Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Chaim Pinto tomb’

Remembering Jewish Essaouira, Heritage Sites & Synagogues

Thursday, May 7th, 2015
Muslims & Jews in Essaouira, Praying for Rain

Muslims & Jews in Essaouira, Praying for Rain








Essaouira owes much of its past, present and future to its situation on a bay sheltered from the fierce trade winds of the Atlantic Ocean by an archipelago of small, rocky islands. Towards the end of the 18th century, Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah (Mohammed III) created a strategic role for Essaouira in his new trade policy oriented towards the Atlantic. He instructed the construction of the Kasbah (King’s Quarters) and the Skala fortifications which became the basis for the medina (old city) we see today. He ordered the closure of Agadir harbor, further south, and effectively routed a large amount of trade between Europe and West and Central Africa through his new port. The Sultan was the first Head of State to recognize US Independence in 1776, thereby creating a strategic linkage in support of his trade objectives in Morocco.

In order to ensure the success of his strategy, Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah invited 10 prominent Jewish families from the key commercial centers of Morocco to settle in what was known then as Mogador and manage the trade. These families were largely the descendents of those expelled from Andalusia at the end of the 15th century and had gained a strong reputation for their skills as merchants. They became the “Tujjar as-Sultan“, the Sultan’s traders. These families – and many foreign consuls and negociants – settled in the newly-built houses of the Kasbah, which featured typical Swiri architecture of rooms set around a colonnaded interior patio, the latter often large enough to accommodate merchandise. Such buildings can be seen in the area near Bab el Minzeh and Bab Sbaa and along Rue Laalouj, where the French Institute and Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah Museum are excellent examples.

Chaim Pinto, Jewish Synagogue Essaouira

Chaim Pinto, Jewish Synagogue Essaouira











By the start of the 19th century, the population of Essaouira was majority Jewish. There were as many as 40 synagogues. Some, like the Simon Attia synagogue were the private synagogues of a large family, while others, such as the Slat Lkahal, were community centers of worship. As the affluence of the city grew, it attracted many migrants from the rural areas, seeking economic opportunities. The Mellah, a typical feature of a Moroccan city and a principally Jewish neighborhood, was built to house these families. Essaouira also had a Mellah Kdim, the “old Mellah”, which was an extension of the Kasbah and housed the Jewish middle classes. Mogador was unique in Morocco in that Jews, Muslims and Christians – those of Jewish, Berber, African, European and Arabic descent – lived side-by-side. There was a fruitful exchange at all levels of society, from artisans like silversmiths passing on their trade, to the interchange of intellectual and musical influences such as seen in the Andalusian music which continued to be taught and performed in Mogador long after the flight of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula.

Jewish Cemetery, Essaouira

Jewish Cemetery, Essaouira









Today, there are a number of Jewish sites which can be visited and/or are under renovation in Essaouira. Essaouira’s two Jewish cemeteries are open to visitors by calling the number of the guardian posted on the door. The older of the two is only separated from the sea by a wall and is regularly inundated. It features the mausoleum of Rabbi Haim Pinto (1748–1845), which is the subject of a hilloula (pilgrimage) every Fall. The graves are often laid on top of each other and the inscriptions are no longer legible. All that remains are circular or triangular symbols indicating whether the occupant was male or female.

The ‘new’ Jewish cemetery, across the street, was opened in the 18th century to accommodate the growing population. It is the final resting place of a number of rabbis, intellectuals and musicians as well as many of the ‘ordinary’ residents of Essaouira-Mogador. The cemetery tells the stories of many great families of Mogador such as the Corcos, the most famous of the original ‘Sultan’s merchants’ and the Yuly and Levy families – some of whom are certainly ancestors of the first Jewish US senator, David Levy Yulee.

The guardian of the cemeteries can also grant access to the Haim Pinto synagogue, just back inside the medina at Bab Doukkala, in the Mellah. The neighborhood is part of an urban clearance program and the synagogue, although thoroughly renovated inside, sits in a precarious position surrounded by crumbling and decaying buildings, the former homes of Jewish families.

Slat Synagogue, Essaouira Restoration Project

Slat Synagogue, Essaouira Restoration Project









Just a few doors along, back towards the central medina, is Slat Lkahal, a community synagogue currently under painstaking renovation by Haim Bitton, helped by the generous donations of members of former Mogador Jews. Those who are lucky to meet him there will learn of the intricate connections between Jewish communities in Manchester, London, Italy and Mogador. So far, he has managed to rescue key elements of the original synagogue from demolition and is carefully restoring them using local artisans. He hopes to turn rooms on the upper floor into exhibition and meeting spaces.

Back in the Kasbah, the Simon Attia synagogue is the subject of an ambitious restoration program. Once also the Rabbinical Court of Mogador, the aim is to restore the space used for worship on the ground floor and create a library of documents related to Moroccan Judaism alongside accommodation for students of these works upstairs.

