Discover the Imperial Cities of Meknes and Fes and Their Jewish Heritage
Morocco’s Jewish heritage offers visitors an encounter with ancient traditions, customs, architecture, monuments, and sites that have permeated Moroccan society for centuries. Morocco’s history of Jewry and the co-mingling of Jews with Berbers and Arabs are key factors in why Morocco is safe for Jewish travelers today and has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the diaspora.
Meknes, an imperial city known as the Moroccan Versailles is where the Jewish heritage is visible through Hebraic epitaphs dating from the Christian era in addition to Greek inscriptions that still appear in local synagogues. Meknes’ old Mellah (the Jewish quarter) is known for its historic Jewish street names, and the new Mellah is home to eleven synagogues. One of the functioning synagogues is of Rabbi Meir Toledano Synagogue, which dates back as far as the 13th century. Also, you should not miss a pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi’ David Benmidan.
Bab El-Khemis Gate is a big hit with visitors and for good reason. This spot is the most beautiful of the gates of the old city of Meknes—it is truly a magnificent structure. It is situated close to a university, and it is very well maintained with wonderful mosaics. The ancient wall stretches from it in both directions. “Bab” is the Arabic word for gate and, of the 12 gates in the 12 kilometer-long, rose-pink 12th-century wall that wraps around the ancient city, Bab el Khermis is one of the oldest and was built in 1673, and is impressive not only for its size but also for its original green and white zellij tiles, marble columns, and inscriptions from the Quran along the top. The multi-color tile work is stunning. Note the small holes in the façade of the gate. It was explained that these holes were for scaffolding when the stucco-work was being replaced on the gate.
The new cemetery is very well kept Jewish cemetery. The new Mellah is still the home for some of Meknes’s 50 Jews, and you can visit the beautiful synagogue, the El Krief, near the new cemetery. On the other side of the new Mellah and adjoining the old Mellah is the old Jewish cemetery. Several saints are found in the two cemeteries, including Haim Messas, David Boussidan, and Raphael Berdugo. On the left side of the Meknes road, you can see the old abandoned building of Talmud Torah—a Jewish religious school.
After a traditional Moroccan breakfast, we explored the breathtaking archaeological UNESCO site of Volubilis (Walili). This was one of the highlights of my trip. I discovered the fascinating Roman ruins adorned with beautiful mosaics and colorful tiles depicting Roman mythology and where archaeologists found the first traces of Jewish settlement in Morocco. The site contains basically the vestiges of a Roman fortified city. Only a portion of the site was excavated. I saw a large number of beautiful mosaics that were part of houses of the wealthy, containing animals–elephant, cats, fish and other living things. Impressive historical site and a MUST VISIT in Morocco.
Our most anticipated visit was the imperial city of Fes, a historic landmark, and a must-see for those interested in Moroccan Jewish heritage. The Fes medina is one of the largest car-free zones in the world and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The history of the Moroccan Jewry of Fes is fascinating and engaging. Shopping in its medieval souks is a dive straight into ancient Morocco’s still-living heritage.
You can see the Jewish-style buildings both before and after restoration with large windows and open balconies. These dwellings stand in contrast to the typical homes of Muslim families with their often-small and hidden windows designed to shield Muslim women from being viewed from the streets . Once a great Jewish neighborhood, it retains interesting-but-rundown remnants and buildings.
The Ibn Danan Synagogue is one of the oldest and most important synagogues in North Africa. This pretty, 17th-century synagogue was restored with the aid of UNESCO in 1999 and is located in the cultural, historical, and commercial center of Fes, the Medina. The doors are rarely flung wide, so you may need to find the guardian to invite you inside and point out the main features, including a mikva (ritual bath) in the basement. The synagogue contains perhaps the only complete set of Moroccan synagogue design in existence, including the reader’s wooden and wrought iron canopy platform (the tevah) on the west side, the twin wooden-carved arks for the Torah (the hechal) built-in on the east side, and an ornamented tiled wall. Here you will find the wooden benches and chairs, including Elijah’s Chair (for the circumcision ceremony), the oil lamps, and embroidered hangings. It is a wonderful, historical synagogue and a hidden jewel of Jewish history.
