A Life in Travel

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Exploring Jewish Culture and History Traveling in Morocco

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 Today, Morocco has a Jewish population of a few thousand, most concentrated in Casablanca, Fez, Rabat and Marrakech. However, today, Jewish history is revealed traveling throughout Morocco where the Diaspora once lived, traded, mingled, mixed, and thrived amongst the predominant Muslim culture. Following the common circuit of travel in Morocco on our Exotic Morocco itinerary from the Imperial cities of Rabat and Fez, over the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, down the Valley of the Kasbahs, and back over the Tiz n Ticha pass to Marrakech, a history of Jewish settlement is revealed, and contemporary examples of a blended religious and cultural history thrive.

Jewish Moroccans inhabited areas of North Africa since ancient times, predating Roman rule, with the first settlement of notoriety built around 580 BCE. Developing traditions and rituals distinct from the religious communities in surrounding areas, it thrived as its own nation within the Roman Empire. Even then, Jewish traders were crossing the Atlas Mountains to trade and live among the Berbers. In fact, Judaism was adopted among many Berbers, and strong influences of the Jewish faith remain in Berber spirituality.

At the start of most Morocco Wildland Adventures, in the Imperial cities of Rabat, Casablanca, and Fez, Jewish influences can be seen. For example, Sefrou, a medium-sized city in the Atlas Mountains above Fez, has a prominent role in Jewish Moroccan history. Once a market village before the medina of Fez, Sefrou had a relatively large Jewish-Berber population for centuries, evidenced today in ancient buildings, many with Hebrew inscriptions.

The full history of Morocco's Jewish-Muslim relations has fluctuated there between periods of tolerance and persecution. Although Muslim rule here in the 7th C was a respite from oppressive laws of the Byzantine Empire, persecution crept in and by the 11th C Jews became second-class citizens living within walled in mellahs. These communities operated relatively independently with high levels of education and standards of living.

At the start and end of your journey through Morocco, both Fez and Marrakech have intact mellahs to explore. Most of the Jewish population departed Fez in 1956 for the United States, Israel or Casablanca city's 15th C, but the mellah is still a lovely neighborhood. While most Arab buildings are plain on the outside and ornate only in the interior, the Jewish influence here remains obvious in the balconies and intricate windows. Marrakech's mellah is a small walled quarter of the city your guide can walk you through, including the remains of synagogues there. Smaller cities such as Meknes and Rabat have interesting signs of Jewish heritage in synagogues and graveyards.

Departing Fez and heading over the Atlas Mountains into the vast horizons of desert and dunes around Erfoud, you enter the former Kingdom of Sijimassa, where Jewish Berbers once controlled the gold trade and an extensive commerce network that stretched to India and Egypt. This area was used as a terminal or port town before heading to Sudan, Cairo, and further afield. (See Encylopedia.com for more background.)

From your overnight camp in the Sahara Desert, heading west into the Dades Valley, Todra Gorge and the Valley of the Kasbahs, you enter the area of Tinjedad. Here is perhaps the best opportunity to witness and understand how the Muslim Berbers and Jewish Berbers lived in relative harmony—each community making their particular contributions to make this agricultural region both well known and prosperous. While seemingly benign on first impression, this is a stop were magic unfolds when we stop to explore the communities and walk among the fields of irrigated green crops and sweet palm plantations where locals tend their crops. We wander through tunnels and narrow pedestrian alleyways of a massive earthen ksar (Arab term for castle) with a revealing Berber history museum known as El Khorbat, where there happens to be a wonderful little restaurant featuring local dishes.

In the mountain and southern oasis regions outside of Marrakech are settlements where Berber-Jewish communities once thrived such as Ouirgane, home of the Shrine of Haim ben Diourne where a prayer festival is held each May. Known locally as marabout Juif (house of the Jews), this shrine has the tombs of prominent rabbis and can been seen any time of year.

Casablanca has a relatively large Jewish population today, boasting the only Jewish museum in the Muslim world, focused on the community's history in and influence on Morocco. There is a Jewish quarter in Casablanca full of kosher restaurants, synagogues and Jewish schools. It's interesting to note that Casablanca's Jewish community contributed financially to the construction of the city's Hassan II Mosque (the seconds largest in the world).

All of our trips include many sites and stories about Morocco's Jewish heritage. If you are especially interested in exploring the Jewish culture in Morocco we can custom design your itinerary to key in more depth on interesting developments of Muslim-Jewish relations.

Ask our Morocco Program Director what we can arrange for you to travel in Morocco. 

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