These days, Essaouira is known first and foremost as a paradise for kiteboarders and surfers. The windsurfing world cup took place on the beaches outside the town for the first time at the end of March this year. The completely walled-in Old Town was recognised as an UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 2001.
Unlike Agadir, which is located further to the south, Essaouira has never become a mass tourism destination due to its strong winds. But with its white facades and narrow alleyways housing craftspeopleʹs workshops, Essaouira is popular with independent travellers and downshifters. Ever since Jimmy Hendrix visited the place in the 1960s, it has attracted hippies and musicians. Less is known about its Jewish legacy.
No diplomatic ties, but 50,000 Israeli tourists per annum
Morocco once had the largest Jewish community in the Arab world. The first Jews arrived in ancient times following the destruction of the Jewish Temple and settled amongst the local Berber population. Many Jews fled Spain after the Reconquista in the late 15th century and found refuge from persecution. Because of the many different waves of immigration, Morocco's Jewish population is particularly diverse.
When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, some 250,000 Jews lived in Morocco, but most left the country in the years that followed. Today, it's thought some 5,000 Jews still live in Morocco, the largest community with around 1,000 members being concentrated around Casablanca. This is also home to the only Jewish museum in the Arab world. Officially, Morocco does not maintain diplomatic ties with Israel, but some 50,000 Israeli tourists visit the country every year.
Most of the Jews in Essaouira left the city after 1948. The mellah, the old Jewish quarter, has fallen into disrepair, poor Moroccans have moved in and it's likely that looting also took place. Many of the buildings are dilapidated, some so badly there's a risk they might collapse. Poor drainage and invasive seawater are eroding the foundations.
City authorities have taken the decision to do something about it, but not much has happened to date. Today, visitors can visit two synagogues in the direct vicinity. The Rabbi Pinto Synagogue has been accessible for some time already. It hosts a comprehensive exhibition of historic photographs documenting Jewish life in the city pre-1948. On the second floor are the rooms for women, who in Orthodox congregations pray separately from the men.