Wandering Through the Mellah
While vacationing in Morocco at the end of July, I took a side trip to visit Essaouira, a small city on the Atlantic coast south of Casablanca.
Avenue Zerktouni, the main thoroughfare, is a typical, bustling, Moroccan souk, lined with stalls hawking everything from trinkets to sides of beef and jammed with people, push-carts, honking motor scooters and beasts of burden. It forms one boundary of the Mellah, a roughly 15 block, triangular area in a corner of the Medina, bounded on its other side by a sea wall, part of a fortification built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. The Mellah is the old Jewish Quarter of Essaouira, which was included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch to bring attention to its crumbling state and urgent need for documentation. Now, World Monuments Fund is beginning a project to record its history and tell its story before it disappears.
There are barely any Jews left in the Mellah. Once home to a community of thousands, only a handful remain today. Most Moroccan Jews emigrated to Israel after the creation of the Israeli State in 1947. Stepping through an arched passageway from Avenue Zerktouni into the Mellah is like stepping into a different world. A silent, winding alley, narrow and dim, leads to another and eventually to the sea wall, its land-side face now exposed because the buildings that once backed up against it have been demolished. In their place is a park of sorts, consisting of stone block benches scattered around a large, rubble-paved open area, baking in the sun. A few tattered squatter sheds lean against the sea wall.
Two tiny synagogues, carefully restored and open to the public as historic sites, face the rubble park. Lovely but empty, their soundtrack is the hollow whistling of the constant wind that sweeps across the city from the ocean.
The demolition in the Mellah seems aggressive and random, at least to the casual visitor. Essaouria has developed into a significant tourist destination, primarily for Moroccans and Europeans, because of its seaside setting. Maybe the idea is to develop the Mellah in a way to support that. But for now the area is forlorn, essentially devoid of Jewish culture, and even a bit menacing. On two occasions, I was told not to take photos of the demolition and shooed out of deserted alleys—the only time this happened during my entire Morocco visit.
Interestingly, over a thousand Jews, from Morocco and around the world, make an annual pilgrimage to Essaouira every September to commemorate the anniversary of Rabbi Haim Pinto’s death in 1845, he being a major figure in Jewish religious history and the leading Rabbi of the city. One wonders what they must think of the condition of the Mellah when they visit.