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Discover the Treasures of Marrakech and Essaouira and Their Jewish Heritage

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A journey to Marrakech is a sensory overload of exotic sights, sounds, smells and tastes. It is often referred to as “The Paris of Morocco”, as well as the “Red city or Al Hamra.” The heart of Marrakesh’s Djemma El Fna Square offers you an exciting Moroccan travel experience. It boasts a variety of beautifully colored souks, gardens, palaces, snake charmers, outdoor food stalls and fabulous shopping opportunities for Moroccan goods.

Beneath the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in the city center of Marrakech lies Djemma el Fna, a famous UNESCO recognized city square. Here you will discover a world of mysterious bazaars set amidst the ancient city walls of Marrakech’s medina. Marrakesh was built around Djemma el Fna and it is often referred to as “The heart of Marrakech “as it is a unique L- shaped square best described as a labyrinth of mazes. In the evening snake charmers, fortune tellers, monkeys and musicians transform this city Center into a medieval circus.

Beth-El Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

There are souks sprawling off the sides of crowed alleys that sell carpets, spices, and tourist trinkets. There are leather workers, copper beaters, pastry sellers, and lantern makers in the souks. Turn a corner and the herbalists are only too pleased to advise on the best spices to use in a tagine, or which of their remedies cures snoring. Look around for the lizard skins and fetishes used in black magic and fortune tellers lurking in the corners. This is the magical Marrakech souk, a joy to explore and a shopping experience like no other places.

The Jewish community of Marrakech today numbers about 200 people, most of them scattered among the new neighborhoods throughout the city and a few families live near the ancient Jewish quarter (Mellah) of Marrakech. There are 2 active synagogues in the city – Beth-El Synagogue in the Ville Nouvelle of Gueliz, home of Maimonides the Jewish philosopher who became one of the most influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages- and the Maimonides Jewish Community Center. This is a beautiful synagogue with an ark housing Hebrew scrolls dressed in exquisitely embroidered velvet mantles.

The Lazama Synagogue dates to the 16th century is an important testament to Morocco’s deep Jewish history. The quarter borders the largest Jewish cemetery in Morocco and it’s well worth the visit. The district is a genuine Medina neighborhood with narrow alleys and vendors selling food and spices to the locals. The Jewish homes have open balconies, many adorned with the Star of David symbol. The Lazama Synagogue may be the only Jewish synagogue in the mellah that is open to the public on a regular basis. The building contains a typical Moroccan enclosed courtyard and the synagogue itself. There are many pictures, photos, artifacts, and documents reflecting life in a Moroccan Jewish community during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Lazama Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

Just as they care for their living monuments, so too does the community care for its departed. The Marrakech cemetery, Miaara Jewish Cemetery, dates back two to three centuries. It is one of the largest cemeteries in Morocco, and is adjacent to the Jewish quarter of Marrakech. The cemetery has more than 10,000 tombs that were buried from the 12th century until today. The cemetery is maintained by the Jewish community and by a guard who is there 24 hours a day. The Tzaddikim of Marrakech included sages such as Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh and Rabbi David Halevy, who were known for their education and sharpness.

The Koutoubia Mosque is a UNESCO world heritage site! Note that each of the four faces has a different pattern on it. Lovely gardens surround the Mosque with a central water feature that provided an excellent reflection of the Mosque. Visit it when the sun is going down for some beautiful photo shoots!

The Museum of Water Civilization is considered the first Moroccan landmark focused on the historical and cultural dimension of water. It is designed to raise awareness among Moroccans about the value of water and water conservation. It became one of Marrakech’s iconic cultural infrastructure that attracts thousands of visitors. The museum also carries out exhibits, educational workshops, conferences, and local and international seminars.

The Musée Yves Saint Laurent showcases the works of Yves Saint Laurent, the French designer whose fashions were influenced by the Moroccan lifestyle, and includes a temporary exhibition space, a research library, an auditorium, bookstore and café. There are fifty pieces of couture from the collection on display in the exhibition hall, centered on different themes and shown alongside audiovisual elements like sketches, films, and runway shows. It displays tens of thousands of drawings and photos charting the history of the fashion house. The garments are frequently rotated to help conserve the pieces and to ensure the exhibition is ever changing. The outside of the building is intended to evoke the “weft and warp of fabric,” while the interior is designed to evoke the lining of a couture jacket, “velvety, smooth and radiant.”

Miaara Jewish Cemetery- New York Jewish Travel Guide

The subtropical Majorelle Garden is in the heart of Gueliz, within the Imperial city of Marrakesh. It is one of the most delightful and stunning spots within this red walled city. To arrive at this meticulously designed botanical garden, you must pass through Marrakech’s medina. Upon entering le Jardin Majorelle, we leave behind the noise and hustle of the busy city of Marrakech.

Enjoy the peaceful tranquility of this space and appreciate a myriad of tropical plants from all over the world. Beautiful ponds are filled with water lilies and lotus flower where you can hear the chirping of numerous birds. Amongst the twisting paths are Moorish buildings painted in startling bright blue. There are plenty of benches on which you can take a break and enjoy the beauty or have a cold drink. There is a memorial to YSL in the garden which is a single Roman pillar and a concrete koi pond.

