Chefchaouen: Exploring the “Blue Pearl” of Morocco and its Jewish Heritage

Among my favorite stopovers in Morocco is this artsy, blue-washed mountain village of 45,000 people. It is a uniquely beautiful small city in the northwest part and set against the backdrop of the Rif Mountains.  This quirky town is probably one of the prettiest I have seen in Morocco because of its gorgeous blue alleyways and blue-washed streets and buildings. That’s why it is nicknamed “the Blue Pearl of Morocco.” Chefchaouen’s medina is certainly one of the loveliest in all of Morocco, small, uncrowded and easy to explore. It’s a popular town in Morocco that is often considered one of the best places to visit in the country.

Chefchaouen- New York Jewish Travel Guide

Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 in the Rif Mountains by Jews and Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. There are a lot of different theories about why Chefchaouen is blue. One is that the Sephardic Jewish community that escaped the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century settled in and brought along their tradition of painting buildings blue. Some say it was painted blue by Jewish refugees in the 1930s fleeing Germany and others say it was to keep the mosquitos away and to prevent malaria, while others just said it represented the color of the sea. In Judaism, blue represents the sky and heaven, reminding all to live a life of spiritual awareness. There is a strong tradition among the Sephardic communities of painting things blue and blue walls spread outward from the city’s Jewish quarter until the entire city was aglow in blue. And another version is that one of the Jewish men fell in love with a Spanish woman but could not be together with her; her house was blue, so as a reminder of her he painted the entire city in that hue. Whatever the true reason for the blue color, even today the locals still apply a fresh coat of paint on their houses twice a year and a month before Ramadan.

Chefchaouen- New York Jewish Travel Guide

Some houses were painted in blue and some in white, while others were half painted. Yousef explained that while Jews and Muslims were living in the same neighborhood, to distinguish each other’s homes the Jews painted half the wall in blue and the Muslims painted theirs white. “The Jews believed that the color blue represented the power of God and for the Muslims the color of white and green.” He added, ”Jews painted the bottom blue because they couldn’t reach the top and the same with Muslims.” The joke is that they could only paint half because they were too short!

Chefchaouen- New York Jewish Travel Guide

The narrow street of the city was built in stone steps marching straight up the slope, giving your legs a good workout. But when you get to an open street in a public square, look above the city and toward the nearby Rif Mountains. The mountains above give the appearance of two horns, and it’s believed this is where the name Chefchaouen comes from (literally meaning “watch the horns” in a local Arabic dialect). Be aware of the different door shapes: “The square doors are for shops and the round ones are for houses. If someone wants to make changes to these doors, they need permission from the city architecture office,” Youssef, a local tour guide, said. He pointed out that these front door house keys have been kept for more than seven generations of residents and were brought by their ancestors from Andalusia in the hope that one day they will return to their birthplace. The old medina is a delight of Moroccan and Andalusian influence with red-tiled roofs, bright-blue buildings, and narrow lanes converging on busy Plaza Uta El Hammam and its restored kasbah.

Key at the front door – New York Jewish Travel Guide

Chefchaouen has a total of 150 hotels, including guest houses or about 2,000 rooms, and it is not enough for the growing tourist population. There is a large Chinese community that operates five Chinese restaurants and hotels.  Chefchaouen is a popular destination for  Chinese tourists because of the popularity of social media sites such as Instagram; it is a very picturesque destination and a photographer’s paradise. Visitors come to produce music videos and commercials but also to explore the other parts of the town and activities such as hiking and viewing the national parks and waterfalls. It offers many native handicrafts that are not available elsewhere in Morocco, such as wool garments and woven blankets. According to the Ministry of Tourism, the number of visitors coming to Chefchaouen is approximately 500,000 each year and is now the second most popular day-trip destination for the Chinese after Marrakesh.

Chinese Restaurant, Chefchaouen – New York Jewish Travel Guide

In 1918 there were 22 Jewish families or 200 people out of a total population of 7000.  Today, the population is 50,000 inhabitants and no Jews. You will find in each neighborhood for jews and Muslins five common elements:  Mosque or a Synagogue, Fountain, School, Public Oven, and Hamman (similar to a Turkish bath). The last Jewish family emigrated to Israel in 1968.  We visited the former Jewish Mellah where we met an artisan who had worked with the Jewish families for centuries and where he had learned his trade in making donkey saddles and baskets. He told NYJTG “life was good living with the Jewish families and even now the families’ descendants come back to visit us at the shop, from England, France, and Israel”. “these families emigrated to Israel for a better life as well as the Christians left for the same reason.” he added.

Artisan in his shop for donkey saddles and baskets – New York Jewish Travel Guide

For more information, visit:

To plan a trip to Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Office of Tourism or log on to http://www.visitmorocco.com/en

Fly Royal Air Morocco – https://www.royalairmaroc.com/us-en/

Ride with Train Al Boraq – high-speed rail service between Casablanca and Tangier.

(https://myticketservices.com/tgv-morocco-al-boraq-high-speed-train-e-tickets/)

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 Tourist Office.

 

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