Most of Essaouira’s synagogues are long gone. Few have actually been demolished, but most have passed into alternative uses and only the older members of the Mogador Jewish diaspora recall their location. There are still plenty of clues to the size of the former Jewish population of Essaouira, however. A wander around the labyrinthine alleyways of the Mellah or Kasbah will reveal several doorways with the Star of David on the lintel and a conversation with any of Essaouira’s older residents will reveal the proximity and goodwill of the Muslim and Jewish communities in times gone by.

Written by Lynn Sheppard 

Lynn Sheppard has lived in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She blogs at and for other travel industry clients.

For more information about Essaouira Jewish Heritage Sites or an Essaouira Jewish Heritage Tour

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Travel Exploration specializes in Morocco Travel.  We provide Tours and travel opportunities to Morocco for the independent traveler and tailor-made tours for families and groups with a distinctly unique flavor. From Morocco’s Seven Imperial Cities, to the Magical Sahara Travel Exploration offers a captivating experience that will inspire you. At Travel Exploration we guarantee that you will discover the best of Morocco! Call Travel Exploration at 1 (800) 787-8806 or + 1 (212) 618882681 and let’s book a tour to Morocco for you today.

Essaouira’s Jewish Heritage, Your Morocco Tour Guide

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Synagogue Rabbi Pinto Ark

In the new Moroccan constitution adopted in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring , His Majesty King Mohammed VI reaffirmed the “Hebrew distinctive characteristic” of Morocco as ” one of the age-old pieces ” of “its national identity”” and he called for “the restoration of all the Jewish temples ” in the Kingdom. In a message at the restoration ceremony of the 17th century Slat al Fassayine Synagogue in Fes, King Mohammed VI reiterated his commitment to religious freedom and spiritual diversity, and emphasized the importance of the three-thousand-year-old Jewish legacy in Morocco.

King Mohammed VI commended the institutions and individuals whose years of effort led to the restoration of Slat al Fassayine and called for the restoration of all Moroccan synagogues.  Morocco is intent on making the Judeo-Moroccan cultural heritage a priority as part of its larger domestic program to preserve the unique and historic aspects of Moroccan culture.

“As is enshrined in the Kingdom’s new Constitution,” His Majesty said, “the Hebrew heritage is indeed one of the time-honored components of our national identity. For this reason, I wish to call for the restoration of all the synagogues in the other Moroccan cities so that they may serve not only as places of worship, but also as forums for cultural dialogue and for the promotion of our cultural values.”

Essaouira Jewish Cemetery 16th Century

Essaouira is the site of an annual pilgrimage to the grave of the renowned Rabbi Chaïm Pinto,known for many miracles during his lifetime, he died 1845. His home and synagogue are preserved as an historic and religious site. It is situated in the Mellah. The hiloula of Chaïm Pinto is held in September every year and is attended by many devout jews from all over the world..

The Chaim Pinto Synagogue, is an historic site in Essaouira, Morocco, formerly known as Mogador,   and was the home and synagogue of Rabbi Chaim Pinto. Although there is no longer a Jewish community in Essaouira, the building is an active synagogue, used when pilgrims or Jewish tour groups visit the city. The synagogue is on the second floor of a three-story, courtyard building inside the walls of the old city that also contained Rabbi Pinto’s home and office. The building is of whitewashed plaster over masonry. The synagogue consists of a single large room. There are two women’s sections, one across the courtyard and one on the third floor, both with windows looking into the synagogue. The synagogue room underwent a modern renovation in line with the policy of restoring  Morocco’s Jewish synagogues announced by King Mohammed VI, concealing the ceiling and column capitals, and painting the wood of the Torah Ark and Bimah light blue. The other synagogue being renovated is Slat Attias


Synagogue Rabbi Pinto Interior

Essaouira’s mellah covers over 10 percent of the town, but Jews constituted almost 40 percent of the population in the late 1880’s. Jewish stars on the doors to the mellah show the degree to which Jews were accepted in Essaouira, to the point that some of the richer Jews did not even live in the mellah. Commemorative plaques indicate the buildings in which synagogues were located. The Jewish community formed an important link with the outside world for Morocco not only as regards trade but also in terms of art and culture. André Elbaz the painter is one of many, who lives in France but always remembers his birth place, Essaouira, and continues to exhibit there at the Contemporary Art Centre at Essaouira.

Former inhabitants of Essaouira, most of them Jewish, formed a committee to rehabilitate the town. The Jewish cemetery, just outside the city gates, is extremely well-kept.

Rabbi Haim Pinto

The cemetery  is renowned as the site of an annual pilgrimage to Rabbi Haim Pinto. Annually, on the hillula or anniversary of the rabbi’s death (26 Ellul on the Jewish calendar), Jews from around the world come on pilgrimage to the rabbi’s grave. Essaouira was founded in 1765. The oldest tombs date from 1776. These tombs carved out of marine sandstone, are interesting. Contrary to Jewish tradition and Mosaic Law, they are sculptured with very marked human forms.

