Marrakesh mellah

The Marrakesh mellah dates from the 1550’s, as noted on the door to the Jewish cemetery. Unlike the medina (old city), the mellah has many three story buildings towering over narrow streets, reflecting the crowded conditions of the many Jews who lived there until the 1960’s.

Synagogues were once found on every street, but only one remains in operation. In the middle of the mellah is a building that housed until recently a synagogue and a home for the elderly. Another synagogue, Slat Al Azama, is across from the jewelers market, where several Jewish goldsmiths still produce pendants of the hand of Fatima, which is a symbol of good luck to both Jews and Muslims. The Marrakesh cemetery is the site of the Jewish saint Hanania Cohen.

In the 1950’s, Jewish economic activity spilled out of the mellah into the medina heading toward the Jemaa El Fnaa Square. The Square is Marrakesh’s center of traditional entertainment in the evening, with acrobats, storytellers and snake charmers performing for thousands of people.

Nearby is the Koutoubia mosque, one of the major architectural triumphs of the Almohads, the 12th century dynasty responsible for one of the worst periods of Jewish persecution. The eleventh century Almoravide Koubba el Baroudiyn is one of the few architectural reminders of the dynasty that presided over the “Golden Age” of the Jews in Spanish Andalucia and Morocco.

The Medersa Ben Yusuf, El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs are beautiful demonstrations of the art and architecture of the 16th century Saadians, a dynasty that relied heavily on Jewish traders with Sub-Saharan Africa, including Moroccan-controlled Timbuktu, to finance its wars against Portugal and the Turkish empire.

The rural areas surrounding Marrakesh have the heaviest concentration of Jewish saints of anywhere in Morocco. Demnate, northeast of Marrakesh, is one of the few rural towns with a well developed mellah, as well as a cemetery with the saint David Draa Halevy. Near-by Sidi Rahal has the mausoleum of Jacob Mahmias, called Moul Almay.

South of Marrakesh, in the ancient town of Aghbalou in the Ourika Valley, the tomb of Saloman Ben Elhans is cared for by one of the few remaining Amazigh Jews in Morocco. At the highest point on the road to Ouarzazate, a Jewish saint, David Lachkar (or Moulay Ighi), is buried in Telouet, the stronghold of the most powerful Amazigh family of the twentieth century, the Glaoui.