Moroccoʹs Jewish legacy

The Rabbi of Essaouira

The presence of Jewish tradesmen helped shape the character of Essaouira in Morocco. Traces of the portʹs Jewish heritage are evident to this very day. Every year Jews from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Essaouira, keeping memories of the city’s Jewish character alive. By Claudia Mende

At the old Jewish cemetery, all is quiet. A tranquil melody wafts on the breeze. A small group of worshippers prays at the mausoleum in the centre of the burial ground, a man sings. An old lady dressed from head-to-toe in black explains that this is the grave of Rabbi Pinto. She says she comes here every year from Paris to pray at the mausoleum of the venerated Rabbi. And meets other Jews from all over the world.

The Jewish cemetery lies directly on the coast, outside the historic old town. Just a few minutes' walk from the Christian cemetery. There's a guard at the entrance, but no police. The gravestones are strewn at random, with weeds growing in between. The Hebrew inscriptions are severely eroded, because this final resting place is so often flooded by sea water.

A banner on the cemetery wall bids worshippers welcome to Hilloula, on the pilgrimage for Rabbi Haim Pinto, buried here in 1845. To this day, the Rabbi is revered as a just man who had the ear of God. Those who make the pilgrimage to his grave every year are for the most part Jews, originally from Morocco, who were forced to leave their childhood home following the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Located on Moroccoʹs Atlantic coast, Essaouira is keen to promote its Jewish legacy. The cemetery, pilgrimage and synagogues are mentioned in pamphlets at the tourist office. There are special tours focusing on aspects of Jewish life in the city. Traders in the souk encourage travellers to go and take a look at the synagogues.

"The only Arab city where most of the residents were once Jewish"

In much of the Arab world, the idea of a Jewish pilgrimage would be unusual, if not impossible. But not in Essaouira.

View of the medina walls close to the Bab Sbaa Gate in Essaouira, Morocco (photo: Claudia Mende)
Mogador, a thriving economic hub: looking to establish contact with European tradesmen, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah invited Jewish traders to settle in Essaouira in the eighteenth century. He also engaged in some major construction works, building most of the Old Town and the port fortifications. By the nineteenth century, Jews made up around 40 percent of the cityʹs population and the settlement had become North Africaʹs leading port

"The pilgrimage takes place every year," says Samir El Harrouf from the city's tourism office. "For us it's totally normal. The pilgrimage is part of our cultural heritage." Up to 2,000 worshippers attend the main pilgrimage days in September. Then he adds: "Essaouira is the only Arab city where most of the residents were once Jewish."

It's a claim that's difficult to verify. Whatʹs clear is that a great many Jews lived here in the 19th century – historians estimate around 40 percent of the total population. It was Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah who settled the Jewish traders here in the 18th century. He wanted them to help him establish contact with European tradesmen. The Sultan built most of the Old Town and the port fortifications.

The settlement, known at the time as Mogador, became the most important port in North Africa. Its role as a trading hub between Timbuktu and Europe brought it great wealth. The mellah, or Jewish quarter, was mainly populated by poorer Jews. The better-off families had their houses in Muslim neighbourhoods. At the time the city was said to have more synagogues than mosques.

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