A famous citizen of Essaouira, the adviser to King Mohammed VI , André Azoulay ,who is Jewish, has said that his birthplace Essaouira is, “the single place in the Arab world equipped with a population mainly Jewish until 1930, could be used today as example for the dialogue between the Jews and the Moslems throughout the world”

During the 19th century the Jewish population in Essaouira grew from 4,000 to 12,000 from 1830 to 1912, and declined to about 6500 in 1936.This is attributed to the decline of commerce and other economic activity during the French Protectorate era in Mogador in favor of Casablanca and Agadir.

The immigration trends of the 1950s and 1960s caused the Mogador Jewish community to dwindle. n the early 1970s most of its Jewish community members resided in USA,Canada, Europe and Israel. By 2005, the community had almost disappeared.

Essaouira used  to be an example of a small town in which Muslims and Jews lived side by side in both rich and poor districts, working together but socially segregated – and in peace. The rise of Essaouira as a commercial port in the 19th century because of the cotton trade and the links with major ports such as Manchester and Liverpool saw the Jewish community involved in export –import trade in Essaouira reach its zenith. It was unique because there were almost as many Jews as there were Muslims, so the term “minority” did not really apply, as it did in every other town and city in Morocco and everywhere in the Arab world.

Aside from ownership of the land in and around the town, which always remained in the hands of the caids and makhsen – local landed gentry and royal family clans – most urban-style import-export business was dominated by Jewish families.

The one exception was all artisan work connected to wood, directly linked to the vast forests around the town. From the very beginning of royal trading in the 18th century, the Corcos family dominated the import of tea leaves from Britain, which originated from its Far East colonies, and was thus responsible for making tea the traditional morning beverage in Morocco.

Essaouira’s last Jews began to leave following the Six Day War. Many of the working-class families left the mellah, the Jewish district in Arab cities, for Israel. The Kasbah’s well-off business leaders headed mostly to France and Canada. But thousands of Jews remain here, buried in two cemeteries on the edge of town, including Rabbi  Chaim Pinto. Thousands of Jews return each year to venerate his tomb and those of the many Moroccan Jewish saints and ancestors uniting them with their past and  also celebrating the future.

Many religious schools, a yeshiva, and several English-French Jewish schools were founded in Essaouira in the 1800s. In the early 20th century, the Jewish population in Essaouira was still higher than the Muslim population, and urban life was regulated by the Jewish calendar.

Essaouira’s real beginning as a import-export center came in 1760 when the sultan of Morocco appointed families from Casablanca, Marrakech and other northern cities to settle here and become official royal traders. Many if not most were Jewish. The town grew. According to Ottmani, seven of the town’s leading families in the 19th century were Muslim, while 25 were Jewish, with names such as Corcos, Afriat, Bensaoud, Cohen Solal, Belisha, Ohana, Pinto and El-Maleh.

In the beginning, these families conducted trade by ship mostly with Britain, but also handled local trade and the camel caravans coming from Timbuktu across the desert, with links to Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and Mecca. In modern times the caravans disappeared, but international trade focused on Europe became highly competitive.

The silver jewelry work was famous for the much sought-after filogram design, the Dag Ed Essaouiri – thin lines converge on a circular center as meticulous radii, a design that was instantly recognizable as native to Essaouira. The master silversmiths were all Jewish, as were many of the workers, who lived mostly in the mellah. Today, the remaining silver designers are Berbers, many of whom worked with the local Jews until they left. The local Arab jewelers all work in gold. Israel has been a part of the attempt to commercialize. There is an ongoing attempt to link French-speaking Jews back to their countries of origin in North Africa. In some cases, it has been successful, as French and Canadian Sephardim, and in some cases Israelis, have bought homes there.

The Essaouira Alliance Israélite Universelle School, was founded in 1765. While no longer an Alliance school, the building remains the same, with its open courtyard, narrow staircases, and rooftop view of the Atlantic ocean.

For More Information about the Essaouira’s Jewish Heritage or an Essaouira Tour 

Morocco’s Imperial CitiesSeaside Resorts,Sahara Desert,Berber villagesA Taste of MoroccoMagical Kasbahs, Ruins & WaterfallsAbsolute Morocco, The Best of MarrakechFes, and Ouarzazate

Discover The Best of Morocco - Travel Exploration
Travel Exploration specializes in Morocco Travel.We provide Tours and travel opportunities to Morocco for the independent traveler and tailor-made tours for families and groups with a distinctly unique flavor. From Morocco’s Seven Imperial Cities, to the Magical Sahara Travel Exploration offers a captivating experience that will inspire you. At Travel Exploration we guarantee that you will discover the best of Morocco! Call Travel Exploration at 1 (800) 787-8806 or + 1 (212) 618882681 and let’s book a tour to Morocco for you today.