The Watch

Jewish Quarter of Essaouira

Essaouira, Morocco

2018 World Monuments Watch

The crumbling Jewish Quarter in the port town of Essaouira is a symbol of the plurality of Moroccan culture. Essaouira was established in the mid-eighteenth century by Alaouite Sultan Sidi Mohamed ben Abdellah on the site of a sixteenth-century Portuguese fortress. It quickly became a major trading post between Africa and Europe. During that period, the Jewish Quarter, called Mellah, was established to extend the sultan’s protection to the Jewish inhabitants. Making up 40 percent of the city’s population, the thriving and productive Jewish community was deeply integrated into Moroccan society, and the Mellah played an important role in Essaouira’s economic development.

Essaouira has long been a symbol of tolerance, with Jews and Muslims coexisting in peaceful community. During the French Protectorate, Essaouira ceased being a major trading post, forcing many families to migrate to bigger cities. After the founding of Israel, the Mellah lost around 98 percent of its population, and after 1980s, the Jewish community abandoned the area after centuries of occupation. A hybrid of Moorish and Art Deco architecture including residential buildings—many with the Star of David carved into the façade—more than a dozen synagogues, a Talmud school, and other buildings are the only physical evidence of centuries of Jewish presence in Essaouira. Some structures remain abandoned, crumbling or demolished due to safety concerns, while others have been converted into boutique shops and hotels, with little regard to the history of the area and the architecture. Rehabilitation and redevelopment takes place in a piecemeal fashion, addressing individual buildings and not the area as a whole, and often incorporating modern materials. The history of the Mellah as a haven for religious plurality is being lost and forgotten.

The Jewish Quarter has become a pilgrimage site for many former residents and descendants of Moroccan Jews, who visit the city in increasing numbers each year. Part of the 2001 World Heritage inscription of the Medina of Essaouira (formerly Mogador), the Mellah is also the focus of a local initiative to revitalize the city as a major tourism destination.

There is an urgency to document and tell the story of Essaouira’s Jewish Quarter and the role it played in the city’s cultural and religious plurality before it is forgotten. The 2018 World Monuments Watch calls for the documentation and interpretation of the Jewish Quarter of Essaouira as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence between religions to contribute to intercultural and interreligious dialogue to fight intolerance.

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