The Berber Museum was beautifully put together, with an interesting and well curated collection that doesn’t overwhelm, but instead gives a snapshot into Berber traditions, decorative arts and craftsmanship. The room displayed the jewelry is incredible, the presentation’s use of mirrors and lights in this small room gave the impression I was floating in space. It is the standout room of the museum. The Berber museum is actually the best part-A little gem! A must-see in Marrakech and it is definitely an oasis in the middle of Marrakech.

Then, we head to Essarouia with a short stop on the road to see Goats climbing argan trees. The goats are attracted by the fruit of the argan tree which is native to Morocco. They climb up into the trees to munch on the fruit and, adding even more uniqueness to the event, the undigested nuts pass through the goat’s system and are gathered from their excrement to be used to make the precious argan oil. There are other methods used for making argan oil too—don’t worry, it hasn’t all been in a goat’s stomach! Argan trees only grow in specific parts of the country and the best place to spot goats in trees is around Agadir, Essaouira, and Taroudant.

Museum of Water Civilization- New York Jewish Travel Guide

Essaouira is renowned for being one of the most visited tourist destinations in Morocco. The windswept fishing port attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually for its town’s natural beauty and it is sometimes referred to as the “Wind City of Africa” by locals. It is a perfect place to relax, and unwind. Chances are you may have seen Essaouira on the big screen. Its medina is a UNESCO world heritage site and it has appeared in the HBO hit show Game of Thrones, where it served as the city of Astapor. Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, and Lawrence of Arabia all had segments filmed in Essaouira.

Take a walk through the town’s narrow winding streets to feel its vibe and unique atmosphere. One of the places not to miss out on visiting is its Medina, formerly known as Mogador, which is full of whitewashed houses surrounded by walls and several gates. Another major attraction in the town that will leave a long-lasting impression on you is the brilliant colors of its doors, which are usually colorfully painted in blue. Don’t miss out on the chance to visit the town’s fishing harbor where visitors can have a taste of fresh seafood and get dazzled by the magnificent colors of the boats.

Essaouira has long been a symbol of tolerance, with Jews and Muslims coexisting in peaceful community. It boasts a hybrid of Moorish and Art Deco architecture, including the residential buildings—many with the Star of David carved into the façade—more than a dozen synagogues, a Talmud Torah and other buildings are the only physical evidence of centuries of Jewish presence.

Argan tree goats en route! – New York Jewish Travel Guide

Essaouira Synagogue in the Old Jewish Quarter- In this restored building contains the living quarters and synagogue of Rabbi Chaim Pinto (1748-1845). The first floor consists of the living quarters for the rabbi and his family. The small religious sanctuary is on the second floor. The Ark is painted a bright blue and houses an old Torah. The Tebah (platform from which the Torah is read) is in the center of the room, with benches and cushions around the side walls for men. Women sat in a separate (Azara) area on the second floor and on the third floor from where they could listen to the prayers in the sanctuary. Pilgrimages are made to this synagogue to honor the memory of Rabbi Pinto, considered by Orthodox Jews as a “saint.” This synagogue is a wonderful surviving testament to

the large vibrant Jewish community that lived here in the past.

Another synagogue is the Synagogue Simon Attias, and is currently under renovation. Since 2009 the synagogue closed and is now undergoing restoration and conversion to a museum of Judaism and future cultural center of reflection and research, which will bear the name of the contemporary historian Haim Zafrani, a Moroccan scholar born in Essaouira who collected and preserved the history of the music and oral poetry of the Jews of Morocco, guaranteeing the preservation of the country’s Jewish heritage. The synagogue proper is a space two-stories high, with large, rounded-arch windows and a women’s gallery. The third floor contained the offices of Jewish courts. We were told that there is still lot of work, so the opening will be probably only in 2018.

Synagogue Slat Lkahal is an important witness of the Jewish community life in Mogador (also named Essaouira) and was built in 1850 when many other synagogues were frequently visited in the city. The Synagogue was well-signposted and the remodeling of Slat Lkahal is impressive since the start of the renovation in 2016. The synagogue is a now a working synagogue again, with a small museum, as well as an area for studies. The alter that holds the Torah was stained to its original beauty. Amazingly…much of the old woodwork on it was preserved. It’s an important part of the history of Essaouira, as well as of Morocco.

Synagogue of Rabbi Chaim Pinto- New York Jewish Travel Guide

Palais Heure Blue is a wonderful and historic boutique hotel with a great location right by one of the entrances of the Medina, which has been tastefully renovated to preserve the ambiance. Like most traditional Moroccan hotels, Palais Heure Blue is fashioned around a Riad’s courtyard, – 4 floors built around a central courtyard enclosing a beautiful garden. The building and decor are beautiful and tasteful with colonial features. There are tall palms and a gentle fountain in the central courtyard which adds an air of tranquility. The lush green garden sets a pretty scene for an afternoon tea. The rooms are pure 1930s style Moroccan luxury. The breakfast served is outstanding with wide variety of very fresh food–the best I had in all of Morocco. Especially the delicious Moroccan pancakes for breakfast made fresh in the dining room; they are quite impossible to resist! Service was friendly, and prompt and the staff go out of their way to make sure you are happy and comfortable. Housekeeping each day was thorough and restocked anything needed in the room. Water, tea, biscuits, etc. The rooftop terrace was a welcome break from venturing around Essaouira. There is a small cinema and a billiard room. Overall it is an elegant and peaceful oasis with luxury hospitality – A Blue Gem of a Hotel!

By: Meyer Harroch

 

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