The Draa River Valley

House in El Hara (Tamnougalt)

The Draa Valley is a long oasis that goes south from Ouarzazate into the Sahara Desert. At one time, the waters of the Draa River continued west to the coast where it entered the Atlantic south of Guelmim.  Today, the area west of the desert port of Mhamid is completely dry.

This was the site of legendary Jewish kingdom during the period of the second temple in Jerusalem. Jews have inhabited the upper valley since at least the late eighth century, when they were defeated by the first Moroccan sultan, Idriss 1st.  Jews took refuge in the Draa Valley, where Amazigh (Berber) tribes were able to maintain their independence of the sultan. It is possible that they moved there to join other Amazigh groups who had already converted to Judaism. The Draa was an important center of Jewish civilization for many centuries.

At the end of the 9th century, this region, along with Fez, vied with Kairouan in Tunisia for intellectual Jewish leadership of North Africa. Moise Drawi the elder and Dounash, Talmudic scholars of the 10th century, are the most brilliant representatives of this period.

Karaism, a Jewish movement that was adopted in Fez in the 11th century, spread to the Draa Valley.  Karaites are Jews whose practice is based on the Torah but not on what Rabbinic Judaism calls the “oral law,” the rabbinic interpretations compiled in the Talmud (between the first and fifth centuries CE). They were most prevalent in the 12th century, but their hold on Jewish thought and practice was overtaken by the Talmudists who fled Spain in the 14th-16th centuries.

Under the 12th century Almohads, the Karaites of the Draa were persecuted. Sultan Abd el Moumen eliminated the intellectual and religious life of Jews throughout Morocco.  The Karaites escaped massacres by fleeing to the mountains or to the Sahara.

Under the 14th and 15th century Merinid dynasty, Jews received more humane treatment, but did not regain their former influence in the Draa.  Some of them played an important role in the financing of the caravan trade that lasted until the late 19th century.

With the end of the wealth gained from the caravans, the mellahs of the Draa were in miserable condition. But in many communities, a few rich Jews played important roles in their communities. Jews had special relationships with leaders of Berber tribes, to whom they gave annual tribute. 

Some Jews from the Draa left for Israel as early as 1948, but the majority departed by 1958 in groups organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel in coordination with the leaders of the Marrakesh Jewish community.

Some of the more important mellahs are Agdz, Tamnougalt, Timesla, Akhellouf, Amzrou, Beni Sbih and Ouled Ahmed.