There has never been a better time to absorb Marrakech’s Jewish heritage. Restoration projects have added a new shine to sites centered in the Red City’s Jewish Quarter, Mellah, while elsewhere in the city, you can immerse yourself in Judaic culture of the past and present.
Jewish heritage in Marrakech dates back more than 2,000 years. Fewer than 100 years ago, before the founding of Israel in 1948, more than 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco, making it one of the the largest Jewish communities in the Muslim world. These days the community has dwindled, with only around 3,000 Jewish people thought to be living there today. But travellers to Marrakech can still find Jewish museums, synagogues and cemeteries. This guide features eight eclectic highlights for those looking for a taste of the Red City’s Jewish past, present and future
Mellah and Ben Attar gate
For hundreds of years, the Mellah positively teemed with life. With a bustling spice souk(market) and the clanging sound of silversmiths, the Jewish Quarter has long been a draw for tourists, but all it takes is a stroll around the labyrinthine alleyways to evoke ghosts of the recent past. The eagle-eyed will observe engraved Stars of David and streets returned to their original Hebrew names. Look upward and you can see exposed windows, which were prohibited in Arab homes. To enter the enclave, the Mellah can be accessed through a stone arch named after Rabbi Ben Attar. Even today, when people pass through the gate, they touch the frame, hoping for a stroke of luck. A convenient focal point to begin a tour around the Mellah is the Place des Ferblantiers, where many petit taxis drop tourists.
There are many reasons to visit the exceptional Maison de la Photographie, a museum of photography with one of the medina’s prettiest terraces. With a permanent collection of 10,000 original prints and Marrakech’s most exhaustive collection of postcards, it’s a must-visit. A major new draw to this museum, however, is its exhibition on the Jews of Morocco, displaying photographs of the city’s Jewish population in early 20th century. Photographer Jean Besancenot, among others, was determined to capture authentic scenes of Moroccan Jewish life. Photographs on display are of subjects that transcend their traditional roles, while others immortalize stereotypical images of Jewish merchants. You can easily walk here from Medersa Ben Youssef, which is located in the north of the medina. A particularly good time to visit is late in the afternoon, when the crowds thin out.
One of the quirkiest museums Marrakech has to offer, Musée Tiskiwin is housed in a restored riad and hosts a collection of cultural artefacts from the personal collection of anthropologist Bert Flint. Taking visitors on a tour of the city’s old caravan routes, a notable feature of this museum is its insight into the layered history of Morocco’s Jewish past. In this exhibition, you never know what you might find next. Learn how precious stones were brought to Morocco in the seventh century after Jews were expelled by the Visigoths and marvel at the beaded necklaces worn by Jews of urban origin. For a final splash of color, there are emeralds set in jewellery, another symbol of the craftsmanship Jews were famed for throughout large parts of the Maghreb. The Musée is located close to Bahia Palais in the Kasbah district and closes for a long lunch.
To experience Jewish Marrakech in all its authenticity and truly sense Jewish life in any part of the diaspora, you must listen to its music. A former riad from the Saadian era has now been transformed into Marrakech’s museum of music and given new life by Patrick Menac’h, the same Parisian who is behind the Maison de la Photographie. Musical instruments that Marrakech Jews used to play sit alongside stories and photographs here, chronicling the shared rhythms of Morocco’s Jewish, Amazigh, Arab and Andalusian populations. For centuries, Moroccan Jewish musicians have been acclaimed performers of Andalusian music – it is said they helped to keep the genre alive. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays you can listen to a live performance in the unparalleled douiria upstairs, the ultimate architectural expression of 16th-century Moroccan sensibilities. The museum is inconspicuous, but it’s close to the main Mouassine mosque.
In the 16th century, a sultan wanted to establish Mouassine as the centre of his capital. There was an obstacle, however; a Jewish cemetery was in the way. When the Jewish population moved to the southern edge of the city, it led to the development of a new cemetery, Miara, the biggest Jewish burial site Morocco has ever seen. Seven thousand of the stones at this cemetery mark where small children were buried, mainly as a result of typhus. On the perimeter it’s possible to tiptoe from one mausoleum to the next, the last resting place of the pious and learned scholars of Jewish Marrakech. The centerpiece is the grave of one of Marrakech’s most respected rabbis, but the whole site is spectacular, set amid ochre-colored walls. The cemetery is located on a residential street, but there is Hebrew script on the gate to signal the entrance.
In the years prior to independence, the Jewish community in Marrakech numbered well in excess of 30,000 people. Years of emigration mean only one of the 30 synagogues that used to exist in the Mellah has a congregation large enough to operate. Founded in 1492 by exiles who fled the Spanish Inquisition, it has been a sanctuary for generations. Children from mountain villages used to travel to Slat to learn the holy scriptures of the Torah. There is a strong community ethic, promoting religious solidarity and coexistence. It’s even been known for local Muslims to come here to break the Ramadan fast. While the current building is only 100 years old, the ark on the eastern wall symbolises the continuity of half a millennium of prayer taking place in Marrakech’s oldest synagogue. Located a couple of blocks south of the Bahia Palace, do note it’s closed to visitors on the Sabbath (Saturdays).
The medina is notoriously noisy, so those in the know head to Dar El Bacha for its oasis of calm. It combines sculpted gardens, stunning cedar-work and, most surprising of all, a chair used to perform circumcisions for Jewish baby boys in the 1800s. The Dar used to be the home of the controversial Pacha of Marrakech, Thami El Glaoui. It’s not history but artwork of Jewish, Islamic and other cultures that most impresses here. For those a little weary of Hebrew scrolls, menorah candles and synagogue furnishings, the Bacha Coffee Shop is tucked behind the courtyard. With 100% Arabica coffee, you can ponder another one of Africa’s ancient Jewish communities over a brew made with beans sourced from 33 countries. The location is a little farther away from the main sites but it is still in the medina, close to Bab Doukkala.
There’s no shortage of restaurants in which to order a tajine in Marrakech, least of all in upmarket Gueliz. Kosher restaurants are harder to come by, however, and even rarer are any that serve up Moroccan fare as comforting Dar Ima, with its warm welcome, mid range prices and intimate setting. Moroccan Muslims say they eat here because they can be sure the standards of cooking are just as high as in any halal restaurant. It’s the thoughtful touches that count, such as the chicken pastilla (pastry) that comes with a decorative hand of Hamsa or menorah sprinkled in sugar on top. You can even wash the dish down with one of the restaurant’s bottles of red wine, appropriately called Rabbi Jacob. This is a great setting for lunch, but it’s equally good for dinner and is located conveniently near to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum.