History does that to you: It startles you. Walking near the ramparts of this famous Atlantic seaport in Morocco, I learned that just over a century ago, more than half the 19,000 persons living in Essaouira — then called Mogador — were Jews.
And it was said that the condition of the Jew has always been better in Mogador than in many other parts of the empire, as the Sultans here favored them — with one exception.
According to a 1900 edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, in order to convert 10 Mogador Jews, Sultan Muley Yazid tortured the group for 10 days by repeatedly hanging them head downward in a dry cistern and bastinadoing them (blows with a stick on the soles of the feet).
When the news of the death of Muley Yazid came, some of the Jews had expired, and one had embraced Islam; the rest were set free. With such rulers, you don't need enemies. There are only three Jews left today in this city of white-washed buildings and homes.
Sit in one of the cafes on the Place Mouley Hassan and watch the world go by. Dine on grilled fish caught fresh that morning for lunch or dinner, displayed at stalls alongside cafes by the harbor. The sky is blue (or is it azure?); the contrast is amazing, appealingly against the white buildings and sand-colored fortifications.
Orson Welles found the place so compelling that he filmed his version of "Othello" here in 1949.
Once you're here, Essaouira is a difficult place to leave because it has more open spaces and wider streets than most cities in Morocco. A travel writer wrote in 1900 that it is the best planned and cleanest town in the Empire, "and in consequence, it stands high as a health resort." That's still true today.
In 1760, Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah founded the city, and named the fortified port Essaouira to be a rival to Agadir. The city center was laid out and designed by a French architect, Theodore Cornut, by order of the sultan. It was actually built by European captives under Cornut's supervision.
Interestingly enough, the Encyclopedia Britannica says that "a colony of Moroccan Jews was installed to extend commerce." Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah chose 10 important families, and conferred upon them the title of "merchant of the king." They received goods and luxury housing, and were thus entrusted with missions to the European courts, and for a century-and-a-half dominated Moroccan trade.
Sequestered From All
The privileged personalities became the nucleus of a dynamic community, which lasted until just after World War II and gave the town a distinctly Jewish character, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, noting that everyone rested on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
But back in 1808, it was decided to confine the Jews within a mellah, a Jewish quarter. From then on, the only exceptions allowed to live outside were families of the above-mentioned "merchants of the king," as well as a handful of businessmen of European origin. The mellah became overcrowded with new arrivals; during the 19th century, the Jewish population grew from 4,000 to 14,000.
Later, under the French protectorate, the city lost some of its economic importance, and only a small community of 5,000 Jews remained; many of them left in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly to places like Israel. By 1970, most of the community's former members lived in Europe, America and Israel; only a few hundred Jews continued to live in Essaouria.
Historians tell us that in days past, Jews spoke Arabic if they lived among Arabs, and Berber mixed in with Hebrew words if they lived among the Berbers. Some reported that more upper-class Jews regarded themselves as French, and were treated as such. They added that Jews were not popular with Arabs, and did not socialize with them.
In 1844, the French bombarded the city to force Morocco to stop supporting Abd al Kadir, leader of an Algerian resistance movement. Essaouria declined when the French turned Casablanca into the commercial capital as well as Agadir, which was opened to foreign trade.
To this day, some of the most interesting sites remain the extensive Jewish cemeteries built near the shores of the ocean. Here lie the tombs of many famous rabbis.
In the oldest Jewish cemetery, Rabbi Haim Pinto is buried. This sage passed away 160 years ago, and during our visit to his tomb, we went with a large group of Moroccan Jews who lived in Israel and who recited psalms. A week before Rosh Hashanah, hundreds of Jews come from all over the world to celebrate the anniversary of his death in Essaouira.
One Jewish person we met is Joseph Sebag, who operates a fine bookstore known as Galerie AIDA, at 2 Rue de la Skala. Next to his gallery is the Synagogue Attias, now in a decrepit state. But there is one synagogue that is being restored, at 9 Impasse du Tafilalelt.
The medina (or "old city") is smaller, hassle-free, and is considered the cleanest in the country. It's a good place to shop. For instance, for woodwork and boxes in cedar, try Afalkay Art, 9 Place My Hassan.
Royal Air Maroc is the only airline that flies direct, nonstop from New York to Casablanca, where you can then change for a flight to Essaouira, a World Heritage site.
A fine place to stay — with a Moroccan atmosphere, but excellent European service — is the boutique hotel Palais Heure Bleue, centrally located just on the edge of the old city. This fashionable Relais & Chateaux hotel was converted from a former customs house; heated pool and spa facilities attest to its modernity.
Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition, and A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, as well as the just-published A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.