From its peak of over 250,000 during the late 1940s, the Jewish community of Morocco has shrunk to less than 3,000 today. However, in every turn and alley of the mellahs, or old Jewish quarters in Moroccan cities, are traces of a long and rich history. These walled neighborhoods have Jewish cemeteries and preserved synagogues, a testament to a once thriving community that dates back 2,000 years.
1 – Slat Alfassiyine, Fes
Fes is the spiritual capital not only of Moroccan Islam, but also Judaism. In 1900, Fez, then the imperial capital, had 10,000 Jews out of a population of 100,000 and 20 synagogues.
Slat Alfassiyine (Prayer of those from Fes) is the oldest, first established in the 17th century in the old Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The synagogue had fallen into disrepair and had been closed since the 1960s. With funding from Morocco’s Jewish community and the Federal Republic of Germany, Slat al Fassiyine has now been restored to its former glory.
An anecdote: According to local tradition, Slat Alfassiyine was built by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 who arrived in Fez and decided to build a synagogue for themselves after the local Jews refused to let them pray in theirs.
2- Beth El, Casablanca
Today, Casablanca is home to the largest Jewish community in North Africa and boasts close to 30 synagogues. The main religious focal point of the community is Beth El, or Beit El, the largest synagogue and an important community center, seating 500 persons.
Beth-El is noted for its stained-glass windows and ark housing Hebrew scrolls dressed in exquisitely embroidered velvet mantles. The walls are inscribed with gilded quotes from the Bible and the ceiling is equally decorative.
3- Moshe Nahon, Tangier
All Tangier’s synagogues are located in one street, aptly named “Synagogue Streets” – later renamed “Synagogue Street” because only one remains open. This is the Moshe Nahon (or Moise Nahon) Synagogue, named for its founder, built in 1870. After falling into disrepair, the synagogue was renovated in 1994 by a Jewish architect who traces his roots to Tangier.
Tucked away behind a nondescript door, the Moshe Nahon reveals a lavish and monumental synagogue in the characteristics of synagogues in northern Morocco. There is a wall painting of the tablets of the law, a large sculpted wooden lectern for Torah reading and a women’s gallery opening out on to a terrace. Daylight enters through a square skylight and the windows in the upper gallery.
4- Slat Al Azama, Marrakech
Also known as the “Synagogue of the Dissidents”, Slat Al Azama is the oldest and most picturesque synagogue in Marrakech. It was built in 1492 by Sephardi Jews, fleeing Spain in the late 15th century after the Decree of Alhambra.It is the only operational synagogue in Marrakech, open daily to the public and popular for weddings and b’nai mitzvah among foreign visitors.
The Slat Al Azama Synagogue is one of a series of buildings constructed around a large, well-tended central courtyard. Four pillars divide the interior into two naves, with the walls painted in blue and white so prevalent in the Mellah. The original wooden movable lectern has been replaced by one of marble along the eastern wall. Here, strikingly, an embellished gallery (ezrat nashim) is reserved for women, an innovation in Morocco, where women traditionally remained at the entrance to the synagogue or in a separate room. On the floor above is a Talmud Torah School, a soup kitchen and the community centre.
5- Bet Em Habanim, Sefrou
Sefrou, south of Fez, was known as Little Jerusalem due to its high percentage of Jews and its well-developed religious life. The Mellah in this quaint little town, just 30 km southeast of Fez, makes up about half of the Medina – the old quarters. Though nearly all current residents of Sefrou’s mellah are Muslim, Jewish influences can be seen in the ancient buildings, many with Hebrew characters inscribed upon them.
The only functioning synagogue in the Mellah is the Bet Em Habanim synagogue, beautifully decorated in mosaics and surprisingly intact. The influence of Muslim art is apparent in the colourful zellij (Moroccan tile work) on the walls and brightly painted stucco work above the Ark.