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
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.