmoun Gabay in the Habarim Synagogue’s museum of Jewish memorabilia in Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
An old Hebrew poster, displayed at the Habarim Synagogue in Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Old Jewish photos dot the walls in the Habarim museum in Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of the walled medina, or old city, of Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of a small, nondescript synagogue (in tan) near the mellah in Marrakech. A Jewish family still owns the synagogue, but it’s no longer open to the public. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A close-up of the exterior of the former synagogue. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Herborist Ibnou Nafiss runs a natural remedy shop on the floor below the former synagogue. The rabbi of the synagogue used to live in the building, Nafiss said, and the family still owns the property. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A detailed view of an oud, the Middle Eastern ancestor of the guitar, decorated with Stars of David, on display at a museum in Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
These former Jewish homes in Marrakech, located just outside the historic mellah quarter, are recognizable due to their street-facing balconies — something Muslim homes didn’t typically have. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Many Muslim families lived in riads, or traditional Moroccan homes, that featured an inner courtyard with a fountain, which was meant to function as a source of beauty and a cooling system. The inner courtyards, such as the one pictured above, was protected from the street and was meant to serve as a place of serenity. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of the Casbah, the oldest part of Marrakech’s old city, or medina, which borders the Jewish quarter. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Fruit vendors line the streets of Marrakech’s mellah during rush hour. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Children run along the walkways of the mellah in Marrakech. The old Jewish quarter is characterized by its narrow, rundown alleys. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A placard at the Lazama Synagogue in Marrakech, the city’s only operational synagogue that’s open to the public. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Lazama Synagogue is an important testament to Morocco’s deep Jewish history. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
An inside view of the Lazama Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the mellah of Marrakech. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of one of the arched-walkways of the old mellah in Marrakech. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
An old Torah scroll on display at the Marrakech Museum. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Marrakech Museum also exhibits Judaica, including old Passover plates, Kiddush cups, and spice boxes. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Old mixes with new in the mellah of Fez: Former Jewish homes, with outward-facing balconies, with t-shirt shops below them. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
Boys play with dice outside the Ibn Danan Synagogue in Fez. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Ibn Danan Synagogue is open to the public but isn’t often in use. A Muslim family lives below the sanctuary, and escorts visitors to the premises for a small fee. Pictured here is the Torah ark with one of the Torah scrolls. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
The Ibn Danan Synagogue dates back to the 17th century. The simple structure, which was once the only synagogue inside Fez’s old city walls, was modestly refurbished and reopened in 1999. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of the tanneries, where Moroccans produce fine leather goods, with buildings in the background, in Fez, a city famous for its craftwork and skilled artisans, including Jews. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A closer view of the famed tanneries of Fez (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A close up of a piece of Judaica decorated by a Star of David in a Fez antique shop. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of Marrakech’s tree tops and its famed Koutoubia Mosque at sunset. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)
A view of the medina, or old city, of Marrakech, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance. (photo credit: Michal Shmulovich)