A visit to a historic Jewish cemetery, and the medina in Sefrou, Morocco (definitely off the normal tourist track) – December 2012


Warning: Invalid XML structure returned from Amazon. in /data/23/4/113/129/4276455/user/4867402/htdocs/popeblog/wp-content/plugins/amazon-product-in-a-post-plugin/inc/amazon-product-in-a-post-aws-signed-request.php on line 946

A friend of Abdul’s (I met him on the train from Tangier to Fes), Michell, offered me the chance to go to Sefrou.  Sefrou is about 35 kilometers (about 21 miles) southeast of Fes. It is an easy drive, and only takes about 30 minutes.  The map below shows Sefrou in relationship to Fes in Morocco.

Slide1When I went to Sefrou, Michell told me that he was going there to visit the medina, and that we would go to the medina in Fes after out return. However, after we got to Sefrou, and visited a Jewish cemetery, and the medina, I did some research on the history of Jewish people both in Morocco, and Sefrou.  This history is necessary to have a better background for this blog post.

A short history of Jews in Morocco

Jewish history in Morocco begins shortly after the destruction of the First Temple of Solomon.  Some others arrived traveling overland from Yemen later.  Most of the early Jews came with the Phoenician traders hundreds of years before the Christians, and they lived peacefully in the cities along the coast.  Roman cities in Morocco had Jewish populations, and some Jewish presence has been found in the City of Volubilis. More arrived from Tunisia.  As more arrived, Jewish people began to move inland settle in Berber areas, and others moved into the Sahara.  Towards the end of the seventh century, the Roman hold on Morocco was very weak, and in 732 the Muslims / Arabs extended their rule to include both Morocco and Spain.  The Jews lost 3 wars with Idris I (first Arab king), and then moved into the mountains.  His son Idris II started the City of Fez.  While Idris II imposed restrictions on the Jews according to Islāmic law, he did create a climate that allowed some Jews to become very prosperous.

A Berber tribe from the Sahara, the Almoravides, established a kingdom that included parts of Morocco and Spain.  The Almoravides established their capital in Marrakesh.  Jewish people were not allowed to enter Marrakesh during the evening, but otherwise the Jewish people were allowed to move freely through Morocco and Spain.  During this time life was comfortable enough for Jewish scholars to settle in Morocco.  During the twelfth century, the Berber Almohads Islāmic fundamentalists came to power, and persecuted the Jewish community by either killing them or encouraging them to leave Morocco.  By 1224 there were no synagogues in Morocco.  By the mid thirteenth century, the Merenids overthrew the Almohads and then reestablished strong ties with the Jews, and created an environment where many Jews returned to Fes.  Beginning in 1472, the Wattasids gained control, but were not very strong.  About this time, Queen Isabella gained control of Southern Spain, and in 1492 demanded that Jews either convert to Christianity or leave.  As a result 20,000 Jews from Spain entered Morocco.  During the 16th and 17 centuries, the Saadian’s ruled Morocco.  While they heavily taxed the Jews, they also gave them control of sugar exports, allowed them to be very influential in the trade with Europe, and also play a large part in the trade between the sub Saharan regions and Europe.  The Saadian’s also encouraged Jew from both Spain and Portugal that had converted to Christianity to come and settle the coastal cities and convert back to Judaism.

Moroccan kings continued to encourage Jewish people, create a good economic environment for them, until 1790.  For two years from 17900 to 1792, Jews were forced to leave both Meknes and Fez, and were also asked to leave Marrakesh.  After 1792, under Moroccan kings, Jewish life was good again until 1860.  During a several period both the French and Spanish made various excursions into Morocco and at time making life very hard for Jews.  With the assistance of the French, in 1864 Jew received equal treatment after reaching an agreement with the king.  Around 1890, Tangier was declared an international city, and Jews living received good treatment.

The French invaded Morocco in 1907.  After this, the Spanish controlled Northwest Morocco, and the rest of Morocco was a Protectorate of France.  The French would remove Jewish people from good jobs replacing them with their own.  In 1912, there was a revolt in Fez of Moroccan troops.  The Moroccan troops could not get into the European area of town, but they were allowed to enter Jewish area.  In the end about 50 Jew were killed during the revolt, and 12 ended up without a home.  During the French Protectorate, the French would sometimes used the Jews to controls the non-Jewish population.

At one point there were over 400,000 Jews in Morocco.  After the establishment of the Israel in 1948, tension within the Jewish community about their place in Morocco began to increase, and many started to leave.  This occurred mainly because the Jews were not comfortable living in a Muslim / Arabic country.  In 1956, it was declared illegal for Jews to emigrate from Morocco to Israel.  This law remained in force until In the years since 1956, the Jewish population has continued to decline with Jewish people leaving either for Canada, France, or Israel.  Today, only about 6,000 Jews about in Morocco.