Slat Alfassiyine (Prayer of those from Fes) is the oldest, first established in the 17th century in the old Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The synagogue had fallen into disrepair and had been closed since the 1960s. in early 2013, to mark the renovation of the Slat Alfassiyine synagogue in Fez, King Mohammed VI of Morocco called for the restoration of Jewish temples across the country, acknowledging them as “not onlyplaces of workship but also spaces for cultural dialogue to renew the founding values of Moroccan civilization.” With funding from Morocco’s Jewish community, the Foundation for Moroccan Jewish Cultural Heritage, the Jewish community of Fes ,and the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as from private individuals—including the late Simon Levy, the Toledanos, and the Berdugos—Slat al Fassiyine has was restored to its former glory at the end of 2013. The structure makes our list not only because of its brilliant stained glass windows and woodwork but also because of the amazing story behind the restoration of the synagogue.
At the Fes Jewish Cemetery, the southwest corner of the Mellah is home to a sea of blindingly white tombs that stretch down the hill; those in dedicated enclosures are the tombs of rabbis. One of the oldest tombs, high up against the north wall, is that of Rabbi Vidal Hasserfaty, who died in 1600. The cemetery is still in use and has guardians. On the slope below Rabbi Hasserfaty’s tomb, not far from the main entrance, is a large tomb with green trimming for the martyr Lala Solica, who was killed at a young age for refusing to convert.
The University of Al-Karaouine, is considered by Guinness World Records as well as UNESCO to be the oldest continuously operating, degree-granting university in the world. You will find it tucked within the winding alleyways of Fes el-Bali not far from the two synagogues. Wandering around Al-Karaouine, you can admire the institution’s simple yet beautiful design, decorated with Andalusian art bordered with Kufic calligraphy. The university library is home to numbers of precious manuscripts, including historic copies of the Qur’an. It is an amazing Mosque with beautiful décor and architecture. It is truly a piece of history
The Royal Palace of Fes (Dar el Makhzen) is a 17th-century palace in Fes el Jdid that is home to Mohammed VI of Morocco when he is in the city. It can be appreciated only from the outside, and behind those beautiful (locked) doors are extensive, landscaped grounds, painted ceilings, intricate mosaics, small mosques, and a madrasa. If you are lucky, you will get a glimpse of the interior of the Dar el Makhzen through an open gate, but its ornate exterior (especially these gold doors) is worth a visit
If you have seen a picture of Fes, you have no doubt seen the tanners’ quarter’s tannery vats. This spot is one of the most visited sites in the city. The reason comes from the platform where you can look down on the entire area, see how the process is done, and enjoy watching the contrasts between the brownish honeycombs, white houses, and intense colors of the dye. It is an incredible and colorful experience!
A stop at the pottery factory Mosaique Et Poterie De Fes is a must. If you are curious about how those beautiful ceramics of Morocco are made, then this is the place to find out. It was fascinating to watch the process of creating tiles from start to finish. This workshop area is very well staged to let visitors see all stages of handmade pottery production, from molding the clay into shapes, drawing designs, and painting them into creating mosaics, ending in a gift shop of products to bring home a few gifts to cherish. I recommend the tagines in sets of three that can hold salt, pepper, and cumin or Moroccan tea glasses and teapots. Make sure you walk out into the back courtyard for a cup of tea and to admire the tile patchwork base to the fountain there.
Morocco is known for having some of the most luxurious, boutique Riads and hotels in the world that offer an “Arabian Nights” sensibility. Moroccans are very accommodating, friendly, and hospitable. Fes, one of the most cultural and spiritual cities in Morocco, has some of the most luxurious hotels and Riads. A Riad is a very large traditional Moroccan home with architecture from the period of the Idrisid Dynasty that have been restored as palace style accommodations with courtyards, lush gardens, and traditional zellij tile work. They commonly have rooms arranged around an interior garden or mosaic tile pool with Arab style archways and detailed mosaics.
I stayed at the most luxurious and charming boutique Riads in Fes called Riad Al Amine. This experience remains another highlight of my visit to Morocco. It is a hidden paradise within the old city. The service was unbeatable with delicious mint tea upon arrival, and the staff were wonderful, accommodating and make you feel at home. The roof opens above an indoor pool that is surrounded by the lush greenery, including indoor trees with birds singing—a taste of paradise. The rooms are intricate and unique and decorated with beautiful, traditional antiques but with modern amenities. The tile work, plaster, and detailed woodwork in every room and public area are nothing short of amazing. I also really loved their breakfast with freshly baked bread, fresh orange juice, and the best Moroccan mint tea. It is an amazing Jewel in the Medina. A simply beautiful Riad, and an oasis within the city.
The imperial, eternal cities of Meknes and Fes serve up a timeless experience that blurs the boundaries between past and present.
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Story & photography
by Meyer Harroch -New York Jewish travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Moroccan National Office of Tourism.