An Ancient Kingdom
Ifrane Anti-Atlas, or Oufrane as it was known by the Jews, is reputed to be the capital of an ancient Jewish kingdom. The kingdom was founded prior to the destruction of the second temple in Israel, around 500 BCE. While the kingdom was destroyed, the Jewish population remained and grew with the arrival of Jews accompanying the Romans and the Arabs in later centuries. Some Sephardic Jews also moved into the area following the Spanish inquisition.
The Jews of this region were called the Ait Yussouf. They lived in the lower Draa Valley between Akka and the Atlantic, and their holy patron lived in Ifrane Anti-Atlas. They had good relations with local Amazigh tribes.
Center of Caravan Trade
The mellah of Ifrane was one of the main ports of the caravans coming from the Sahara. The caravans brought gum, amber, incense, ostrich feathers, ivory, gold, and skins. Under the protection of the Tazeroualt dynasty, a Muslim family that was independent of the Sultan, Jews from Ifrane sold the commodities in regional markets and at the port of Mogador (Essaouira), where other Jews played an important role in the export trade. Ifrane was a key transit point for the caravan trade from the 17th through the 19th century.
The Fifty Martyrs
In 1790, Sultan Moulay Yazid,of the currently ruling Alaouite Dynasty, began his two-year tyrannical reign, which was marked by pogroms against the Jews throughout the country. Ifrane was severely impacted. Fifty Jews were burned at the stake, causing the remainder of the population to flee until the end of Moulay Yazid’s reign in 1792. This incident has entered into legend. According to Pierre Flamand in his book, “Diaspora en Terre d’Islam, Les Communautes Israelites du Sud,” the story goes like this:
Sixty Jews from Ifrane were working at a souk. A sorcerer named Bouhalassa arrived at the souk, accompanied by armed bandits. Bouhalassa wanted to prove his power. Inspired by Sultan Moulay Yazid, he chained up the 60 Jews and tortured them. The local population, who had treated the Jews of the area very well, were able to free ten of the Jews.
Bouhalassa gave the remaining 50 Jews the choice of conversion to Islam or death. He built a great fire. The Jews decided to jump into the fire as a group, rather than allowing even one of them to convert. One by one, each of them jumped into the fire. The legend continues that a column of fire rose up to the sky, and at night a candelabra of fire descended from the heavens. As a result, persecutions of Jews stopped. Ten Jews and thirty Muslims gathered up the ashes and brought them to the cemetery in Ifrane. The ashes of the 50 martyrs were buried and became an important pilgrimage site.
Ifrane lost its economic importance in the late 1800’s, as the caravan trade was replace by shipping vessels. Jews remained until 1958, when they left as a group for Israel. Today, you can visit the remains of the large mellah. Given the importance of Ifrane, the Foundation for Jewish-Moroccan Cultural Heritage has helped restore a synagogue in the mellah.
The Jewish cemetery of Ifrane is reputed to contain tombs that are almost 2,000 years old. Many headstones with Hebrew inscriptions remain, along with the shelter of Jewish saint, Ed Mrara.