A lot of my information of the Jewish history in Morocco can from the following website:  http://rickgold.home.mindspring.com/index.htm

History of Jews in Sefrou

Jews have lived in Sefrou around 800 AD.  Sefrou has been a melting pot for Jews, Berbers, and Algerians.  In later years, the Jews lived in the mellah.  A  mellah is a walled section in Moroccan cities where Jewish people lived. This is the equivalent of the Jewish quarter in most of the world.  In 1948, Jews made up about 50% of the Sefrou which had a population of about 10,000, and they lived in the mellah that once made up about half of Old Sefrou.  There was a large population of Jews into the 1970, but now, there are only a few families remaining.  Today, most of those living in the old mellah are Muslim.

Sefrou Jewish Cemetery

On the way to the medina in Sefrou, Michell stopped to show me the Jewish cemetery.  Since there are very view Jews still living in Sefrou, it is a little strange to a Jewish cemetery where there are almost no Jewish residents.

The cemetery is now maintained and restored with funds from Jews that have emigrated.

Some graves are written in Hebrew with some in French.  Most of the dates on each grave are not recent, but there are a few recent graves.  I saw one grave where the deceased passing was dated in 2009.  Some pictures from the cemetery are shown below.  A complete set of pictures for the cemetery can be seen by clicking on the gallery link at the end of this posting.

Entrance to the Sefrou Jewish
Entrance to the Sefrou Jewish Cemetery

My understanding from a Jewish friend is that is normal custom for Jews to be buried.  At the cemetery in Sefrou, bodies are entombed above ground.

This is the view of the cemetery as you enter the Sefrou Jewish Cemetery.
This is the view of the cemetery as you enter the Sefrou Jewish Cemetery.
Another view of the cemetery.
Another view of the cemetery.
Another part of the cemetery.
Another part of the cemetery.

 

Some of the writings are in Hebrew, and others are in French.  One of the dates of the deceased was dated as recently as 2009.
Some of the writings are in Hebrew, and others are in French. One of the dates of the deceased was dated as recently as 2009.

Slide7

Graves came in several different styles.  Here is one of the different styles.
Graves came in several different styles. Here is one of the different styles.

The Sefrou Medina

This medina is off the tourist track.  Some of the medina pictures I took are shown below with comments on most of the pictures.  The locals mostly frequent this medina.  I did not hear any English while walking through the medina.  I am sure that I looked out-of-place here.  At no time did anyone look upset that I was there, and no one acted unfriendly.  As everywhere I went, everyone I went in Morocco, everyone seemed to be OK with my presence there.

Michell and I entered the Sefrou medina through the wall of the old city.
Michell and I entered the Sefrou medina through the wall of the old city.
I followed Michell into the medina.  If I could not have seen him, I will probably be still wondering around lost today.
I followed Michell into the medina. If I could not have seen him, I would be still be there lost today.
Some shops make beds, others make furniture, and other sell any kind of furniture.
Some shops make beds, others make furniture, and other sell any kind of furniture.
There is even a shop that make plows for local farmers.  This shops makes and assembles plows, but get the blades from another shop in the medina.
There is even a shop that make plows for local farmers. This shops makes and assembles plows, but get the blades from another shop in the medina.

 

Blows blades are made in a adjoining shop.  It takes this blacksmith a whole day to forge, shape, and sharpen a plow blade.  All one days work, he will get the equivalent of about $20 US.  Notice the top right pictures.  The blacksmith only has one eye.  An accident one day cause hot lead to get into his eye.  Can you imagine pounding the hot metal and only have one eye to watch what you are doing.  I have two eyes and usually hit one of my fingers any time I pound something.  I guess that is why I am not a plumber.  The blacksmith is a berber, and remained in Sefrou after the remained of his family emigrated to Canada.
Plows blades are made in a adjoining shop. It takes this blacksmith a whole day to forge, shape, and sharpen a plow blade. For one days work, he will get the equivalent of about $20 US. Notice the top right picture. The blacksmith only has one eye. An accident one day caused hot lead to get into his eye. Can you imagine pounding the hot metal and only have one eye to watch what you are doing?  I have two eyes and usually hit one of my fingers any time I pound something. I guess that is why I am not a plumber. The blacksmith is a berber, and remained in Sefrou after his family emigrated to Canada.
Parts of the medina exist outside of the old city.  Cars can be driven is some parts of the medina that are outside of the old walled city.
Parts of the medina exist outside of the old city. Cars can be driven is some parts of the medina that are outside of the old walled city.
Residences previously occupied by Jews can be seen above the current medina.
Residences previously occupied by Jews can be seen above the current medina.
After following Michell around through alleys, tunnels, we finally saw the wall of old city, and exited the medina.
After following Michell around through alleys, tunnels, we finally saw the wall of old city, and exited the medina.

It had been quite a morning visiting the Sefrou Jewish Cemetery, and walking around the medina off the beaten tracks of the normal tourist (Please do not go there.  Ex wife’s, my kids, and my friends tell me all the time that I am not normal).  I did feel that I had seen a real medina, and realized that I needed to learn more about Jewish history in Morocco to get a better understanding of the things I had seen.

My gallery of pictures for my visit to the Sefrou Jewish Cemetery, and medina can be seen below.  For an enlargement, just mouse click on the photo you would like to see enlarged.  A viewer can move back and forth through the gallery to see other photos, or can see a slide show of the entire gallery by clicking in the lower right of the enlarged slide.