Jews lived in Demnate in the 1100s, four centuries before the mellah of Marrakech was founded. In the 16th century, the Granada-born Muslim traveler Leon L’African visited Demnate and found many Jews in a population of 2,000 households. Their occupations included serving as merchants, traders and artisans.
Demnate’s Jews got along well with the town’s Muslims during the first part of the 19th century. They lived among Muslims and invested together in businesses.
However, in 1884 the Jews of Demnate reported to the Sultan that the Governor forced them to work on the Sabbath, clean dirty areas, carry heavy objects on their backs, work without pay and sell their merchandise at half price. They also complained that Jewish women were forced to work without approval of their husbands.
In response, the Minister of Great Britain in Tangier pressured the Sultan to allow more protégés in Demnate. These reports, as well as other reports of atrocities in the coastal city of Safi, were used by Sir Moses Montefiore to justify his visit to Morocco in 1864, where he put pressure on the Sultan to improve the conditions of the Kingdom’s Jews.
The Demnate mellah was built in 1887. Jewish leaders continued to complain about mistreatment by the Governor and an 1894 attack on the mellah. Susequently, the caids of Demnate, members of the El Glaoui family, treated Jews with respect during the French Protectorate in Morocco from 1912-1956.
Jews made up a large percentage of Demnate’s population. In 1883, there were 1,700 Jews in a population of 4,000. In 1960, the 1,200 Jews were almost 20% of the population. Today, the town hosts no Jews. The cemetery has four Jewish saints, including Rabbi David El Draa Halevy, at whose tomb there is an annual hiloula.
The ancient agricultural valley of Ourika, south of Marrakesh, housed Jews and Amazigh long before the creation of Red City. Many Ourika Jews moved to Marrakesh at the request of the Saadian Sultan in the 16th century. Over the centuries, Jews and Amazigh coexisted peaceably. Jews lived in 18 settlements throughout the Valley. One of the important Jewish sites in Ourika in the town of Aghbalou is the shrine of Rabbi Salomon Bel-Hench, which was guarded by the last Amazigh Jew of the Valley, Hananiya Alfassi, until his death in 2013.
On the road from Marrakech to Beni Mellal just past the town of El Kelaa des Sraghna is Bzou, where Jews lived in the mellah of Tigdmin. The town is famous throughout Moroccan for making the best jellabas, the hooded Moroccan cloaks. Bzou is the site of the shrine of the Jewish saint Sidi Moul El Borj (owner of the tower). The shrine is enclosed by a brick building. The tomb is dark from the decades of candles burned by Jewish pilgrims during their annual visits for the saint’s hiloula.
On the road from Marrakesh to Demnate is the town of Sidi Rahal. The town is the site of the shrine of the Jewish saint, Yacob Nahmias Ashkenazi or Moul Almay. Both Jews and Muslims venerate this saint. He was a master of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah and is believed to have performed miracles, such as ending a drought in Marrakesh. That is why he was named Moul Almay, or master of the waters. The rabbi, like many Jewish saints, was said to have come from the land of Israel in the 19th century to collect funds from Moroccan Jews.
In Ait Ourir, 20 minutes South of Marrakesh on the road to Ouarzazate, you can visit the shrine of Saint Rabbi Habib Mizrahi. In June 1992, I joined the Jewish community of Marrakesh for the hiloula of the Saint. Inspired by a dream, a member of the Marrakesh Jewish community, David Ohayon, constructed the sanctuary. He hosted the community at the hiloula.
The sanctuary is part of the Jewish cemetery. At one time, a large percentage of the village was Jewish, but no Jews remain today. The village inhabitants, all Muslim, welcomed the pilgrims to the sanctuary. Built on a hill, it holds the tomb of the Rabbi in a narrow room.
It also has a courtyard and some meeting and prayer rooms. The courtyard was decorated with the photograph of the late King Hassan II, a picture of the Saint, and the banner of the Marrakesh Jewish Community’s summer camp, Camp Habad. The tomb is a raised horizontal marble slab, with an iron stove at its head. Candles floating on oil sit at the head of the tomb.
As part of their prayer, pilgrims lit candles and put them in the stove. Men and women bowed down before the tomb and some kissed it. A chazzan (cantor) chanted prayers.
Moroccan Government officials were invited to visit the hiloula. The Jewish Community welcomed them in the traditional Moroccan way, with milk and dates. The Camp Habad children sang Hebrew songs such as Haveinu Shalom Aleichem. The officials entered the sanctuary, prayed at the tomb and lit candles, while the chazzan chanted.
Later, men and women celebrated in separate rooms with a festive lunch. The men chanted prayers and piyutim, liturgical poems. Many of them were written by Jews living in Andalusian Spain prior to the 15th century expulsion of both Jews and Muslims. Moroccan Jews have their own traditional melodies for the piyutim. Jewish community leaders gave speeches and collected money for the upkeep of the sanctuary. Camp Habad children chanted religious slogans.