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.