Arab and Amazigh Dynasties From the 14th to the 17th Century

Just outside the Marrakesh mellah is this jewelry market, where both Jewish and Muslim jewelers craft the “Hand of Fatima,” or Khamsa, a good luck charm for  Moroccans of both faiths.

Hands of Fatima

The Almohads were overthrown in the mid-thirteenth century by the Merenids, an Amazigh dynasty that gave preferential treatment to the Jews. Resentment of the Sultan and his close ties to the Jews incited a pogrom in Fez in 1276. The Merenids then established Fez-Jdid (New Fez) as their capital, where Sultans could provide the nearby Jews with greater security. During the 14th century, when the Merenids had relatively firm control of Morocco, Jews and Muslims coexisted with few problems. By 1438, the Merenids could not easily control the country or protect Jews living in urban areas. In Fez-Jdid, they forced the Jews to move into a fortified area adjoining the royal palace, to ensure their safety. This was the first Jewish quarter in Morocco. Because it was built on an old salt mine, this and all subsequently constructed Moroccan Jewish quarters were called mellahs, based on the Arabic word for salt.

The Merenids lost power to the Wattasids, a weak Amazigh dynasty that ruled for eighty years beginning in 1472. The Watassids were unable to prevent the Portuguese from establishing forts and trading posts in towns all along the Atlantic coast. The Wattasids neither encouraged nor prevented tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal from entering Morocco in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Queen Isabella of Spain had issued the Edict of Expulsion on March 31, 1492, three months after the fall of Muslim Grenada. The edict gave four months for the 165,000 Spanish Jews to either convert or leave the country. Although many of them entered Morocco, only about 20,000 made the country their new home, while the rest continued on to the Ottoman Empire.

The Saadian dynasty, an Arab dynasty that took over in the 16th and 17th centuries, suffered from political instability and military attacks throughout its reign. To finance military activities, Saadian Sultans taxed the Jewish community heavily. To ensure that the Jews had adequate resources to pay these taxes, Sultans gave Jewish traders the monopoly over sugar exports. These traders were also responsible for a large percentage of the imports of European cloth and guns. Jews played a key role in the caravan trade with Sub-Saharan Africa, financing the exchanges of European cloth and Moroccan cereals for gold, ostrich feathers, gum arabic, and ivory.

Under the Saadians, Spanish and Portuguese Christians who were forced to convert from Judaism and others who practiced Judaism secretly (crypto-Jews) moved to Morocco’s coastal cities, where they could work for the Portuguese traders and reconvert to Judaism. In 1578, the Saadians defeated the Portuguese in a famous battle near Ksar el Kabir, a coastal settlement near Tangier. Since three kings died in the battle, some Moroccan Jewish communities established a special Purim holiday, the Purim of the Three Kings, that was celebrated until recently.